Music: Antoinette Montague

Antoinette Montague sings jazz but always with a bit of the blues

Antoinette Montague likes to say she simply sings “people music.”  Make no mistake about it, she is a jazz singer through and through, but one who pushes the genre’s boundaries.  On her new recording, Behind the Smile, Montague sings classic jazz standards (new and old), resurrects lovely-but-obscure melodies, blends in blues and gospel through her vocal shadings, and puts entirely new jazz arrangements to material from other genres such as R&B, classic soul and pop.

Working in the jazz idiom, she shows she can take a song from any composer, any genre, and make it live-and-breathe as a jazz performance accessible to many audiences.  By blending her various influences, the resulting sound realizes her ambition, as she puts it, “to make vocal jazz a musical style with broad appeal to all age groups, all strata of society, all nationalities, every person who simply enjoys good music.  I don’t believe jazz should be something only appreciated in a textbook, from an obscure music journal or on an old dusty record.  I believe jazz can be easily enjoyed by the general public whether they think they are jazz lovers or not.”

Antoinette Montague’s new CD is on In The Groove Records (distributed by Allegro Music) and is available in record stores nationwide, online at major webstores (including and and at numerous digital download sites such as  For more information on Antoinette, visit her website (

Antoinette was mentored by some great singers – Carrie Smith (“She inspired me to have a big voice onstage”), Etta Jones (“She could transport the audience”), Della Griffin (“She showed me laid-back phrasing and how to use the comic side of my personality”) and Myrna Lake (“She let me sub for her and that’s when I learned to lead a band through three sets a night”).  In addition, Montague has performed onstage with many top jazz and blues musicians including Jimmy Heath and the Queen’s Jazz Orchestra, Jon Faddis, Lou Donaldson, Red Holloway, Benny Powell, Earl May, Mike Longo, Tom Aalfs, Winnard Harper, Wycliff Gordon, Stan Hope, John DiMartino, Bernard Purdy, Victor Jones, Tootsie Bean, Zeek Mullins, Paul Bollenbeck, Frank West, Tommy James, Payton Crosby and numerous others.  Montague also has recorded in the studio with Norman Simmons, Paul West, Joe Farnesworth and Tom Aalfs.

For Behind the Smile, Montague assembled the same jazz masters she worked with on her debut album, Pretty Blues.  She credits the band with having “immense artistry and a wealth of credits” -– pianist Mulgrew Miller (Woody Shaw, Art Blakey, Betty Carter, Branford Marsalis, Cassandra Wilson, Dianne Reeves); saxophonist, clarinetist and flutist Bill Easley (Duke Ellington Orchestra, Benny Carter, Ruth Brown, George Benson, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Isaac Hayes, Dakota Staton); drummer Kenny Washington (Lee Konitz, Betty Carter, Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, Joshua Redman, Phil Woods); and bassist Peter Washington (Art Blakey, Benny Green, Lionel Hampton, Marlena Shaw, Freddie Hubbard, Michal Urbaniak).  Kenny Washington produced, Montague executive produced, and Miller and Montague arranged the material.

Montague wrote the title tune, “Behind the Smile,” and uses that theme as the general concept behind most of the selections on the album.  “I find it interesting, and sometimes heartbreaking, to look beyond people’s smiles.  Sometimes smiling faces tell lies.  Other times someone puts on a brave smile with a lot of pain behind it.  Some smiles are hopes to get other people to smile, but just as often there is embarrassment or a broken heart just behind those upturned lips.  Or it could be a smile of love or spiritual connection.”

Antoinette’s most astounding interpretations on the album are two Motown soul songs from the Sixties and early Seventies -- Smokey Robinson’s “Get Ready” (a big hit by both The Temptations and Rare Earth) and Marvin Gaye’s timeless political masterpiece “What’s Going On.”  Both tunes are re-imagined as swingin’ jazz pieces.  “These are just wonderful songs that deserve jazz treatments.  I believe the best way to preserve the Great American Songbook is to include more music in it, to expand the decades.  The second half of the last century is the second section of that great songbook.”

