If you’re going to be an artist, Kalamazoo’s a good town for it, says singer-songwriter Ashley Daneman, despite the fact that she’s moved to New York City.
Daneman and her husband, Benje, a jazz musician, moved there from Kalamazoo in October.
“In Kalamazoo,” she concedes, “we were musicians full time. We could cover expenses. It was no big deal. It’s a really easy place to live, compared to New York, and I think Kalamazoo has a lot going on in arts and music for a city its size. Good Midwestern folks, how I grew up.”
How she grew up was in Toledo, Ohio, the daughter of musical parents who taught her an appreciation for the jazz greats: Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole. She played piano and performed in musicals.
“I learned how to sing classically,” she says, “but I started college in the opera department at the University of Cincinnati and felt like I was in some sort of vise. I wasn’t able to express myself through singing other people’s songs and singing very straight.”
That impulse toward self-expression led her to a reinvention from opera singer to jazz singer — what she calls “a platform to be self-expressive on another level” — and from there to the bright lights, big city, where she attended the Manhattan School of Music and earned a master’s degree in jazz vocal performance.
Daneman’s education and her passion for jazz certainly come through on Beauty Indestructible, her new record due out Jan. 20, which she describes as a “whole concept that has to do with my own life and hardships and how I emerged from them.” Tracks like “Here Comes a Body” list at a rhythmic simmer, meditative, before transcending into a nearly avant-garde exuberance. Elsewhere, a more restrained influence feels fully present, as in the dynamic shifts of “He Loves Me Well” or “How You Got to Yes,” a study in Steely Dan’s brand of deliberate jive.
But while Daneman’s tunes acknowledge a heavy debt to jazz, she doesn’t identify herself as a jazz musician. Her true calling — the one Beauty Indestructible celebrates — is as a singer-songwriter.
And that’s something she discovered only after she left New York in 2010 to move to Kalamazoo with her husband so they could be closer to their families. Benje hails from Grand Rapids and has a degree in jazz trumpet from Western Michigan University, and, in what Ashley calls “a happy coincidence,” her mother and sister migrated here from Toledo.
As it turns out, the New York jazz scene was kind of limiting too. “I was afraid to leave this comfortable world of knowing what the expectations are for a jazz musician,” Daneman says. “I was kind of writing my own songs, but when I would plan a show, I would make sure — and I hate to admit this — I would make sure that it was edgy or impressive enough. I just had to admit to myself I wasn’t interested in that competition. It wasn’t at the core of what I had to offer as an artist.”
It wasn’t for lacking the chops to compete. Daneman’s resume includes a nod from USA Today as a “fine young jazz vocalist” and distinguished residencies at the Banff Jazz and Creative Workshop and Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead — an especially edifying experience for Daneman, who counts Carter among her major influences. Still, “most of my musical taste, a lot of it, was musical theater and pop music, and I decided to just accept that about myself and stop trying to get the approval of the jazz community,” she says.
That acceptance opened creative doors: Daneman explored wide-ranging influences, from Carter to guiltier pleasures like Barbra Streisand and Carole King. She put her own songs in the spotlight and took to the piano to lead her band. She played well but had lacked the confidence to play onstage. She embraced herself — and Kalamazoo reaped the rewards. During their four years in town, she and Benje started the Kalamazoo Jazz and Creative Institute, which, among other projects, ran a three-day workshop at WMU last year for teen jazz musicians. The program’s future is on hold as Daneman decides whether to move it to New York, but here its inaugural run was a huge success.
So with success in Kalamazoo, why go back to New York? “There are just more opportunities, and the rate of pay is higher,” Daneman says. “You never know. There are days when you feel like a million bucks and everything converges — you get the emails, you get the yeses, you get the opportunities. And then there are days when you’re like, what in the world am I doing?”
So maybe there’s hope for her Kalamazoo fans.