Smartists: Gretchen Parlato

(Published on Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls)

American jazz musician Wayne Shorter once said, “There’s no one out there like Gretchen [Parlato],” referring to the subtle yet masterful control the jazz vocalist has over her instrument. But after chatting with her, you’d venture to say Shorter’s compliment was about her personality, too. Gretchen Parlato is self-assured, at peace with what her life vision has brought to her, and for that, an incredible addition to our Smartist ranks.

Parlato is not only a renowned vocalist and Grammy nominee but a teacher, as well. “Changing the world by being yourself is a beautiful motto, and I relate to it wholeheartedly. Finding your voice, literally for a singer and figuratively in one’s art, is all about soul-searching to…reveal what we already have inside,” Gretchen explained. “I teach jazz voice at Manhattan School of Music, and that’s the core wisdom I try to pass on with my voice students.”

If we rewind back to when she was a student herself, working to acquire that wisdom, she acknowledges it wasn’t always so easy to trust the journey. She revealed, “I do remember being younger and feeling frustrated when people told me to sing louder, move around the stage more, open my eyes, use more makeup, [or] wear different clothes. It was difficult at the time, [but] I just had to say ‘thank you’ and [take or leave their opinions.] I knew somewhere in my heart that if I was just honest and true to myself and my artistic vision, I would be okay.”

Gretchen began tapping into that artistic vision at a very young age. She was raised in a musical family in Los Angeles, CA, where art was both her “nature and her nurture.” She then attended Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, UCLA as and ethnomusicology/jazz studies major, and became the first vocalist to attend the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance. Since then, Gretchen has gone on to record four albums and perform with musical greats, including guitarist Lionel Loueke. “There have been so many highlights,” she says, “like singing Carnegie Hall and performing with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock.” She even earned a Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Vocal Album earlier this year.

But aside from her formal music education and accolades, Gretchen works to be in touch with the inherent mystery of creating art. “…I like to think of…art on three levels: technical, emotional, and spiritual. If we are tapping into each of these in the most genuine and honest way, we realize we don’t have to try so hard, we reveal our own authentic story in our art.” Thus, being your authentic self is a tool for creative expression, a vulnerability that helps clear the dams and ready you for inspiration. “Creativity can flow in through us like a wave, [and] when it does you’ve got to be there to catch it and take that ride!”

Gretchen also underscores creativity in a broader sense, drawing parallels between her artistic pursuits and her new motherhood. “One of my favorite things about being a [creative woman] is [having] my son, Marley, last year,” adding, “I am so thankful to be able to experience the amazing journey of pregnancy and childbirth. This life event will definitely reflect in my art and inspire many songs.”

Currently, Gretchen is focused on being a mom, a job she calls “the best gig she’s ever had.” But, she’s still got several projects and performances in the works with her band as well as with Alan Hampton and with Lionel Loueke. She also works with a group called Tillery, that coincidentally, includes another of our Smartists, Becca Stevens! She encourages you to watch her website for upcoming recording projects and performances.

When asked for parting words for you Smarties out there, she hits it home: “Honor yourself. Know that you are valued and loved. Find what makes you happy and spend your time doing it! Spend your time around people in your life who make you feel good and happy. Don’t sweat the small stuff, though small stuff can seem pretty big in the moment. Breakdowns are always followed by breakthroughs.”

 Image Credit: Gretchen Parlato Facebook

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