Q&A with multi-talented artist Kay Kostopoulos -- theatrical, emotional sensitivity in her lush and sensuous voice

"It (Blues & Jazz) is a shared interest among those dedicated to the art—we respect one another—honor the music above all. This transcends race and politics."

Kay Andreas Kostopoulos: Exotica

Black Olive Jazz is a group from the San Francisco Bay area that features the warm singer Kay Kostopoulos and the veteran Noel Jewkes on tenor, alto, soprano and flute. Their new album ‘Exotica’ (2016) is an idea conceived by Kostopoulous, Jewkes (who provided the arrangements) and pianist Grant Levin. The singer, whose background is in theater, wanted to perform dramatic material that could be considered both exotic and modern jazz. Greek origin (Katerina) Kay Andreas Kostopoulos on vocals, performs a wide range of jazz:  swing, standards, blues, latin and originals. Kay's theatrical background lends an emotional sensitivity to her lush and sensuous three-octave vocal range. Black Olive Jazz is available to perform as a duo, as a jazz combo or big band.

Kays’ Black Olive Jazz' All Gal Band, features the finest Bay Area women jazz players -- with ongoing engagements at Stanford University Bing Music Series, Corte Madera Town Center Music Series, D'vine Jazz and Wine, The Bliss Bar, and Domaine Carneros Winery. Kay Andreas is a professional actress, singer, dancer and director who has performed in plays and musicals in many regional and Bay Area theaters, including the Magic Theatre, Marin Theatre Company, San Francisco and California Shakespeare Festivals, Stanford Summer Theater and American Conservatory Theatre. She has taught and directed in many university theatre arts programs, and currently teaches at Stanford University. Kay has performed with Cyrus Chestnut, Stanley Jordan, Jules Broussard, and David Hardiman's Tuesday Night Big Band, through CCSF's guest artist program, and with the Sierra Jazz Society featuring Bill Douglass, Ian Dogole, and Jimmy Robinson.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the Jazz music and culture? What does the blues mean to you?   

The blues is an art form derived from African American traditions, and I have the deepest respect for these roots. I am primarily a jazz singer—jazz has its roots in the blues-- it is more complicated musically, but with the soul of the blues— I always try to honor that soul, while embracing the advanced musicality. Because of my Greek heritage, I am attracted to the dissonant scales and sounds in jazz, and I am delighted to improvise—I was a professional belly dancer who toured many places, and always improvised to the music. It took careful listening and lots of risk, which is integral to jazz.  I still use finger cymbals in my jazz performances and recordings.

How do you describe BLACK OLIVE sound?

Passionate, Mediterranean, jazzy, exotic sound with polyrhythms and unusual scales. Sultry vocals, Piano, Guitar, Sax, Flute, Bass, Cello, Finger Cymbals, Multiple Percussion. My latest album “EXOTICA” was an idea generated by myself, jazz legend Noel Jewkes, and piano genius, Grant Levin. I was looking for something unique, my own voice, where I could incorporate my full vocal range and theater background, my Mediterranean musical heritage, with polyrhythms and unusual scales, and my passion for jazz.

What were the reasons that you started the Jazz researches?

I’m an actor & teacher by profession, a vocalist by pure will, respect, determination and focus. I remember seeing Johnny Hartman in Baltimore, many years ago. I was one of maybe 20 people in the audience at the Famous Ballroom. It broke my heart.  He sat on the edge of the stage, looking tired, singing achingly beautiful music—his voice crooning the embellishments that made him famous. When I sing to a half empty room, or a noisy group, I always think of him--a true professional, a master, filling the room with his gift—a gift appreciated by only a few, that rainy Sunday afternoon. Brilliant musicians, like Coltrane, use both sides of the brain, one mathematical, analytical, logical the other creative, emotional, intuitive--embodying both at once—particularly on duets with Johnny Hartman. Masterful singers, Ella, Sarah, Anita O’Day, are able to meet the instrumentalists with superior skill and feeling, matching the musicianship with their own harmonic excellence. Equally compelling are the lyrics and the nostalgia for an era few of us ever knew, or knew only through our parents’ memories.              (Photo by Jessica Levant)

"Finding creative work is always a challenge-I always have teaching work because of my reputation at Stanford, but getting musical and acting work remains difficult-it is so with all artists."

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences?

