By Monica Staton
Devon Sandridge started his career as a vocalist while serving in the U.S. Air Force. He has no formal training in music. He has taken his experience learned while in the military and applied it to embarking on a career in jazz. He takes initiative, he’s resourceful and confident. It takes talent and strategy to make it in this business and he has both—he has a remarkable bass-baritone voice, which shares similar touch, phrasing, and vibrato with that of Johnny Hartman, the person that inspired him to initially embark upon his career. Sandridge uses vibrato like I rarely hear in jazz.
Sandridge has found a mentor, Henry Johnson, a guitarist and vocalist who has performed with some of the greatest jazz vocalists of all time. Within Chicago’s multifaceted jazz scene, Sandridge has found other vocalists to collaborate with and top-notch musicians to accompany him. If you’re a young artist, take notes; with talent and drive you can make strides in your musical career as Sandridge has.
Where are you from?
I’m from Chicago. When I was eighteen I joined the U.S. Air Force. I was stationed in Mississippi as well as Germany for about three years and three years in Mississippi so I did active duty for about six years. About two and half years ago I got out and moved to the Air Force Reserves. I moved back to Chicago and started getting on the music scene, so now I live in Rogers Park.
How did you get involved in the Chicago jazz scene?
I’ve met so many incredible people. When I was in the military I used to listen to a lot of music, so I was able to put faces to names—people I’d been listening to for a long time, that was a lot of fun. Everyone was very welcoming, it’s just a great community here.
How much of Chicago is in your music?
Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong spent time here. There are people that spent time here that may not have spent the better part of their career here. If you look at a lot of my influences like Nat King Cole, Mel Tormé and guys like that—I can definitely say that that has influenced my music, as well as groups that came later like Earth, Wind & Fire. It was a mecca of music for such a long time.
Do you think you’d be a much different singer if you were from another city?
Yeah definitely, absolutely, to be able to come here where there is such a vibrant jazz scene. We’re superseded only by New York in the world. It’s such an incredible opportunity and experience to just be able to meet people and learn from people that have been around and seen it all. I think that I’ve gained so much from experience and exposure that I may not have had in most other places in the world.
What defines you as a vocalist?
I would just say being a storyteller. That’s what got me into the music—the stories, the lyrics, and the way there’s opportunity for interpretation. That drives what I do.
What song or artist has had the greatest influence upon you as a jazz vocalist?
I’d have to say it’s either “Lush Life,” or “My One and Only Love” because of what it meant to the style that they are drawn from, but “My One and Only Love” I would say got me into music.
Any particular rendition?
Johnny Hartman for both.
How do you choose the songs you sing?
I’m very story driven, so if it has something, a real story, that’s what really draws me to it.
And how do you decide how you want to perform a song, in terms of phrasing and tempo?
Of course in jazz there’s relative freedom as compared to many other genres, that’s always interesting—how you’re going to treat a tune. I will say that I like to listen to many different arrangements of the great artists, because each one is going to do it perfectly in their own way. I find the arrangement that speaks to me, or if its a combination of some. Sometimes I have ideas, I haven’t heard this way, but I’d like to try it this way. I’ll play around with it and if I feel like I can deliver a story in an inspired way, I’ll go with that arrangement.
How did you start your career?
I had just started singing before I joined the Air Force. I had just gotten introduced to jazz, the song that Johnny Hartman did with John Coltrane, “My One and Only Love,” that inspired me and I just started to sing. I had some gigs in Germany. I moved back to Chicago I was introduced to Henry Johnson, a well-known Chicago vocalist and guitarist. He showed me so much that I hadn’t previously known. Johnson worked with so many of the greats. I was really able to dig into the scene and the history. It really opened my eyes and I’ve really been enjoying the journey ever since.
What was one of your first gigs here in Chicago?
My first gig was at the Serbian Village, with drummer Pete Magadini’s quartet with Christian Dillingham on bass and Chris Tucker on piano.
How do you brand yourself in this modern day of jazz?
By and large there are not very many male jazz vocalist singing the straight-ahead stuff. I would definitely define myself as a straight-ahead vocalist. I take from the ’50s and ’60s. That tends to be where I pull a lot of my repertoire—that style of arrangement.
