Erykah Badu can still remember when she first found the rhythm of music. She was four years old in South Dallas, watching her great grandmother play piano in church. It was an upright piano, and she would kick the bottom of it like a kick drum while she played. Almost 40 years later, Badu carries that spirit in her music — singing, she says, "like a drum."
It's a trait she says she shares with legendary jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, and today the two have another thing to connect them: Badu is the recipient of the 17th annual Ella Fitzgerald Award at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. It's a prestigious award, one shared with such iconic singers as Diana Ross, Etta James and Aretha Franklin, and no doubt worlds away from those memories in church.
"I still feel like a little girl from South Dallas, that I have not done anything yet," Badu says in a humble, revealing interview conducted after the award had been presented to her on Monday night.
The Montreal festival has been going for 37 years now and is one of the most respected jazz festivals in the world. To commemorate the festival's 20th anniversary in 1999, the organizers started the award in Fitzgerald's honor. It's awarded to artists who demonstrate the "range, versatility and improvisational originality as well as the repertoire of a jazz singer recognized on the international scene." Not bad for a Booker T. Washington alum.
Just last week, we were talking about Badu the hip-hop historian, thanks to the video of the epic medley she performed with the Roots at their annual Roots Picnic in Philadelphia. But this is another thing altogether; as Badu explains in the accompanying video, she'd grown up in a house where the radio "never went off," but it wasn't until she was recording Baduism with Roy Hargrove in the mid-'90s that she came to appreciate jazz vocals.
These days we're pretty used to Badu's more playful antics — trying to kiss a TV reporter on the sidewalk or busking on the streets to see how much money strangers will give her. But being put in the same class as someone like Fitzgerald is clearly an honor that Badu doesn't take lightly.
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"How can I be compared to such a voice, such a frequency?" she asks in the interview. "The way [Fitzgerald] makes me feel is the way I wish to make people feel, and if I am doing that, then I am very, very grateful." (She even went onto Facebook afterwards to reiterate her gratitude.)
It's a video that's well worth spending the 12 minutes on, but Badu probably sums it all up the best: "The way you sing is the way you love."