Music is the Key to Life

The music and drive of Tatiana “Lady May” Mayfield seems to flow from her aunts and her mother. But it is the harmonies of her singing in a mix of straight-ahead jazz and soul music that gives Mayfield a rare sound to her music. Mayfield goes by the stage name of “Lady May,” but she has combined her love of music with teaching and in this interview she talks about jazz and her future projects in the new year.
InterviewLady May
Jupiter Index: You have a grandmother who sang in the USO. Talk about the musical influences she had on you and also the influence from your mother? What artists did you grow up hearing, and how did it shape your singing voice?

Lady May: The musical creativity came mostly from the maternal side of my family. It wasn’t my grandmother that sang for the USO; it was my 5 aunts known as The Gray Sisters in Louisville, Kentucky. They sang for the USO shows in their hometown between 1962-1965. They were wonderful vocalists according to family and many people who remember them singing in Louisville. They were often featured on a local variety TV show and sang background vocals on one recording called “Small Town Gossip” written by Joe Tex but performed by an artist named Cosmo. I found the record years ago on eBay and bought one of the last remaining 45s. You can even find the song on YouTube now and that always makes me smile.

With regards to my grandmother, she passed away when my mother was young, so I unfortunately never got the pleasure of meeting her. If I had, I know I would have adored her. My mom said she played piano for her church at one point and played at home sometimes while my grandfather sang. My grandfather was a singer, actor, and dancer. According to my mom, he loved to sing songs from the “Great American Songbook” (standards), do the classic dances at a local dancehall, and perform in local plays.

My mother has a wonderful voice and always sang to me growing up. She was
young to be a part of my aunt’s group in the 60s, but she did sing sometimes on the local variety show. My mother’s favorite vocalist is Nancy Wilson, so I listened to her quite a bit growing up. I’m even born on her birthday! Although my mom didn’t pursue music professionally, she has always been a strong influence on me because of her voice and all the music she surrounded me with. Both of my parents are avid music listeners and growing up, there was always something playing in the house across the musical spectrum. From jazz, R&B/Soul, rock, pop, classical, world, etc., I woke up and went to sleep hearing music. My father (who also has a beautiful voice) loves classical music. Both shaped me musically without even knowing it because I was internalizing everything. They’ve also been very supportive of me since the beginning and are the reasons I’m still creating music to this day. If it wasn’t for them always encouraging me as I moved forward, I don’t know where I’d be. I’m very thankful to have them as parents.

There are so many artists that have inspired me throughout my life and for different reasons. I’ll try to give a short list but it’s difficult. Haha! The jazz vocalists that have had the greatest influence on me are Nancy Wilson, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Natalie Cole. All of them tell a story like no other when they sing and their phrasing always speaks to me. When I was studying, I would try to imitate the aspects of their sounds that I really liked and figure out how I could take those colors that they had and mix it with my own. For example, I love Nancy’s clear, focused, tone and her diction so I’ve always tried to keep the placement of my sound forward. Same with Ella in the sense that she had a very rich and clear sound and you could always understand what she was telling you within a song. Ella and Sarah’s scatting/improvising has been critical in my jazz language learning and the shaping of my approach. I love Natalie Cole’s warm and inviting voice as well as all the beautiful arrangements that were written for her. Her “Unforgettable” album is one of my favorite albums that shaped my childhood. Other vocalists and artists that have inspired me include (and in no order): Stevie Wonder, Patrice Rushen, Herbie Hancock, Ramsey Lewis, Carmen McRae, Shirley Horn, Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, Marvin Gaye, Wynton Marsalis, Esperanza Spalding, Michael Jackson, Sergio Mendes, Tamia, Johnny Mathis, etc. this list could go on forever honestly. Haha!

JI: You have such a wonderful, expressive, free voice that is good for jazz. When you are scatting or singing a phrase and it is developing what is going through your head in these freer, improvisational moments? Are you thinking really hard about your vocals, or do you just let go?

LM: Thank you for that compliment! When I’m scatting, I’m completely engulfed in the moment. I try my best to stay out of head because if I do start thinking about what I’m doing, the lines will not come out as well or not at all. I have to allow myself to let go in those moments to truly express what I need to say in my being. If I’m having a bad day, I let all my frustration, sadness, nervousness, or whatever uncomfortable feeling go in those moments; I pour all of it into the music. I also feed off of the vibe of the audience. I go where I need to go while not neglecting where the audience needs to go as well. I have to trust that the music vocab that I’ve learned will manifest itself also where I need it to be. It’s a trippy experience!

JI: How much time did you spend in composing new jazz melodies and what is that process like for you?

LM: Lately, I haven’t spent as much time composing as I would like. However, that is soon to change in this new year with opportunities and schedule changes. Ideally, I would like to write 2-3 songs a week. I wrote a lot when completing my M.M. in jazz composition in 2019-2020, which really opened me up to new concepts and ideas. When I’m writing, I often start with the harmony (chords) first. Once I get changes (chords) moving in a way that I like, usually the melody is forming at the same time. However, sometimes it’s the opposite way where I start with a melody and fill in the chords and feel (groove) afterwards. I usually dance back and forth between these two. Lyrics typically come to me last because even though voice is my primary instrument, I function more as a musician when I write. Lyrics don’t always stay with me, but the music does. Melodies live in head on a daily/weekly basis. But powerful lyrics are so important to me. I would like to become an even better lyricist going forward so I’m working more on writing lyrics these days.

JI: Jupiter Index: If you were alone on a desert island, which three jazz CDs would you most want with you and why?

LM: You have asked me an impossible question, so I’ll just go with the first ones off the top of my head. Haha!
1. Joe Cool’s Blues- Wynton Marsalis and Ellis Marsalis (1995) *(This is one of my childhood favorites because of all the Charlie Brown classics. I’ve memorized just about all the instrumental solos on several of the tunes, especially “Little Red-Haired Girl”.)

2. The Great American Songbook- Nancy Wilson (2006) *(Great compilation of all her best recordings. This covers almost all my favorite songs from her iconic albums.)

3. Ask A Woman Who Knows- Natalie Cole (2002) *(I love the collection of songs she chose to sing for this album in addition to the beautiful arrangements written for her.)

JI: What are your plans for future jazz projects, and will you be working with other jazz artists during the year?

LM: I plan on writing more in this upcoming year and performing more concerts now that we’re starting to swing again. I’ve got some great concerts on the books already that I’m looking forward to. Also, I would love to get the opportunity to write for other artists as well as start preparing for a new record. I’m very optimistic about this new year and look forward to all that it has to offer.

by G.M. Burns