Melanie Charles: Jazz Artist, Vocal Activist


“I have to continue the conversation and shed light on the fact that Black women have always been undervalued, not protected and not cared for,” Charles says.

(Photo: Courtesy of Artist)

As a singer, flutist, beat-maker, remixer and conceptualist, Melanie Charles saturates Ya’ll Don’t (Really) Care About Black Women (Verve), her first major-label album, with immense Black Girl Magic. And, in turn, the album transmutes and diffuses that magic, spectacularly as she reimagines classic songs by Billie Holiday, Abbey Lincoln, Betty Carter, Ella Fitzgerald and others with a personal, sometimes phantasmagoric spin.

Charles, however, doesn’t conflate Black creative magic with Black creative labor. She’s a strong advocate for Black women in the creative ecosystem to be fairly financially compensated for their work. She provides a manifesto for that advocacy with the biting “Pay Black Women Interlude.” Underneath a surging hard-bop loop and choppy beats, a group of Black women talk amongst themselves about the struggles of being committed to their pay rate in the face of exploiters.

“I chopped up conversations that I had with three female artists for a short film that’s actually in the works,” Charles explained. “We talk about the cost of reaching our dreams and sharing our talents with the world and how we have to make sacrifices in world just to get exposed. We finally landed at a point where it has to be a collective decision to not continue in the participation of getting exploited. If we collectively say, ‘Nah! This is my worth. This is what I need to make this work,’ then maybe we can start to see a change.”

Another moment where Charles addresses Black lives and wealth is her poignant makeover of Lady Day’s “God Bless The Child,” which opens the album. Charles underscores the classic with a suspenseful, cinematic weep that texturally and rhythmically references contemporary R&B while also upholding jazz’s “sound of surprise” and improvisational pliancy mandates.

“When Billie Holiday sings, ‘Them that got shall get/ Them that’s not shall lose,’ that story and experience are the same that Black women like myself and my friends are still going through,” Charles said. “We all hear about that interview with Nina Simone in which she speaks about the club promoter who refused to pay her. So, she had to bring a shotgun to force him to pay her money and worth. It seems like I have to continue the conversation and shed light on the fact that Black women have always been undervalued, not protected and not cared for.”

Charles was working on the album in March 2020, when Louisville, Kentucky, police killed Breonna Taylor in her home. She said that Verve was initially taken aback about the provocative title. “[The label] felt like it was a harsh title — that it was not very warm and welcoming,” she recalled. “But I told them, ‘This is the truth. This is the reality.’ They finally got onboard and backed the title.”

Many of the songs on the album Charles heard as a child, growing up in Brooklyn. Her mother, a Haitian immigrant, listened to jazz routinely in the house during Charles’ childhood. After graduating from La Guardia High School for the Performing Arts as a flute major, she attended the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in vocal jazz performance. There, she studied under Janet Lawson, who encouraged Charles to study and imitate various iconic jazz singers to help her find her own voice.

“Once I graduated, I started wanting to unlearn everything that I learned and go the opposite direction,” Charles said.

That opposite direction led her to exploring beat-making. She connected with the Brooklyn-based cassette-only label Dirty Tapes, which often had chopped up sounds of McCoy Tyner and John Coltrane filtered through hip-hop lens. “These beat heads were taking the sounds that I had been studying and transcribing for years and playing them at basement parties in Bushwick,” Charles recalled.

Charles was already of fan of contemporary jazz like Roy Hargrove’s RH Factor, which merged jazz with 21st century soul and hip-hop. Beat-making, however, opened more possibilities. “When I got into the beat world, it was a space where I could sonically create what I was hearing without having a six-piece band,” she explained. “I could really carve out a style and sound on my own using a SP 202 sampler. The SP 202 changed my life and the way I felt about sound.”

Charles’ embrace of technology, deep reverence of the jazz canon and her creative impulses as composer and live performer all play into her artistic concept, “Make Jazz Trill Again.” For Charles, she wants jazz to not be merely listened to, but experienced. And part of that experience, she wants, is for the music to rekindle it relationship to dance and body movement.

“For me, ‘trill jazz’ is rooted in the sound of ‘by the people, for the people.’ But it’s also where the elders and the youth can connect. It’s beautiful that I can do a song like ‘Skylark’ that my mom loves, but I can do it in a way using samples that young people will also connect with it. It’s a pushing forward, while also acknowledging the past.” DB

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