The life of jazz vocalist Meryl Romer would inspire the staunchest pessimist to believe that dreams are possible. Albeit, they manifest at their own pace, but they know intuitively when to come to fruition. All their maker needs to do is simply have the guts to believe in them.
Meryl Romer is proof that not everything has to be accomplished by the time one turns 20 years olds, like releasing her debut recording So Sure and becoming a world famous singer. Romer’s journey begins in Brooklyn, New York where she was born and raised and studied dance. She recalls, "As a teen and young adult, I studied the artistic expression of dance. I wasn’t disciplined enough to become a performing dancer. After graduating from college, I embarked on the study of dance/movement therapy, which plunged me into the field of psychology. I was fine with that because I assumed I wouldn’t have to talk much as a dance therapist," she chortles.
Branded in her memory from that time, she extracts, "After my teacher witnessed me conducing a dance therapy session in Brooklyn, she told me I had done a beautiful job, but there was one problem. She said, ‘You need to open your mouth and talk, so the patients know who the leader is at all times.’ You can imagine my reaction to that."
Romer admits that she was too shy to speak out much when she was younger, but singing was always something that she yearned to do. She stayed on the path of dance therapy and moved to Boulder, Colorado with her husband, Sheldon where they raised their children as she chronicles, "I moved to Boulder in 1977 with my boyfriend, Sheldon, who is now my husband of 30 years. I had been studying the meditation practices of Swami Rudrananda for 5 years in New York. I had learned there was a group of people living together in an ashram and studying his practices."
Being in harmony with her environment and her own nature was always a union that Meryl Romer valued in her life, so when her body was experiencing discomfort, she was concerned about finding the source of this discomfort which was making her body and spirit feel incongruent with each other. It was a few years ago when Romer noticed that her body was experiencing this imbalance, which had caused her to develop a herniated disc. She explains what happened to her, and how it sparked her pursuit of becoming a professional singer, "The short answer is I was waiting for the right time to open my mouth and let the sounds, that I had been whispering under my breath since 11 years old, emerge."
She elaborates, "Here’s the longer answer. Since 11 years old living in Brooklyn, I wanted to be a jazz singer/dancer. Being extremely shy vocally, I chose a lifetime of involvement in dance study and eventually dance/movement therapy. Rather than veering into the dancer performance world, I chose to work in the field of psychology/body centered psychotherapy. I sensed, over the years that I was avoiding the vocal piece, but wasn’t sure how to resolve that. In 2001, I was diagnosed with a herniated disc in my lower back and was having terrible sciatic pain. I signed up for several months of non-surgical treatments to help my back pain. These treatments had me lying on a mechanical table daily while my spine was being elongated."
She reflects, "I believe the time spent on the table, being out of my daily work routine, and the energy that was released in my spine from the treatments, caused a shift. I began questioning what I had not yet attempted in my life of importance. What came up was to hike again, get a dog, girlfriends again I had been raising my daughters for a long time, and to sing jazz. I began with joining a fun and really funky choir in Boulder, but soon realized I didn’t want to harmonize with anyone. I really wanted to sing on my own. At first, I was embarrassed to admit that, but it soon became clear. I knew I needed to find a teacher to help me develop skills. At 51, the desire to sing jazz became stronger than the fear of opening my mouth."
Romer discovered vocal coaches, Randy Michaels and Marguerite Jueneman by her home in Boulder. Their coaching helped her to hone her vocal technique. "Finding Randy was fairly easy," she gleans, "Boulder is a town rich in arts. I saw Randy’s name on a poster and called her. I worked with her for about 6 months. My leg was still hurting at the time [due to the sciatica], but my determination and Tylenol extra strength got me through the lessons. I studied with her once a week and practiced daily for a half-hour. I hired a pianist, Sheldon Sands, to create music sheets in my key for ‘Summertime,’ ‘Cry Me A River,’ and ‘Stormy Weather.’ I worked on these with Randy and began practicing vocal exercises. Randy was not performing at the time, and I believe I was hungering to work with someone who was doing performance. I learned about Marguerite through the Boulder music community. She had been a member of the band, Rare Silk, for many years and was still performing. I studied with Marguerite for 6 months. Marguerite taught me about music, rhythm, tempo, pitches, and listening to the musicians. My repertoire began to expand nicely."