Meeting master reed player and jazz legend, Noel Jewkes, who is my musical partner and arranger—he changed my life—taught me many things, always takes me to new places musically.

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, teaching, acting and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

What I find most exciting is the rhythm and rhythmical players—I am mesmerized by McCoy Tyner’s playing. I met him once at an SF Jazz concert—his huge frame came up the stairs towards the stage. On his way to the piano, he took my hand in his giant paw and said, out of nowhere “So nice to see you again”. I was speechless and grinned like a teenage groupie.   

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

Jazz was popular music—now you rarely hear it—only selectively on music stations—the music in the current popular genres bores me, and infuriates me in its simplicity and overly technical doctoring.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

Jazz would be given respect, more clubs would open, there would be more festivals—and most reverently, I wish for more performance opportunities! Would you like to book us in Greece?

What is the relationship between: music & literature? What are the lines that connect Shakespeare & Aristophanes?

I actually use some Shakespearean text in my lyrics…also some from Tennessee Williams. My song “Cleopatra and the Viper” is based on my experience playing Cleopatra in the Shakespearean play. (I think it would be a great tune for Lady Gaga!) Will look into Aristophanes for ideas!

Cleopatra and the Viper

The Queen of the Nile died by a Viper

A game with a heart she couldn’t win

Stung by a bite, she succumbed to the Mighty Viper

Venomous fool of love that did her in

What’s played in the heart is a kind of music

That translates to love in a cruel refrain

The scholars all say that an asp killed Cleopatra

But it was denial of love that caused her pain.

Love’s a vine

Entwining with a serpent’s cunning

A viper’s love held close to the heart

An bliss elixer dispatched in a kiss

Unintended and harder to resist

Cleopatra was murdered by rash poison

A viper with a deadly sting

What does to be a female artist in a “Man’s World” as James Brown says? What is the status of women in Jazz?

I’ve been blessed by working with many generous gentlemen, musicians who enjoy singers—Larry Vuckovich, Noel Jewkes, Si Perkoff, Rick Vandivier, Bill Douglass, Eddie Marshall, Akira Tana,—and equally spectacular ladies—Sue Crosman, Carla Kaufman, Ruth Davies, Beth Goodfellow, Krisin Strom.

And I wonder: Why is the scene dominated by men--especially male instrumentalists? And why do some musicians hate singers, or at least resent them?

It may have to do with the amount of attention focused on the singer, whom I once heard called “the face of the band”. I believe most singers work, and work hard. But I think often the perception is that the singer is the one who has a great instrument and rarely practices. The one who has the greatest hunger, and the least training. The one with the painful shoes and expensive lipstick. 

Like I said, “I‘ve been blessed”—AND I got lucky—I’m grateful!.…

What lessons I’ve had (and still learning)!

Before I sang, I studied—with David Hardiman at City College of SF, a generous gentleman—he taught me the skills of improvisation—I was drilled on scales, chords, melodies, rhythm. I took the course four times in two years. He made me build complicated chords on music paper, and do ear training exercises, learn the circle of fifths. I improvised on “Summertime” and “Lover Come Back to Me”, and “Au Privave”. I wrote my own lyrics to “Footprints”, and made up improvisations, listening to the Miles Davis recording endlessly. I sang with David’s big band, writing my own lyrics to Shiny Stockings. I sang in Union Square on windy foggy days. Though a novice, through CCSF’s guest artist program, I got to sing with Stanley Jordan and Cyrus Chestnut! 

What has been the hardest obstacle for you to overcome as a person and as artist and has this helped you become a better jazz musician?

Finding creative work is always a challenge—I always have teaching work because of my reputation at Stanford, but getting musical and acting work remains difficult—it is so with all artists. So we work harder on our art—that makes us better.

What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Straight ahead!

"The blues is an art form derived from African American traditions, and I have the deepest respect for these roots."

What is the impact of Blues and Jazz music and culture to the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

It is a shared interest among those dedicated to the art—we respect one another—honor the music above all. This transcends race and politics.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

I would like to be singing with Ellington. Imagine the thrill of it! I was inspired by his outside original music, like "on a torquoise cloud" which he called "beyond category". EXOTICA is a reflection of Noel’s and my taste for the extraordinary and exotic. Noel’s beautiful playing evokes Johnny Hodges on Billy Strayhorn’s “Passion Flower”.

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