Some singers, like Barbra Streisand, Amy Winehouse and Aretha Franklin, are belters — their voices seemingly fill any and all space they encounter, pushing to the corners. But others, like jazz singer Maud Hixson, are on the other end of the spectrum, singing sometimes in a near-whisper, voices as cool and light as satin, wrapping gingerly around just you, like a ribbon.
Fans of Hixson — including Chicago Tribune arts critic Howard Reich, who called her “the biggest revelation,” appreciate her approach to songs from the Great American Songbook, influential songs and jazz standards from the early 20th century that have stood the test of time, which she favors. Plucking out the clever lyrics, Hixson sings with impeccable diction and she wants you to understand what she’s singing and enjoy the lyrics as much as she does.
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.
Hixson, a Minnesota native based in St. Paul, has been a full-time jazz singer since 2003. She mostly performs in her home state but also has ventured to New York, Chicago and London, and has been featured as part of Jazz Fest Live, which took the magic of the in-person Twin Cities Jazz Festival and from it created a weekly virtual event open to anyone across the U.S. She has released two jazz CDs, Love’s Refrain (2007) and Don’t Let a Good Thing Get Away (2013), and is working on a third featuring the songs of Sir Richard Rodney Bennett.
As part of this Members Only Access series highlighting Minnesota jazz acts you should check out (see "Getting to Know" box below for more), Hixson joins longtime Minnesota jazz writer Pamela Espeland for an exclusive interview with AARP.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
When did you know you wanted to be a jazz singer? What was your “jazz moment”?
I had two jazz moments. One was when I saw Jimmy Scott perform at the Montreal Jazz Festival in 2001. He was 76 and physically frail. He was born with a disability and had a rocky career. But he was so powerful. I realized there’s a lot of power in music that isn’t about physical or vocal strength. It’s about the power to communicate.
I was already very interested in being a jazz singer, but as a shy person, I always told myself, “You don’t need to do this. It’s too hard!” Watching him, I felt, “When can I get started?”
The other moment was equally important. When I was growing up, I had gotten a record by Frank Sinatra. I could hear the percussionist playing with the stick on the stem of the hi-hat. And I thought, “Why is that so exciting?” I realized later that I was hearing a swing tempo. For me, jazz is interesting because it swings.
What was your path to becoming a jazz singer?
I was in a job I disliked enough that it pushed me into being a musician. I started to go listen to a pianist who had a Monday-night gig at a local restaurant. He invited me to sit in and sing. Eventually, I got more comfortable.
Other musicians invited me to their gigs. The musicians were so nurturing. Prudence Johnson [a regular on Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion] was very encouraging. She said, “You have everything you need. You just need to do this more.”
It’s been a process of taking steps in the right direction, learning how to write grants and book shows, how to work with musicians, what material I wanted to perform. It all happened very organically. I’m 18 years in now, and I’m so glad I did this.
You specialize in the Great American Songbook, standards from the early 20th century that have stood the test of time. What drew you to those songs in the first place?
As a young person, I listened to everything that was available. But I found myself really enjoying witty songs that had clever lyrics, and songs that I could understand. There’s a lot of recorded music that isn’t terribly intelligible to the listener.
You also like digging for songs that no one sings anymore, or that most people have forgotten. Where do you find them?
In the beginning, I would find them on records by performers like Bobby Short. Then I started going to the Minneapolis Central Library, because they have [one of the largest] sheet music collections in the country.
Why is it important to keep singing the old songs?
Good art is timeless. If a song is beautifully written, it deserves to be heard. If it’s a great piece of work, it has merit.
What has been the hardest part, for you, of being a professional jazz singer?
One of the harder parts is trying to explain what I do. There’s so much under that umbrella. I spend a lot of time explaining to people that what I enjoy are great songs. That’s my focus. And I love swing.
Your accompanist, Rick Carlson, is also your husband. That must have both advantages and disadvantages.
Working with Rick is like being a band. It’s just been so much fun, because we love to work together. We have all this time to work on music and to help each other. I suppose the disadvantage is there are a lot of amazing people I could be collaborating with if I wasn’t working with Rick. But it’s a good trade-off.
Who are your favorite jazz singers?
Johnny Hartman, Annie Ross, Frank Sinatra, and [Brazilian singer] Elis Regina.
Among the hundreds of songs in your repertoire, do you have a favorite?
“Whistling Away the Dark” by Johnny Mercer and Henry Mancini.
What is something that most people don’t know about you?
I love Karen Carpenter’s singing.
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:
Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Charmin Michelle moved to Minnesota while still a child and has called it home ever since. Michelle has a conversational style reminiscent of Billie Holiday and other legendary women of jazz.
Getting to Know: Salsa del Soul (coming soon)
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 (coming soon)
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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