Her next vocal coach, Casey Collins, took these fundamental lessons a step further, showing Romer to understand how her vocals worked, what motivates her to sing, and how to see her vocals as a vital extension of her body. She recollects, "I soon met my long-term teachers through the community when I heard about a 7-week intensive performance workshop class with vocalist/vocal coach Casey Collins and his jazz pianist/accompanist Erik Deutsch. I studied extensively with both of them from January 2003 until approximately 2007. Casey helped me to develop skills needed to sing on pitch, expand my vocal range, use my instrument effectively, and most importantly, express meaning through the song. He would challenge me by asking me ‘what is your intention in singing this song?’ One of the most dramatic moments I had was after singing ‘How Long Has This Been Going On?’ for the vocal class. It was clear to me while singing that they were with me and really enjoying the performance. After the song was over they shared, that when I got scared and became smaller while singing, they felt abandoned. The message was to be as big as I could. This was a poignant and startling message and I have never forgotten it."
Her training with Collins allowed her to parlay every detail of her life into her vocal performance, which is precisely what she managed to do on her debut recording, So Sure. She connects, "I have come to understand that the voice is the natural extension of my movement. There is no separation. The dance did propel me to sing. After many years of studying voice and performing I have become aware of the work involved in re-incorporating the body into the vocal performance. Anytime I fool myself into thinking there is a separation between the two, I know I need to come back to the basic skills I’ve been given. I now enjoy the breath/energy that moves through my body and emerges as spirit/sound."
Romer went onto making her debut album, So Sure with this healthy mindset, and it made all the difference in the world because the result is A-class smooth swing and sparkling vocal jazz. She remembers, "The initial idea to record [So Sure] came from my husband, Sheldon. He had asked Casey Collins to write a few original songs for me. Casey was preparing to move to Florida, and we knew it would be harder to accomplish this long distance. Yes, it did feel like a large leap for me, and yet, I sensed the experience would take me to the next level of expression and refinement of my vocal work. The recording studio allows one to hear every nuance of breath/voice in a way not normally heard. I also felt that having a body of work on record would increase my credibility in the music world. I believe confidence came from having the right group of people around me at the right time."
She precludes, "I have always tended to create situations that put me somewhat over my comfort edge because that is where growth/creativity lives."
When considering the right people for the project who could coax her to venture over her "comfort edge," pianist Erik Deutsch came into her mind. She recollects, "I met Erik in January of 2003. He was the piano accompaniment for Casey’s performance class. After several weeks of the class, I began taking private lessons with Erik. It became clear to me that the sophisticated jazz songs I was trying to learn and sing, needed much more than vocal technique. I would be needing extensive coaching and education in music. Here’s that edge again seems like I couldn’t show up with simple jazz tunes, always had to pick the complicated ones."
Deutsch recommended a few of musicians for the recording and Romer hand picked the others. Her band includes: Bill Kopper on guitar, Jonti Siman on bass, Robert Kyle on saxophone, and Marc Dalio and Brian McRae on drums. She describes how she met everyone, "I initially met Bill Kopper in 2004, about the time Erik was getting ready to move to Brooklyn. I began spending time with Bill, learning new songs, working on rhythm/time and continuing my music study. Bill and Erik are close friends and have been in bands together. They work beautifully together and really compliment each other. It is a pleasure to listen to them support each other and play off of each other’s sounds."
