If ever there was a living embodiment of get-up-and-go, it’s Alison “Ali” Affleck, the Scots-born American jazz singer and bandleader who – in less than a decade – has established herself as a popular fixture on the Scottish music scene, and one of the busiest singers in the business.
While others struggle to get gigs, Affleck – whose name is synonymous with early New Orleans jazz and blues – is juggling several bands and has so many projects on the back (and front) burners that she must have a super-size Aga in her office.
At this weekend’s Islay Jazz Festival, the ebullient thirtysomething singer is playing virtually back-to-back gigs with the up-and-coming Tenement Jazz Band, a six-piece outfit from Edinburgh, and with regular collaborators Colin Steele and Graeme Stephen. This comes just a fortnight after she completed a Fringe run comprising not one but three distinct shows, as well as a handful of one-nighters.
Affleck’s obvious capacity for cramming a great deal of activity into a short amount of time makes the stories of her adventures before she returned to Scotland in her late twenties much less like tall tales than they would otherwise have been. After all, in the first fifteen minutes of our conversation, we have covered five countries where she’s resided, two college degrees, one fiancé and several encounters with one Barry White.
Wait, what, rewind – THE Barry White?! “Yes!” laughs Affleck. “I looked after his dogs. I used to work as a vet nurse in California. I went to community college there and one of the courses I did there was vet medicine. I ended up working in a practice for a while, and one of the clients was Barry White. He happened to need help with his dogs – jet black Alsatians, a father, mother and son called Bear, Isis and Sokar.
“I got on well with them so I would groom them, take them out and then return them to his house. He was a nice guy, not the sharpest tool in the box though – his PA’s used to say: ‘We think for Barry so he doesn’t think for himself.’ Sadly, we never discussed music. I was only in my early 20s – and not as ballsy as I am today!”
Barry White’s California mansion was a far cry from Affleck’s hometown of Dundee where she was born and raised. Her talent for singing was evident from an early age, especially to her mother – who had wanted to be an opera singer. “My granny’s side of the family is musical,” says Affleck. “In fact, we are related to the Australian opera singer Dame Nellie Melba – somebody researched our family tree and it turned out that she’s my great, great, great aunt.”
Her singing talent was also very obvious to her primary school teachers. “I became aware of the power in my voice when I was admonished by my teacher for not taking part in something we were doing. She said: ‘You’re not singing. If you had been singing, we would have heard you above everyone else!’ ”
During this period, Affleck was mostly singing Scots songs and performing for family and friends. She won the prestigious Leng Medal, awarded in Dundee schools for children performing Scots songs and keeping the tradition alive.
Through her grandmother, who had an impressive record collection, Affleck first heard the such iconic jazz singers as Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald for the first time but it was only when she was living in San Diego in her late teens – “I went there to study photography” – that she got into jazz singing as a result of a newfound interest in swing dancing.
By the time she moved to New Orleans three years later, she was well on her way to being a jazz obsessive. “I got really feverishly into researching the songs I was learning,” she says. The music that really grabbed her, and with which she is most strongly associated, is that of the early jazz singers – the original jazz and blues vocalists who blazed a trail in the 1920s and 1930s but are often now overlooked. “I have massive affection for these pioneering women, particularly Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Alberta Hunter, and I love the storytelling nature of the songs they sang.”
With her powerful, gutsy vocals and obvious skills as a storyteller herself, Affleck is well qualified to revive or take on the songs that these strong black women introduced almost a century ago. But she doesn’t do it in an imitative way, nor are they performed as novelty numbers; she puts them in context with a bit of background information and brings out the humour, feeling and drama in them in a way that makes them feel current, fresh and timeless – even in the case of some of the most familiar songs that have been on the trad jazz repertoire for decades.
Of course, it helps that Affleck also has a gift for surrounding herself with the best musicians. Returning to Scotland after a long residency in the States and an impressive amount of travel, Affleck was lucky to land in Edinburgh just as new opportunities were flourishing for would-be singers. Whighams, a wine bar and restaurant in the west end, had just launched its jazz club and weekly sessions in which singers could have the chance to sing with the house rhythm section, and Affleck, who had finally decided to focus on music after dabbling in numerous academic courses and jobs, became a regular.
“It was great for me,” she recalls. “It gave me an instant way to meet people. The Jazz Bar’s Tuesday night jam session was way more intimidating!”
Also lucky was the fact that Edinburgh has a relatively high concentration of terrific jazz musicians who can play in the style which Affleck loves. Through Whighams, she met regular collaborators Dick Lee (clarinets and saxes), Colin Steele (trumpet) and Roy Percy (bass), who have been “a great support – especially whenever I’ve thought of packing it in”. Lee was in the first band she formed – Vieux Carré – and both he and Steele play with Affleck in her Copper Cats, while Steele is one of her Gin Mill Genies.
Indeed, Affleck seems to have a knack for hatching new bands on a regular basis. “It’s true!” laughs. “But it’s through necessity. I’ve always found that if I want to do something, I have to be proactive. I realised that if I wanted to do the music that I want to do, I would have to make the band.
“The problem I have is that there are so few really top musicians that can play this sort of stuff well, and have the time to do it. I’m trying to forge a career but I’m hitting a wall because the guys I work with here can’t come on tour for one reason or another – and they play in other bands as well as with me. So I do feel a wee bit stuck. I’ve always been able to find a way, and if someone can’t do a gig I can usually find a dep but it means I have to adapt. And if I have to compromise in my performance, I always feel deflated afterwards.”
Affleck’s way of dealing with these frustrations is to take practical steps – and build a new band. The latest one is an all-female sextet named the Red Hot Rhythm Makers, which is not even a year old. It seems entirely apt that Affleck, who plays washboard and concertina, should galvanise a group of women to play the music of the original female pioneers – and it’s a refreshing new direction as trad and classic jazz have long been male-dominated in Britain.
“It’s turned out to be a really nice experience,” says Affleck. “Not only does it mean that I have another band I can do gigs with but the dynamic in an all-woman band is very different – in a positive way. We share the load more: everybody adopts roles, for example, one of the girls offered to be the cashier. I’ve never had this before! Every time we get together I really enjoy the camaraderie. It’s hilarious: everybody apologises to each other whenever they make a mistake – that never happens when guys mess up!”
So what’s next for this particular pioneer? “Well, the Gin Mill Genies have just put out a new live CD, Pioneer … Queen… Goddess … Diva – Birth of the Blues, and the Copper Cats are releasing a new studio recording. I’m writing some original material, and I’m working on a Billie Holiday-themed show which will feature Martin Kershaw playing on the songs she did with Lester Young. Oh, and there’s a new monthly trad residency at the Jazz Bar which I’m heading up. Those are the main strands I’m working on just now …”
Affleck pauses for a split second, before adding: “But I’m always looking for new collaborations …”
* Visit www.aliaffleck.com to keep track of all the latest news on her various bands.
* First published in The Herald, Saturday September 15th