But Montague does not forsake the original Great American Songbook either.  She includes an uptempo version of “The Song Is You” by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II (“one of my favorite versions is Nancy Wilson with Cannonball Adderly”), along with Duke Ellington’s 1938 “Lost in Meditation” (“This is just church to me”).  Montague also offers fresh takes on somewhat obscure material with Ray Noble’s “I Hadn’t Anyone Till You” (“I heard Sarah Vaughn do it with a big band, but I decided to make a bossa nova out of it”), and a version of “Meet Me at No Special Place.”

Antoinette brings her own special passion to the Dave Brubeck-penned “Summer Song” (“I always loved the Louis Armstrong and Carmen MacRae version”), the theme song for the Sixties TV show “The Naked City” (“Teri Thornton originally sang ‘Somewhere in the Night,’ and after I met her I decided to incorporate it into my show”), and Ellington’s “23rd Psalm” (“Mahalia Jackson’s original version was done more like a dirge, so I tried to breathe new life into it with a fresh arrangement”).

Two tunes were inspired by her mentors -- Carrie Smith taught her the Big Bill Broonzy bluesy “Give Your Mama One Smile,” and Etta Jones was known for “Ever Since The One I Love’s Been Gone.”  The latter piece (with a few words changed) is dedicated to the memory of both Antoinette’s sister Barbara Montague Mousa and good friend Phillis Womble, who both died while Antoinette was selecting material for this CD.  Montague’s slow, powerful and passionate singing of the tune is a fitting tribute.

Before headlining her own shows, she sat in on hundreds of gigs in an effort to practice her craft, learn the ropes and work her way into the music scene.  The past decade-and-a-half Antoinette has been one of the hardest-working jazz-and-blues singers in New York City.

As an example, for years on Monday nights when there are jam sessions at clubs all over town, she would often sing a song or two with the Harlem Renaissance Band at Lucy’s and then hop over to 125th Street to vocalize in front of the Cotton Club Big Band directed by Ed Passant.  In recent years she has performed at the legendary Blue Note, Dizzy Gillespie’s Club Coca-Cola at the Lincoln Center, the Zebra Room in Harlem’s famous Lenox Lounge, the 35th American Jazz Festival, and the Pine Grill Jazz Festival in Buffalo in front of a crowd of 7,000.  Montague has worked numerous gigs with Bill Easley, Tom Aalfs and Mike Longo’s New York State of the Art Band (including the 88th Birthday Celebration of Dizzy Gillespie).  She also was in the Great Women in Music Festival at Birdland with the Duke Ellington Band, directed by Jack Jeffers and filmed for television by the BET on Jazz channel.  Antoinette performed at the 10th Anniversary of International Women in Jazz (she served as the Vice President of that organization), and the NAACP’s “Tribute to Milt Jackson.”

Born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, Antoinette grew up listening to a lot of Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn.  In the fourth grade, Antoinette also would go to the local library and listen to albums by Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith.  Other influences were the R&B-soul of The Supremes, Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, the Jackson 5, Jackie Wilson, Stevie Wonder and Otis Redding; and singers as varied as Mahalia Jackson, Maime Smith, Paul Robeson, Nat King Cole, Mel Torme, Tony Bennett, Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix, Little Willie John, Etta James, Patsy Cline and Nancy Wilson.  Antoinette went to Seton Hall University on a full academic Martin Luther King Scholarship and joined the college’s Voices United gospel choir which got to open for Walter Hawkins, Mighty Clouds of Joy and the Soul Stirrers.  This led to her joining another gospel group, the Judah Chorale.  Also during college Antoinette performed with an R&B group, sang in a blues band called Five Kings and a Queen, and took piano and voice lessons.

“I don’t believe in strict musical categories, but I feel like I paint all of the diverse material on this album with the many colors of jazz,” Montague states.  “I try to create music with good feelings but also a dose of reality blues, plus joy, spirituality, love, passion and swing.  I want the overall musical experience to leave you smiling.”

© 2009 Music Entertainment Magazine. All rights reserved.

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