Tenor sax legend Joe Henderson made it clear from the beginning that if he and Laurie Antonioli were going to spend time together she needed to read up on literature. A budding singer who’d spent two years studying bebop in the innovative jazz program at Portland’s Mt. Hood College in the mid-1970s, Antonioli had returned to her native Bay Area raring to plunge into the roiling jazz scene. She started sitting in regularly with vocalist Mark Murphy at his weekly gig at The Dock, a joint in Tiburon. On Henderson’s recommendation she soaked up Dostoevsky and Camus, Kafka and Herman Hesse, “and then we would talk about it,” says Antonioli, who was two decades younger than Henderson (1937-2001).
“Joe was very shy on the one hand, definitely not an extravert, but he liked to chat and do long phone calls. He had a big influence on my lyric writing and overall education.”
What started as a romance transitioned into an enduring friendship that shaped the course of Antonioli’s creative journey as a musician and a woman. After her 1985 debut Soul Eyes (Catero), an enthralling duo session with pianist George Cables, her career took a circuitous path with an extended detour before she released her second album two decades later, 2005’s Foreign Affair (Nabel). Though she’s best known in some circles as the founding director of the jazz vocal program at Berkeley’s California Jazz Conservatory (formerly known as the Jazzschool), Antonioli is in the midst of a brilliant second act as a bandleader and recording artist with a series of albums drawing on verdant musical realms outside the pages of the American Songbook.
She celebrates the release of her latest album The Constant Passage of Time (Origin) Saturday at the CJC with her American Dreams Band. It’s a project that focuses on her original songs, arranged in collaboration with her consummate cast of accompanists. Always careful to seek out players who are similarly interactive, she has performed and recorded with a core quintet featuring pianist Matt Clark, reed expert Sheldon Brown and drummer Jason Lewis. A recent arrival in the East Bay, Keith Ganz takes over the guitar chair Saturday for Dave Mac Nab, while the formidable Dan Robbins is the latest bassist to step in since the 2017 death of John Shifflett.
In many ways her work as recording artist has served as a beacon for alumni of the CJC jazz vocal program such as Lisa Lindsley, Andrea Claburn, and Suzanna Smith, who have released an array of impressive, well-conceived albums. From Antonioli’s Balkan-inflected Foreign Affair to the folk-tinged Americana of 2010’s American Dreams (Intrinsic Music) and the deep dive into Jonilandia with 2014’s Songs of Shadow, Songs of Light: The Music of Joni Mitchell (Origin), she’s never taken the easy or obvious path. She traces her insistence on self-definition back to the relationship with Joe Henderson, when she had to choose whether to bask in his genius or seek a creative path outside his orbit.
“He invited me to go on the road with him,” she recalls. “I was very young, 21, and I said no. I was his girlfriend at the time and I wasn’t going to be that girl, waiting around to sing my two songs every night.”
Instead, she signed on with saxophonist/vocalist Pony Poindexter, an undersung bebop master from New Orleans who played and recorded with the pioneering vocalese ensemble Lambert, Hendricks and Ross before he settled in Oakland in the 1970s. He’d earned an avid following in Europe and she crossed the continent with him throughout 1980, spending most of each concert scatting Bird and Diz bebop lines in unison with Poindexter. “I got one song each set I could sing with lyrics and I’d usually do a ballad,” she says. When he had a stroke on the road she made sure he got back to Oakland.
Antonioli wasn’t sheltered growing up in Marin and Nevada, but she wasn’t well-prepared for a scene in which “I was the only female and often the only white person in the room,” she says. “The female thing was much more challenging.” She describes the kind of encounters that have become all-too-familiar in the #MeToo era, coercive situations with marquee artists from whom she was hoping to land gigs. She’s not interested in naming names at this point—most of the artists have died—and would rather draw attention to the allies she found, men who had her back on and off the bandstand.
“I have as many stories as any woman of my generation, but perhaps juicier because they involve people who are well known in jazz circles,” she says. “The thing I feel so strongly about is if it wasn’t for the men who supported me and took an interest, that were brother or father figures, I wouldn’t have had the career that I have. Billy Higgins came to my rescue, and John Hicks was very protective of me as a young woman, to name just two.”
It was an era when hard drug use was widespread and hanging with jazz heavyweights who seemed to handle their narcotics consumption with aplomb made it seem ever more normal. By the late 1980s, after a divorce and giving up custody of her daughter, Antonioli’s recreational use of heroin turned into full blown dependency. “It was a really dark time,” she says. “All through the 90s was a struggle. I stopped performing and trying to put myself out there. But I was always working. I was teaching. I wasn’t in the gutter. I got clean in 1998 and recovery has been the biggest blessing. Sheila Jordan has been one of the biggest supporters. I hear from her every day.”
With sobriety doors started opening again, and Antonioli decided to get a fresh start in Austria in 2002 when she was hired to run the jazz vocal program at KUG University in Graz. Returning to the Bay Area in 2006, she started building the jazz vocal program at the Jazzschool, including a week-long summer intensive with Theo Bleckmann that attracts students from around the world. Working closely with her has given Bleckmann deep respect for her creative process, and he describes her as “a real artist who’s still searching, developing, and expanding her vision. Laurie knows every bebop tune and then some, and has such deep roots in the tradition, but she’s not locked in. The other thing I really appreciate is that she has a sound like no one else, very deep and dark, with a sense of sadness. It’s not a generic keyboard sound from bottom to top.”
Given Bleckmann’s work with lapidary composer and vocalist Meredith Monk and his own ethereal recordings it’s not surprising that he singles out Antonioli’s collaboration with Richie Beirach as a particular favorite. She first connected with the pianist in the early 1980s when she approached him after a gig with the John Abercrombie Quartet at Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society in Half Moon Bay. Recorded in 1992, their album The Duo Session (Nabel) eventually surfaced in 2005, introducing three Beirach tunes with Antonioli’s lyrics. A decade later they released Varuna (Origin), a gossamer session alternating between their original songs and standards.
Beirach possesses some serious credits as an accompanist, including a week backing Tony Bennett in Las Vegas when he was 19 and another week subbing for Chick Corea with Sarah Vaughan a few years later. He describes Antonioli as “a really caring, generous, gifted person with a great voice, a serious alto, very beautiful and dark and smooth. She projects this tremendous sense of humanity. It immediately invites the audience in and includes them. She’s a real jazz singer, a great improviser. Because of her level of musicianship I can play something in my right hand and she can take that and spin something.”
Fully capable of impromptu musical invention, she’s also a painstaking planner when it comes to recording. “Each record I’ve made has been very intentional in terms of repertoire and vibe,” Antonioli says. “I love being in the studio and if I could make a record every year I would. I enjoy the process, working with musicians, developing the material. Even on the first album with George Cables we spent a lot of time together just working on the tunes. And the same with Richie. They just wanted the music to be good. I thought that was a normal thing, how generous they were. Now I know that’s not necessarily the case.”
Older, wiser, and with countless stories to tell, Antonioli continues to hew her own path, finding her way to musical truth.
This story first appeared in JazzTimes magazine.