Veronica Swift’s Unconventional Turns

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Veronica Swift is among the 25 artists DownBeat thinks will help shape jazz in the decades to come.

(Photo: Bill Westmoreland )

“I do see the value in branding,” she continued. “At the beginning of one’s career, you have to do it. You can’t make a career otherwise. But by the time you’ve cultivated a fan base, you’ve created your own genre. Think of Nina Simone, Freddie Mercury, Dianne Reeves—these people are their own genre. They paved the way for their own artistry, defined only by their name. You know exactly what their music is when you say their names. That’s what I’m shooting for.”

Even though the jazz scene is where Swift’s name is most recognized today, that genre term wouldn’t apply to many of the musical settings in which she operates. Take, as just one example, her foray into heavy metal as an undergrad student at Frost. She composed a rock opera, replete with religious symbolism, Goth stylings and disturbing imagery. Taken from Christian history, the musical drama’s title, Vera Icon, is a clever bit of wordplay on Swift’s first name.

“I write original material all the time, in different types of music,” she emphasized. “In the beginning, though, I want to wait until people know me a little more before I release the original material. I have many albums as a leader, but when it comes to the albums in the public eye, there’s only Confessions right now. I have so much more coming up, and I’m really excited about people getting to know me more and more as the years go by.”

Swift observed that one strategy for introducing the many aspects of her creative persona to her existing fan base would be to pair her different projects with her jazz releases in a way “that makes sense.” With touring on pause because of the pandemic, she spotted one such opportunity while quarantined in Virginia alongside a group of filmmakers with whom she occasionally collaborates. Making the most of her downtime, she began working on a film for which she’d written the screenplay some years ago—a script with a thematic tie-in to the forthcoming album.

“The film is an intense and extreme representation of some of the things I touch on in [The Bitter Earth],” she said. “We have to be able to express our emotions about things like domestic abuse and not suppress them, so it’s about that. It’s a very dramatic film.”

Since the start of the U.S. pandemic lockdowns in March, Swift has performed in some online shows, including the Worldwide Concert for Our Culture (Jazz at Lincoln Center’s April 15 gala) and a Sept. 3 livestream with Nakasian, presented by Jazz Forum Arts. Despite the success of these and other broadcasts, Swift reserves judgment on virtual performing.

“I’ve had a few [online] gigs here and there, but I don’t take to livestreaming,” she said. “That’s not how I want to present myself. I’ve tried it a couple of times, and a lot of people commented that it was so nice to get an intimate view into my life. That’s good, but I don’t want my performing to be a casual thing. I like a show—a concert, a production.”

Swift remains optimistic about getting back to the stage again in 2021, especially given her concert experience in Italy, where live performance venues are opening up more quickly than in the States. Most encouragingly, about 80 percent of her canceled European gigs from 2020 have been rescheduled for next year.

In the meantime, her metal band plans to release a single by the end of the year; she’s got the film to produce; and in March, she’ll make her debut at The Appel Room (a space inside Jazz at Lincoln Center), sharing the stage with nonagenarian jazz vocalist Sheila Jordan in honor of Charlie Parker’s centennial. And that same month, The Bitter Earth hits the street.

“The gigs will be coming back,” Swift said, assuredly. “Because people need music. Your political system and your economy can fail you, but what’s the one thing that people always turn to?”

From her words, it’s clear that Swift feels strongly about the vital role that artists play in our society. So strongly, in fact, that when she heard that one of her most ardent followers was recuperating from COVID-19, she phoned the woman to bolster her spirits.

“I’m really connected to my fan base,” Swift said. “So, I do that—I call my fans and talk to them. I think that’s very important. We’re just all humans trying to figure this out.” DB

This story originally was published in the November 2020 issue of DownBeat. Subscribe here.

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