From blues to bossa to ballads to swing to latin to folk to funk to reggae to bebop, singer/songwriter/guitarist Sean Sullivan always serves up a savory gumbo of grooves from his own distinctive melting pot. The southern-born native New Yorker and Tribeca resident believes family heritage and environment are key ingredients in his ability to cook up myriad musical flavors. “My activist mother was born in West Virginia, of French and Cherokee descent, her father was a Nazarene minister, and his father was a bible-totin’ circuit rider (c.c.rider). In a sense”, Sullivan adds, “I feel as though I carry on preaching in performance.” Add to this rural rouille a dash of island spice and a cup of urban bohemia. “When I was a child we moved to the Bahamas for a year and then on to the upper west side of Manhattan. My mother had been a dancer with Martha Graham and wrote poetry, while my stepfather had a jazz radio show and loved to paint. Although they were both freelance writers professionally, the house was always overflowing with music and art. My earliest performances were at parties in our apartment attended by hipster friends and celebrities. They would march me out in my pajamas to do my impersonations of rock, pop and jazz legends. Growing up in a flamboyant family atmosphere had its ups and downs, but ultimately I’m grateful for the emphasis on creativity, the arts, and liberal education.”
It was while attending the arts-oriented New Lincoln School, that Sullivan began playing guitar, singing in musicals and assemblies, and performing with the school choir. A simultaneous interest in classic fiction was further ignited at Wesleyan University, where he earned a degree in English Literature. While there, he continued a wide range of musical studies. “With the Wesleyan singers I performed Gregorian chants, madrigals, and avant-garde music. Onescore had us banging on junkyard metal and uttering nonsense sounds. Wesleyan also pioneered the world music scene. The sheer variety of concerts and teachers available were enough to open even the most jaded western mind. It was indeed a global village.”
After college, Sullivan started playing professionally in the Boston area while studying jazz formally at Berklee College of Music and classical guitar at the New England Conservatory. Following a period of solo gigs in the United States and Puerto Rico, he finally returned to New York. “Arnie Lawrence at the New School heard a demo tape I’d made and invited me down to study jazz. The first day I walked in, and there was Jon Hendricks telling stories to a class taught by his daughter Michelle. I was stunned. After all, I’d been listening to his music since early childhood. ‘Gimme That Wine’, ‘Cloudburst’, and all those Lambert, Hendricks & Ross tunes were family heirlooms.” Sullivan and Hendricks formed an immediate friendship finding many common points, love of literature, Native American ancestry, and above all, jazz vocalese, blues, bebop and scat singing. Sullivan began to learn from Hendricks both in and out of a school setting, absorbing his wisdom as an improviser and as a lyricist.
Through his association with Hendricks, Sullivan met and gigged with a host of New York’s finest musicians including tenor sax legend David “Fathead” Newman (featured on Square One) and the late pianist/singer Teri Thornton. “I feel incredibly blessed to have hung out with greats like Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Williams, Oscar Brown Jr., Abbey Lincoln and many others. These encounters and the ‘school of gigs’ have shaped me and kept me in the game.”
For songwriting inspiration, Sullivan credits the mastery of over two hundred tunes from bebop to bossa to blues to tin pan alley to singer-songwriters as the guiding force behind his work. “There is a reason many songs remain timeless; intelligent lyrics and melody are inseparable and economical, and the song forms still work.” In light of his travels and family background, he adds “I’m equally at home with the downhome blues, Gershwin, Jobim, or singer-songwriter material, and I think this is apparent in my own music.”
He says of his latest original project Square One, “This project reflects my love of jazz in particular and what people respond to in live performance. They seem to dig my bluesy approach, variety of grooves, and originals. If you listen to your audience, they will tell you who you are”. In any case, Sullivan says of his musical motivations: “Not one of the greats I have been privileged to learn from has been one-dimensional. They vary tempo, groove, and emotions in the course of one show, especially in jazz. They whisper a ballad, shout a blues, then swing you into bad health. They give you a piece of themselves. Not many of the artists coming up today are reaching for that”.
A two-time winner of the John Lennon Songwriting Contest, Sean Sullivan hasperformed at such prestigious venues as Freihofer’s Jazz Festival at Saratoga, the Mellon Jazz Fest, Time Warner American Music Fest, Birdland, Iridium, and the premier of Netaid at the United Nations. He has taught vocal jazz at the NYU School of Music, JazzMobile, and the Vermont Jazz Center. Formal training includes jazz studies at Berklee College of Music, the New England Conservatory, the New School, and a BA in English Literature from Wesleyan University.
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