The Transgenre Artistry of Veronica Swift

October 31, 2023


Eugene Holley, Jr.

This month, guest writer Eugene Holley, Jr. gives us this portrait of vocalist and songwriter Veronica Swift, whose October 12 performance will be broadcast on SFJAZZ at Home's Fridays Live series on November 17.

When singer Veronica Swift opened her October 12 concert at SFJAZZ’s Miner Auditorium, sashaying down the aisles with her band in a New Orleans Second Line parade procession toward the stage, belting a Crescent City version of the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter,” you knew that it wasn't going to be business as usual for the 29 year-old vocalist. No stranger to SFJAZZ, Swift — who burst on the jazz scene in 2015 as the second place finisher to Jazzmeia Horn at The Thelonious Monk International Vocal Competition — had performed here before in the Joe Henderson Lab with two well-received jazz albums, Confessions (2019) and This Bitter Earth (2021) under her belt, singing songs from the canon of standards everyone expected her to perform.

But as Swift made clear with a many-splendored potpourri of songs from different genres and eras she sang that evening (which will premiere on SFJAZZ At Home’s Fridays Live streaming series on November 17th, 2024), she’s stepping out of what she perceives to be a “jazz box” into a freer realm of artistic expression she calls "transgenre.” Clad in a gold sequined, navy blue leotard, with thigh high boots and knee pads, Swift lead a band of finessed and flexible musicians who can navigate her complex musical turns consisting of Blood, Sweat & Tears keyboardist Adam Klipple, tenor saxophonist Troy Roberts, trumpeter James Sarno, drummer Shane Gaalaas, bassist Eric England, guitarist Gary Joseph Potter, Jr., trombonist Adam Theis, and sousaphonist Jonathan Sieberlich.

It’s not that Swift has abandoned jazz — her run-through of the brisk, 4/4 swinger from her first album, "A Little Taste," demonstrated that she still has the stiletto-sharp vocal chops that show her debt to Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday. What the concert aurally illustrated was how Swift brilliantly extended her jazz fluency into other music genres, from her autobiographical ad-lib on Judy Garland’s A Star is Born to her trippy take on Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.”

The best selections of the concert were Swift’s meticulous “mash-ups” of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” with her own ballad, “In the Moonlight,” as well as her Latin-tinged, Pagliacci-powered take on Queen’s “The Show Must Go On,” the Chopinesque, impressionistic “I’m Chasing Rainbows” and her anthemic new single “I Am What I Am,” a definitive statement of her musical state of mind. “I have never had the chance to really fully be myself in a 20 year career,” Swift said from the stage. “I grew up singing jazz music, but… I love gospel, funk, rock and roll, classical opera, and how to do it all, it’s a hard, tall order. And so, this new record is really special because I get to share with you [and] I get to be myself.”

Swift’s latest recording is a declaration of her independence from the restrictive boundaries of jazz. “I don’t believe in calling this a ‘jazz record’ or calling myself a ‘jazz singer,’" Swift wrote in an email. "What I hope this album will show people, is that just as with artists and bands like Nina Simone, David Bowie, and Queen, where their name is the genre. That the cohesion on this album is my voice… my personality! And I welcome you to try and catch the elements that are passed through from song to song as each track has been carefully curated to connect the through lines from genre to genre to show that this type of an album can work! (Queen's 1975 album) A Night at the Opera was a template.”

More than a display of Swift’s vocal chops in a myriad of musical styles, her album is sequenced in a way to tell a musical story, from the first track, “I Am What I Am” to the punkish take on “Don’t Rain On My Parade,” by Bob Merrill and Jule Styne. “For me, the importance of narrative (whether it’s an album or a concert program) is imperative,” Swift states. “It’s what informs all the music. And since the narrative of my new record is an unapologetic statement on embracing the full spectrum of one’s personality, there were no better songs than ‘I Am What I Am’ and ‘Don’t Rain On My Parade,’ two of the anthems on that subject. And since this album takes you through my musical path over the last 29 years, it made sense to start with a jazz track, as jazz is quite literally my root music, and to end with a punk rock track as that is where I am headed in my future!”

The road to Swift’s future was paved in her past. Her father, pianist Howard “Hod” O’Brian played with a number of jazz notables including Phil Woods, Lee Konitz and Freddie Hubbard, and taught jazz at several schools and passed away in 1996. Her mother, jazz singer Stephanie Nakasian, worked with Jon Hendricks, the Jim Cullum Jazz Band and Dick Hyman, and currently teaches at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where Swift was raised. She toured with her parents as a child, played trumpet and piano, released her first LP, Veronica’s House of Jazz, with alto saxophonist Richie Cole in 2004 at the age of 9, and performed at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Women in Jazz series two years later.

Swift earned her B.A. degree in jazz voice in 2016 from the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music. She competed in the 2015 Thelonious Monk International Vocal Competition and placed second behind winner, Jazzmeia Horn. “Competitions and awards are designed to try and spark animosity and excitement between artists — artists who have no business being compared to each other,” Swift asserts. “If Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday were to compete in the Monk competition — there is no competition there. When I was there, I only focused on making new friends and purely singing songs I liked. I don’t concern myself (with) trying to impress anyone. I think that mentality is what got me so far along… but it did put me on the map in the jazz world, helping me land a residency at Birdland every Saturday.”

Swift went on to establish herself, working with a number of artists including Chris Botti, Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Benny Green, Emmet Cohen and Michael Feinstein. She released her major label debut, Confessions in 2019, followed by This Bitter Earth in 2021. Now living in Los Angeles, Swift is at a place in her artistic life where she can express all of the inventions, dimensions and influences that make her who she is.

Veronica Swift sings "This Bitter Earth" at the 2023 SFJAZZ Gala honoring Randall Kline

“I have my heroes to attribute my performance style to,” Since I was 3 or 4 I have always had a flair for the dramatic,” Swift proclaims. “I was crazy for Liza Minelli, Freddie [Mercury], and Michael Jackson! The dancing, and the larger-than-life persona, and yet the humanity and vulnerability they possessed! Only now through performing all these genres in one place can I fully unleash and be myself! That’s scary for people to do, and because of that, some are even threatened by that strength, but I hope I can inspire people to find that for themselves rather than be quick to judge!”

Veronica Swift's 2023-24 Season performance will be broadcast on 11/17. More information is available here.

Eugene Holley, Jr. currently writes for DownBeatPublishers WeeklyHot House and Humanities magazines. His byline has also appeared in The Village VoiceNPR: VibeWax Poetics, and The New York Times Book Review. He’s contributed to four books and written liner notes for over twenty-five albums.

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