Janet Seidel, who has died in Sydney at the age of 62, was a much-loved singer and pianist christened “First Lady of Jazz” by critics in her native Australia where she was regarded as something of an institution and a figurehead of the jazz scene there. A regular visitor to Scotland in recent years, she made many friends and won many admirers with her gently swinging musical style, her soft, breathy vocals and her warm and charismatic personality.
Indeed, one of the most memorable aspects of Seidel’s 2011 trio concert at Glasgow’s Recital Room was the way she established an instant rapport with the audience – a skill undoubtedly honed through years working in piano-bars early on in her career.
Todd Gordon, the Scottish jazz singer, radio presenter and concert promoter who twice brought Seidel to Glasgow, points out that she actually had a knack for charming the audience before she was fully installed at the piano. “She would win them over in about five seconds by just quietly and unassumingly sliding onto the piano stool while beaming that warm smile.”
The same thing had happened at the Lyth Arts Centre, in Caithness, where Seidel became a regular visitor after being booked by the venue’s director William Wilson for her Scottish debut in 2005. He adds: “As she slid onto the piano stool, she hit the first chord and sang the first note right on pitch – no looking at the keyboard or adjusting the mike – it demonstrated consummate musical professionalism and stagecraft.”
Born in 1955 and raised on a dairy farm near Adelaide, Seidel only discovered her singing voice thanks to the LP of the original Broadway production of My Fair Lady, starring Julie Andrews, which she listened to every time she carried out her weekly chore – of doing her family’s ironing. With four brothers, there were a lot of shirts to iron and Seidel soon knew that famous Lerner and Loewe score inside out – so when her school announced plans to stage My Fair Lady, she knew she had to overcome her natural shyness and audition for the part of Eliza Doolittle.
Having studied piano from an early age, Seidel read classical music at university in Adelaide. While she was a student there, she formed a band with two of her brothers and they played at country dances and local gigs. “We did everything from Skippy the Bush Kangaroo to Suzi Quatro songs,” she said in 2011. She was still working with one of her brothers, bass playing David Seidel, in recent years – he, along with her partner Chuck Morgan, who plays guitar – was part of the trio which came to Scotland several times, most recently last October.
During Seidel’s university years, piano bars became popular – and proved to be a lucrative way of subsidising student life, though it took a bit of getting used to, especially for someone accustomed to having her brothers accompanying her and being surrounded by friends. For the solo gig, Seidel had to learn how to interact with strangers. She later said: “The idea of the piano bar is that people come in and sit around the piano bar and want to talk to you. It really was a baptism of fire but it served me well. Back then, you could get work anywhere in the world just playing piano and singing.”
To begin with, she played poppier material – Janis Ian, Joni Mitchell and Carole King were her favourite songwriters – but she soon graduated on to the Great American Songbook and thereafter stuck with it.
It was while she was still at school that Seidel first heard jazz – on the radio. She was particularly taken with the singer-pianists Nat “King” Cole and Blossom Dearie. Both proved highly influential – but the girlish-sounding Dearie especially so. The jazz writer Whitney Balliett once said of Dearie’s “tiny” voice that, without a microphone, “it wouldn’t reach the second floor of a doll’s house”.
During her student days, Seidel had the chance to see Dearie perform – and it proved to be a defining moment. “She came to Adelaide as the support artist for Stephane Grappelli who was on an Australian tour. She did a solo thing in the first half and it was just magical, you know – one of those spine-tingling moments.. I’d always been a bit ashamed of my voice – it wasn’t a huge operatic voice, and it wasn’t a big mama kind of belter. Then I heard Blossom’s fairy-like voice and I thought: ‘She’s so delicate and intimate, and still communicating that way without doing anything silly with her voice.’ And I loved the way she played piano.”
Listening to recordings by Julie London – Seidel loved her “caressing voice” – and Peggy Lee also helped shape Seidel’s soft and gentle style. “I read in a book that, before she became a star, Peggy was singing in a bar and there was a lot of loud noise. She decided that she would sing a bit more softly to see if it would quieten the crowd down, and it worked.”
Moving to Sydney in the 1980s, Seidel made a name for herself on the cabaret and jazz scenes and worked in education before launching her international career. She toured extensively and was especially popular in Japan. From 1994, she was a regular in the recording studio, and she leaves a legacy of 18 albums ranging from Comme Ci, Comme Ca – a celebration of French chansons – to her south seas-flavoured album Moon of Manakoora, which spent three months at the top of the jazz vocal charts in Japan (and subsequently won Best Jazz Vocal Album gong at the National Jazz Awards in Australia).
Seidel also recorded some classy tributes to those singers who had inspired her, and although she was strongly associated with those stars, as Todd Gordon points out, “she had her own distinctive style and timbre.”
He adds: “She will be sorely missed, especially by the army of fans she built up over her many years of touring the globe.” William Wilson says: “As Lyth was one of the first UK venues to discover Janet Seidel, we were always pleased to invite her back again, and were delighted to note that her recent UK tours stretched to over twenty venues, after starting out with just Lyth plus a couple of other places back in 2005. We are devastated to think we will never see her again.”
* Janet Seidel, jazz singer and pianist, born May 28 1955; died August 8 2017
* First published in The Herald, Wednesday August 30th