How did you develop a flair for improvisation?
That is something that a lot of people just get through exposure and listening. Carmen McRae or Betty Carter would just play with the phrasing of a song. Joe Williams would play with time and intervals and singing variations. So just by listening you’ll begin to emulate certain things and improvise. Improvisation can be a challenge.
Have you gone so far out while improvising that you can’t bring it back?
I don’t do it often, I used to do it more when I was first coming up. A lot of times being a young vocalist there’s times when it doesn’t go so great, because you feel like you're doing it because you have to. In my opinion I don’t feel like it’s something I have to do. I think it should add, not take away from the message that you’re trying to deliver. There are times you try and improvise something over a blues, you may paint yourself into a corner, and you're like how do I get out of this. I’m sure a lot of vocalists will say they’ve experienced this before. I find myself doing this less and less unless so inspired.
How do you describe your sound?
I am a bass-baritone—that’s not something you hear too much in music, especially nowadays. I was exposed to more Billy Eckstine and Johnny Hartman. Only then did I think that was an option for me to even pursue this. I would describe myself as going for a smoother sound, not necessarily soft because, it doesn’t always have to be soft. I can’t even just say smooth because there are colors to everything. Depending upon the song and the arrangement, I try to use whatever color is appropriate in that time. I would describe myself as being diverse in sound. Most people would describe me as appreciating the lower end of my voice and that’s the other thing that’s changing the older I get, I don’t mind delving into the higher register either.
Was your call to music strong?
Absolutely! At that time I heard Johnny Hartman’s “My One and Only Love.” I was sitting in my room and was almost instantaneous, I didn’t really know much about jazz before.
What are some of the challenges you face as a jazz vocalist?
Being open, that can sometimes be hard. As much as we all like to appreciate criticism, sometimes it can be hard, especially being a young vocalist. I have a lot to learn compared to people that have been doing it for so long. When I was coming up there were people like, “hey you might want to look at that,”—that can be hard because sometimes you may wonder, did I really do right by this song, but you’ve got to learn to actually appreciate that, that’s what I’ve learned to do, and I am working on it.
How do you know when to reject a person’s critique?
Take it with a grain of salt. Often times when they say it, it’ll kinda resonate with me. I’ve had people say, “you check out the melody on this part,” when I was first coming around. I might mess up something here or there, a lot of times I would just record myself or I would look at sheet music and play the melody and say, oh they were right, so a lot of times you’ll work on what it is they’re saying. Henry helps me out tremendously with things like that.
What’s your ideal audience?
Anyone who appreciates the music. They don’t have to be a jazz audience, [just] someone who can appreciate a story.
What personally do you bring to your music?
I try to bring emotion and how I personally relate to whatever the message of the song is, whether it’s personal experience, whether it through research, or other people’s experience, but I try to be genuine, as much as I can.
How do you make connections with the musicians you perform with?
Just being out, when I first moved to Chicago, I started going to jam sessions which I think is a common way people become a part of the community. There are so many incredible musicians in Chicago it’s fairly easy to run into different ones. It’s fun, building relationships and hanging out because that’s a big part of the jazz culture.
Where do you hang out?
The usually suspects, The Green Mill, Andy’s, Winter’s, the Serbian Village Restaurant. There are so many places in Chicago.
Do you have a long list of projects you’d like to take on?
Kimberly Gordon and I have talked about building a Billy Eckstine – Sarah Vaughan show which would be absolutely incredible because she has the voice and range for it. She’s an incredible jazz vocalist. We sing a lot together. I’m planning on doing a Johnny Hartman show. Many of his songs that are performed are from that Johny Hartman – John Coltrane compilation called Ballads. I’d like to do a project that features a lot of his other songs.
Keep up to date with Devon Sandridge through Facebook.
Catch Devon live at Illiana Jazz Club on Sunday, March 15, 2pm–5pm; and with Daryl Nitz Entertainment at The City Winery on Monday, March 30, 7:30pm, doing the voice of Johnny Hartman.