Getting to Know Jazz Singer Charmin Michelle
Performer puts her own spin on classics by Etta James, Ray Charles and Dinah Washington
Velvet-voiced, impeccably dressed, graceful and poised, Charmin Michelle knows how to charm an audience.
Whether she’s performing at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis or a VFW in northern Minnesota, singing is what matters, and connecting with her audience, wherever they are.
Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Michelle moved to Minneapolis as a child. She studied piano and violin and became first chair for a prestigious youth orchestra. She loved classical music, but she sang along with the jazz her parents played on the stereo, especially the Billie Holiday records. It was jazz that ultimately won her over.
About Jazz Fest Live
The Jazz Fest Live series is presented by the Twin Cities Jazz Festival and AARP Minnesota. See our related story to find out more about Minnesota's Jazz Fest Live, learn about area performers, and listen to a Spotify playlist of jazz staples curated by series co-founder Steve Heckler.
Michelle performs mostly in Minnesota, singing in duos, small groups and big bands. Her sense of swing is easy and assured. Working on her own time line, she has released several albums. Her latest, Butterfly Wings, with virtuoso guitarist Joel Shapira, released in 2020.
As part of this Members Only Access series highlighting Minnesota jazz acts you should check out (see "Getting to Know" box below for more), Michelle joins longtime Minnesota jazz writer Pamela Espeland for an exclusive interview with AARP.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Talk about your first time hearing Billie Holiday sing.
My father asked if I had ever heard Billie Holiday, and I said, “Who is he?” He just shook his head. He put [a record] on and I fell in love. She was the first jazz singer that I really, really listened to. All those dark tones.
What was your path to becoming a professional jazz singer?
I knew all these jazz songs, and someone said, “Why don’t you go to [the now closed Minneapolis supper club] the Times and sit in with the band?” I did, and then I was told to come back next week because people liked it.
[Before long], I was making more money singing than I was at my day job. I was trying to do my day job, go to school — I was studying music therapy — and sing, and I could not do it all. I put in my notice and I haven’t looked back. That was maybe 28 years ago.
I started paying attention to how to book and what to charge. I asked questions. I started a mailing list. At some point I realized that if a singer has her own PA system, she can book gigs and not have to ask somebody, “Hey, will you bring your system?” I really got into it.
What has been the hardest part, for you, of being a professional jazz singer?
Second-guessing myself. One thing I learned — I had to learn — is “Do not compare yourself to anyone else.” Everybody is apples and oranges. Make things your own, do your style your way, and stick to it.
How do you choose what songs to sing? What makes a song singable to you?
First, I listen to the melody. If I find the melody kind of cool, I listen to the lyric and what it is saying. My dad always said, “If you’re going to sing a song, let people know what you’re saying. They want to understand what you’re saying.” I like story songs a lot.
How do you make a song your own?
I bring my own personality to it. That’s the best way I can put it. I’m doing a song by Dinah Washington in an upcoming show. It was new to me, and I loved the melody. Then I started listening to the lyric, and it’s a lot of innuendo, which is not my personality. So I had a talk with the music director and worked on it.
I sing a Christmas song by Ray Charles, and I changed the time signature. He did it more funky. I didn’t feel I had to be like Ray.
I used to get asked to sing “At Last” all the time. But I can’t do it the way Etta James does. So I found a version by Little Jimmy Scott, and I sing it more that way. I did my version, which is what music is about.
At the moment, what are your favorite songs to sing?
I love “The Moon Was Yellow.” And “Pannonica.” “The Song Is You.” “I Remember You.”
Which do you prefer, singing in a duo, a combo or with a big band?
I can’t pick! I love the intimacy of duos. People can hear every crack. I love the combos. With the big band, I just love having that power behind you.
Who are your favorite jazz singers?
I love Billie. I love Nancy Wilson. She did a lot of different things. I don’t love all of the songs, but I love her approach to them, and she gives me so many ideas. Anita O’Day. Peggy Lee. Joe Williams. And Al Jarreau. I got to meet Al. It was on one of our tours with [pianist] Mulgrew Miller. I can’t remember where we were; it might have been San Sebastián. We were rehearsing in the hotel lobby, and I’m singing and doing my thing, and I turned around, and sitting down listening to us was Al Jarreau. The blood drained from my head and I almost collapsed!
What is something most people don’t know about you?
I’m an introvert. When I first started, it was everything to talk on the mic. All I wanted to do was sing a song and leave. When people started walking up to me, I was like, “Oh, God, please, please, let them walk past!”
Now that I’ve been doing this so long, and I know people in the audience, and I’m very familiar with the musicians I work with, that is a comfort to me. And I still always want to challenge myself.
Pamela Espeland is an arts journalist in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with a passion for jazz. She has written about jazz for MinnPost, the Star Tribune, NPR, the Monterey Jazz Festival, the Walker Art Center and her blog, Bebopified.
Getting to Know: Minnesota’s Jazz Fest Live Performers
Members Only Access is featuring exclusive interviews with four acts from Jazz Fest Live, along with videos of their performances. Check out the others:
Based in St. Paul, Minnesota, Maud Hixson is the cofounder of the continental jazz sextet French 75 with clarinetist Tony Balluff. Hixson’s style is cool and light, and she favors classic jazz standards from the Great American Songbook.
Getting to Know: Salsa del Soul
Salsa del Soul is a nine-piece orchestra performing various styles of dance music from the Spanish-speaking regions of the Caribbean, including son, son montuno, plena, cha-cha-cha, bachata, timba and salsa.
Getting to Know: Moore By Four
Formed in 1986 and based in Minnesota, Moore By Four is fronted by four singers and has performed with Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie and Harry Connick Jr. The group has a soulful sound, and has been compared to Manhattan Transfer, a Grammy Award-winning jazz vocal group founded in 1969.
These Jazz Fest Live videos are part of AARP’s Virtual Community Center, where you can find a variety of free virtual events designed for self-learning, self-improvement and fun.
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