“The first time I heard Johnny Hartman, he left such an impression on me I never forgot about it. Even though I've gone back and liked other singers, I always come back to him,” vocalist Floyd Hutchinson told OttawaJazzScene.ca this week.

Floyd Hutchinson  ©Brett Delmage, 2008
Floyd Hutchinson ©Brett Delmage, 2008
On Friday, he's stepping out front to give his own big nod to this jazz vocalist whom he has always admired, in what will be “a huge show” for him at GigSpace. He'll be performing with the Steve Boudreau Quartet: “four of Ottawa's premiere musicians,” he says, including Boudreau on piano, Jeff Asselin on drums, Brian Asselin on sax, and Joe Hincke on bass. They are musicians whom he has a musical history with and can put his full trust in for his important show.

“You have shows that define you as a musician. I think this is one of the shows that will define me, in my own brain, as a vocalist. I've sung a fair amount of shows [he had already sung two shows on the day we talked] but this is a show I've been waiting for a while. It was time for me to do the show.”

It's taken Hutchinson, who works for the Ottawa Police Service and is not a full-time musician, ten years of singing to get to this point – with almost 100 years of musical family history included in that. A related jazz singer in the 1920s. A second cousin who sings jazz standards in NYC. Relatives in a reggae band, and another relative who was a “heavy duty funk player in the 70s.” And more recently and influentially, “parents who always played music.”

“Maybe I'm just late coming out of the gate. But I'm not out of the show. Hugh O'Connor is still lighting up the town.”

Hutchinson grew up at a time when other music was wildly popular - but it didn't lead him astray.

“I went to my share of discos. I listened to my share of disco music too. But I never lost touch with listening to jazz. It's a very big part of my life. ...Mel and Nat, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Coltrane, Dizzy, Cannonball Adderley, Clifford Brown, it's always been a part of kind of who I am.”

Friday's concert of mostly Johnny Hartman ballads won't be a flashback to sparkling glass balls and dancing shoes. He elaborated about the singer, with whom he has a close affinity.

“You'll find that a lot of male singers, a lot of jazz guys, have some kind of connection with Johnny Hartman. Kurt Elling did an album to him, Kevin Mahogany, Gregory Porter talked about him. He was a unique type of singer. Probably as good a singer as Vic Damone, Sinatra, but never really got the recognition like they did. Kurt Elling talks about him: he made some great ballad records but great fame eluded him. He may have been the best of them all.”

Johnny Hartman (1923 - 1983) was an American jazz vocalist and pianist who was best known for his romantic ballads in a time of bebop. His 1963 recording, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, was the only recording with a vocalist which Coltrane made as a leader. Hartman started by singing with the Earl Hines Orchestra, the Dizzy Gillespie big band, and Erroll Garner, but largely performed solo throughout his career.

But it is Hutchinson's own voice and persona and that of the Steve Boudreau Quartet that listeners will hear on Friday. He will sing some songs like Hartman, and others in his interpretation of a Johnny Hartman song.

“You'll be surprised. But I'm still going to show a lot of respect for Johnny Hartman,” he said, in describing his approach to the music.

“I don't mind taking some artistic license on some things. But generally people come to hear a song and they have a way that they remember it or they remember something close to it. And if you can keep close to it but still put your own spin on it but still be true to the tune that's not a bad thing, either.”

That will be a virtual necessity in this performance.

“I don't have the register of Johnny. I'm like Nat. I'm a tenor. And he's a very, very baritone.”

“Often we want to imitate some people but some people just cannot be imitated. Like when you hear Nat King Cole sing. As well as you sing it, it will never be Nat King Cole, right? So you can certainly sing it with homage with respect to him, but you still want it to be you, and that's how I feel about Johnny. I wish I could sing like Johnny Hartman. My life would be a lot different if I had that register and that timbre and that smoothness of his voice. There's something about his voice, something that is so precise but yet so simple at the same time.

“If you can grasp that and capture it as a singer I think you have the essence of what singing jazz is about.”

I never lost touch with listening to jazz. It's a very big part of my life. – Floyd Hutchinson

Hutchinson never formally attended music school, but he has taken his jazz singing seriously. He has taken lessons from notable male jazz vocalists Denzal Sinclaire and Theo Bleckmann, and Ottawa's own Caroline Gibson for many years.

“I think it's a truth in life that every day you should try to learn something and in singing you never have learned it all. There's always something to learn. You can always improve on your tone or your technique or your approach,” Hutchinson said. “I've been singing for a while and every day you realize there's something you can do better or would like to do better.”

Hutchinson's day job involves working with people who have not done better – he works as a bailiff in the court system – and he often learns things he would rather not.

“I take bad guys to jail. I sit through court cases. Sometimes you have to go to court after court to hear the bad things people did.”

“Part of the reason I started singing is because I needed a release from listening to all this junk. The problem is you never really forget it. It's in the back of your head. You have to find a way to cope with what's around you.”

Although the effort required to prepare for and perform a concert might take his mind off his work, doesn't it also add to Hutchinson's stress – from which he sought solace in singing?

“For me, it's a big gig. You're performing on a different level. When people are paying money to see you sing, you always want to do a good job, and when you are playing with musicians at that calibre, you always want to make sure you are able to play at that level or sing at that level,” he responded.

But he's working with a simpatico band, and that has made a big difference.

“We have history. For a vocalist, you have to feel very comfortable that the people you are playing with, and let's face it, they're sitting behind or beside you.You're going to be the focus guy even though you're not the whole band. You have to feel comfortable that these guys musically have your back and that they understand where you're going.

“Every time Steve's at the helm, I feel very comfortable. I know that he's a gracious musician and a good musician, and at the end of the day he has my best interest at heart. I've played with Steve for the past ten years and he is a musical friend. I've always had a great vibe with him.

“These guys are big cat. They've done some awesome things musically but they're still really grounded people.”

And of the listeners?

“That people come to see my show, it's quite an honour to me. I feel very, very lucky and fortunate.”

“At the end of the day, I'm just an average guy that loves singing jazz. I don't know if singing jazz will make a difference in anyone's life but it's brought me some great joy in mine. “

    – Brett Delmage

See other OttawaJazzScene.ca stories about Floyd Huchinson: