Claudia Acuña is a jazz singer from Chile who got her start in New York City washing dishes and doing coat check at the Blue Note. Now, she lights up the stage at the Newport Jazz Festival. She kicked off Sunday’s festival on the Quad Stage.
Acuña’s album, Duo, is available for play and purchase.
Below is a conversation between Claudia Acuña and WRIU’s Ken Abrams and Anna Lofgren [edited for brevity].
Ken: How did it feel to be in charge of your own band today?
Claudia: I was very nervous, and anxious, but that good nervous, and excitement. I mean, this is Newport Jazz Festival for God’s sake – it’s a dream for anybody to come here. And I’m still that girl who moved from Chile to New York almost 30 years ago with this dream, and I didn’t even speak English. I did everything that immigrants do – I was the dishwasher at the Blue Note, and coat check, and then I got fired because I was sitting in on the jam session. Now I’m right here at Newport Jazz Festival. The audience, the energy, everything is great. It’s a fantastic place to showcase your artistry and get a real energy and sense of if people like it. To see all of this after the pandemic on top of it, is like a real reaffirmation that we are still alive, and that this festival and this music have many more years.
K: Did you move here for school, or to break into the business?
C: I moved here dreaming to go to school, because schools didn’t exist in Chile. And I got into schools, but they were too expensive for me. The teachers said you’re going to do it the old-fashioned way – you’re going to go to the jam sessions, and go to the Barry Harris workshop. And then I got these little gigs being coat check and all of that, and basically, I broke it. Life took me to a different situation, and some years later I was signed by Verve. I was the first South American woman or musician that has been signed by a jazz label like Verve. And the rest? I’m still here trying, in love with this music and what I do, and happy that people were so receptive. We need this… We need this energy in the world.
Anna: What would you tell young people who might be struggling to break it into the business? What do you suggest they do to break those boundaries and really get into the jazz world?
C: Learn the tradition – learn the tradition and the people that have paved the path for all of us. If you don’t learn the tradition, you won’t be able to find your own voice. And don’t give up because what is the other option? To get a 9 to 5 job that you hate, and invest energy and time on somebody else’s business? No. Keep going. You have everything in your hands to follow this and allow the music to take care of you if you take care of the music.
A: After today, are there any other stages, venues, or shows that are a dream for you that you hope to do someday?
C: Yes – I would love to do the Oscars, the Grammy Awards, Montreal [Jazz Festival], Central Park, I would love to sing again but with my trio at the ruins of Pompeii. I sang there 12 or 13 years ago with a symphony orchestra, and I couldn’t believe it!
K: I’ve seen those shows or videos [at the ruins of Pompeii] and it really is incredible.
C: Yes, and to be honest with you, any stage that gives us an opportunity for this music to be exposed to any generation or any audience, [means] we’re winning. We’re gaining a new audience and reinforcing the audiences that consistently support us.
K: I was going to ask you about the audience – are you seeing a younger audience, a more diverse audience? Especially being based in New York?
C: It’s interesting, because in this music, for many, many years if you speak about Latin music, people think of Brazilian or Cuban music. That’s one of the reasons I stopped singing in Portuguese, because everyone thought I was Brazilian. I love Brazilian music, but I figured out – and I was inspired by Dizzy, what he did with Afro-Cuban music – I’m from South America, and Latin American music is so rich. Even Nat King Cole did an album called Cole Español. I felt like people kind of tend to not know exactly what to expect from me, and then what happened today happened. And I see in general audiences that it’s mixed, young, not too young, young at spirit, and that’s what music does. At the end of the day, if people like the music, that’s all we care about. We’re happy when we see people enjoying what we do because we love what we do. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t love this music, you know? Nobody’s here to try to be famous or anything like that – wrong business!
A: Are there any specific artists who have inspired you, or inspired you lately?
C: I have so many. I always feel it’s a tricky question for me because I always fear I’m going to leave someone out. So, everybody and anybody. Because sometimes you’re on the street or the subway, and there’s a guy playing there, and he plays one chord or one note and as an artist it will trigger you and completely inspire you to play or to write something or to arrange. So, everything!
K: What do you have coming up? Releases, dates?
C: I’m still floating on my latest album, Duo, came out in September and is a beautiful album with Christian McBride, Kenny Barron, Russell Malone, Regina Carter, and more. In November, I will be at Jazz at Lincoln Center, and let’s hope for more!