Columbus Makes Art Presents Mary McClendon and Her Life in Jazz
Mary McClendon is a long-time jazz singer who is performing during the King Arts Complex’s Jazz on the Avenue: Holiday Jazz Celebration on Saturday, Dec. 7. We caught up with her to learn more about her background and how music has shaped her life.
Jevon: When did you know you wanted to be a professional singer?Mary: I knew I wanted to be a singer at a young age. I sang at Christmas pageants and in church. The first time I saw Porgy & Bess on TV, I knew I wanted to have a career along the lines in the entertainment business. I graduated from Marion Franklin High School and I sang in the choir. I continued to sing in my church choir as well. I went to college at Columbus College of Art and Design. I began my studies in advertising and fashion illustration at a later age and unfortunately CCAD did not have a choir. Some classmates knew I could sing, and they urged me to continue singing. However, I was kind of shy when I first started to perform as a soloist. Out of those experiences, I met the trombonist Frank Hooks around the same time while at CCAD.
Jevon: What were some of the first performances you remember as a professional singer?
Mary: One of the first performances I remember was with the Frank Hooks Trio. We had Jimmy Carter on organ and Andy Smith on drums. We also had some shows with a young Greg Pearson on drums, who later gained fame with Dolly and the Governor. The shows were held at Clyde’s, located downtown on Livingston and High. The venue featured national and international jazz legends like the Brecker Brothers and Columbus’ own Harry Sweets Edison.
Jevon: Can you share some additional information on your early career?
Mary: My first professional job was with Motorists Mutual which is now Encova. There weren’t many African Americans who worked there at the time and each year two to four of us were hired. The amazing thing is that I was positioned in the job that Nancy Wilson vacated as she went to pursue her career as a jazz vocalist. During my time at Motorists, I did sing in the company choir. It’s safe to say I have always been around singing but I never wanted to move and pursue the national scene since I was married with children at the time. As the years went on, I became a grandmother and did not want to be consistently away from my family.
Jevon: How has music shaped your life, and can you mention any of your other artistic talents?
Mary: Music has always been there for me. Whether it was when I was in school or working, it has been a source of comfort. I decided I wanted to go to school at CCAD while I was at Motorists Mutual. I made the transition and after I graduated from CCAD I went on to a 25-year career with JCPenney working in advertising, illustration and witting copy. I have done voice overs, radio spots and commercials. Most notably for the Marble Gang, Glory Foods and for the Kentucky State Lottery, where some of my commercials can be seen on YouTube. I have retired three times and now I’m still working, singing and acting. One of my most memorable roles was as Lady Day with CATCO back in 2005. I have performed musical tribute shows dedicated to Ella Fitzgerald and most recently a tribute to Nancy Wilson that I performed at Notes.
Jevon: What are some of your most memorable performances?
Mary: Some of my most memorable performances were with the Jazz Arts Group at Battelle Hall with a 17-piece orchestra. In 40 years of performing with JAG, I have performed in 26 different concerts. I also remember my work with Bobby Floyd’s band Aggregation and the performances at My Brother’s Place which was located down the street from the King Arts Complex at Garfield and Long Street. We would have shows from Thursday through Sunday. We performed with Steve “Paco” Grier, Jimmy Hammonds and Kevin Turner to name a few. One experience was when a performance was recorded from OSU entitled ‘Special Request.” The late Ed Clay of WOSU was instrumental in making that experience happen and I believe Bobby Floyd has recently found some of those old recordings. It takes me back to a very special time in my music career and a special time in the Columbus jazz scene.
Jevon: Who were your influences early in your career and who are your current influences?
Mary: My influences as a young singer were Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn and Nancy Wilson. Out of so many vocalists of that era, they were the ones that I most looked up to as a vocalist. I find inspiration from some of today’s jazz vocalists. Cécile McLorin Salvant is truly amazing! I remember her performances at the King Arts Complex with Columbus’ own Aaron Diehl a couple of years back. Locally, I am impressed with Christina Myles, Vicki Saunders, Camille Betton Williams and Priscilla Woodson. I want to send a special shout out to the great Jeanette Williams! There are so many other great vocalists locally, nationally and internationally that I did not mention. However, I would like to thank them all for continuing the carry the torch for jazz vocalists.
Jevon: What are your thoughts on the current state of jazz music?
Mary: Growing up, we listened to everything. We wanted to sound unique and not like everyone else. I have given vocal lessons and a lot of the younger singers want to sound just like Beyonce or Rihanna. If we don’t continue to innovate or participate, we will lose the true essence of a genre of the music our ancestors created. I see local youth orchestras that do not have many minority youths participating. I think we should seek a way for more students across our city and beyond to get involved in music at an early age. In my younger years, music was a way to learn a trade and to have a life-long career. We must plant the seeds now to make sure jazz and other musical genres are not lost in the future.
Columbus Makes Art Presents is a bi-weekly column brought to you by the Greater Columbus Arts Council – supporting art and advancing culture in Columbus. The column is a project of the Art Makes Columbus campaign, telling the inspiring stories of the people and organizations who create Columbus art and sharing information about exhibitions, performances, concerts and more at ColumbusMakesArt.com. Each column will be written by a different local arts organization to give you an insiders look at how #artmakescbus.