She furnishes, "Jonti Siman and Marc Dalio are in other bands with Erik and came along for the ride. I hadn’t worked with either of them previously. I went along with Erik’s recommendations and trusted the situation. I know Brian McRae from the Boulder music community and I think he did a dynamic drum track for ‘I’ve Waited Long Enough.’ Robert Kyle is an amazing saxophone player from Los Angeles who was coming through Colorado at the time we were recording. He is a friend of Bill Kopper’s and again, I trusted the recommendation and hired him to play on the record, and what a great choice. I would honestly say that how these musicians recorded in the studio was a combination of working off the music charts, allowing the music to unfold in the studio, and their masterful ability to listen and flow off of each other."
The result is a scrumptious delivery of a classic jazz repertoire that will pique the interest of hardcore jazz-enthusiasts as Romer drifts into a handful of jazz standards like Toots Thielman’s "Bluesette" and Rodgers & Hart’s "Lady Is A Tramp." Romer reveals that it was Deutsch who brought her attention to Toots Thieleman’s tune "Bluesette," and it was her daughter’s reaction to her delivery of the song in the studio that reassured her to put the track on So Sure. "I’d like to start by saying, I have grown to love ’Bluesette,’ and it has become one of my favorites. Many years ago, Erik suggested I challenge myself by learning ’Bluesette’ with his help. The bridge in this song, ‘Love wrapped in rainbows and tied with pink ribbons / To make your next spring time, your gold wedding ring time.’ It’s a tough one," she confesses, "It is chromatic and a wide range. I also believe it is one of Erik’s favorite jazz standards. A new connection developed to this song in the studio when my 24 year old daughter, Jessica sat in the recording room with me as I sang. Her delightful smile was infectious and brought me a new sense of joy in singing this song. I hear a mature woman singing this song to younger women as a reassurance that love will come their way Don’t despair."
Other standards that made their way onto So Sure include "Lady Is A Tramp," and "Boulevard Of Broken Dreams," which Romer reveals, "I will start out by saying that my first knowing of these songs was through the radio airwaves and through television when I was a young girl. I listened and saw Ella and Lena perform these songs, particularly ‘Lady Is A Tramp.’ These songs became ingrained in my physical/emotional memory. When I began singing jazz, I think initially, I had a need to try these songs on through my newly found voice and see if I could make them fly. I believe when I began recording them, initially, I went back to that place and time long ago, but then it is necessary to sing from the present. What I found is that these songs still held meaning and passion for me in the moment. I can relate to the ‘Lady’ who is so deliciously independent and committed to living her life authentically and with passion."
She perceives, "‘Boulevard Of Broken Dreams’ is like taking a journey to an old European town and walking through a tragic love affair. Yet, oddly enough, it resembles that same theme of two lovers who, despite the tragedy surrounding their relationship, refuse to give up," as she recites from the verses, "Gigolo and Gigolotto still sing a song and dance along the boulevard of broken dreams."
She surmises, "’Big Spender’ is an opportunity to try on a dress that I might never have an opportunity to wear in my daily life." The song allowed her to walk on the edge of her comfort zone, as did her remake of Bob Dylan’s song "You’re A Big Boy Now," and the handful of original tracks penned by Casey Collins and Eric Moon like "I’ve Waited Long Enough" and the title track, which were published on her record label’s imprint, Lady Pearl Music.
Romer supplies, "Lady Pearl Music is the label and publishing company that I formed for the CD and the original tunes, ‘I’ve Waited Long Enough,’ ‘Right On Time,’ and ‘So Sure,’ that were penned for me by Casey Collins and Eric Moon. I have embarked on a journey into the business side of performance and recording. I am learning on a day to day basis about marketing, promoting, etc. I have been working with Jim Eigo of Jazz Promotion Services for press/publicity, and Kate Smith of Kate Smith Promotions for radio promotion. So Sure is receiving airplay on the internet and radio nationally and internationally, and that’s been pretty exciting. I continue to explore advertising possibilities and internet services daily."
Of course, it takes more than radio airplay to catapult a jazz singer into the marketplace, performing live is an essential part of the journey. Her live band is made up of the musicians who played on So Sure. She reports about them, "This group of musicians joined me for my Boulder, Colorado release performance on March 12th of this year, and as well, will be joining me for dates set for the Iridium Jazz Club in New York City on July 8th and the Dazzle Jazz And Supper Club in Denver on May 27th. These musicians are all part of numerous bands and projects, and will not always be available to work with me. I feel confident that I know my music well enough that I could call other talented musicians to perform with me."
She examines, "As a singer, I feel I have to be prepared to bring my vision/intentions and to collaborate with what is coming forth in the music. Sometimes what comes through is a surprise and can be delightful. Sometimes there is disappointment in terms of my vision, which I then have to insist on or surrender."
The more Romer performs her repertoire, the more, it seems, her confidence builds and her instincts become sharper. She asserts about her performance in Boulder, "Based on my own response and feedback from the audience, I had the time of my life," she beams. "I really think it was a great night for all. It was my first offering of the CD in a live performance and was not only long-awaited, but exciting to experience the songs with an audience. This is a very strong and talented band, and challenges me to continually step up to the plate and sing my heart out. I felt that I didn’t hold back and really sang the songs the way I felt them. By the audience’s response, I’d say they felt them as well. We played at the Rock ‘n’ Soul Café in Boulder. It is a warm and intimate music venue that holds about 100 people and has a wonderful sound system. We had a SRO crowd of about 110."
She observes, "I don’t really prepare myself a whole lot to interact with the audience. That usually is a spontaneous kind of thing for me. I interact based on how I’m feeling in the moment and what I’m sensing the audience is open to. I think if I planned this, I would get more nervous trying to remember anything."
She notices that there is a connection between being a live performer and her work as a therapist. Both disciplines require an ability to project one’s voice into the listeners hearts and minds. "I am aware that a common denominator between my work as a therapist and vocal performance is ‘presence.’ As a therapist, I bring presence to my sessions with my clients, and see that to be a large part of the healing relationship. In singing, I bring my presence and create feeling, story, moods which in turn creates a relationship with my audience. Both arenas allow for a shift to occur. Although in dance, I was trained to count, experience rhythm, shape and flow. It was as if I had to re-learn all of these concepts again in singing. I had to make singing an embodied experience."
She mentions that "Unfortunately, based on the timing of trying to complete this CD and get my release performances set up, I was too late to get into summer festivals." She expresses, "Hopefully next year, I will make a strong go of it. Once the release performances are completed, I will be exploring options for touring. Would love to go to Europe and any part of this country or Canada seem enticing. I do have a sense though, that I will need to take this music beyond my home town."
Romer may not be able to prevent So Sure from appealing to people outside her home of Boulder. It is music that she kept in heart from the time of her youth growing up in Brooklyn, New York with the bonus ingredient of a contemporary slant in the timeless classics. The old adage that you can take the girl of the city, but you can’t take the city out of the girl holds true for Romer who responds, "I agree whole heartedly with that line. Brooklyn is in my soul playing ball in the yards, riding the trains, experiencing a rich cultural community, apartment building dwelling, and Prospect Park, the Botanic Gardens are all part of my most vivid memories. Brooklyn’s New York City’s rhythm, tempo and sounds had a creative effect on me. When I go back, I feel at home as if I’d never left. I still enjoy visiting my favorite places groceries, restaurants, friends, etc. Growing up in Brooklyn made me tough when it comes to making my way in the world. I learned to be comfortable with people of all cultural backgrounds and to communicate to get my needs met."
It is the town that planted the roots in Meryl Romer to never stop believing in herself and what she could achieve with some effort; and then believe that the pieces will fall into their rightful places, which is what happened for the recording of her debut album, So Sure. A simple timeless lyric like, "Don’t stop believing" might be over-used, but it still holds true today and has worked like magic in Meryl Romer‘s life.