Saturday, May 2, 2009

Music feature: Nicole Yarling, tireless musical multitasker

Local musical standout Nicole Yarling.

By Bill Meredith

In a technology-driven era where practically everyone at least appears to be busy, some people still have resumes that reduce everyone else to slacker status.

Like Dr. Billy Taylor, the 87-year-old pianist who played with Charlie Parker and Ben Webster in the 1940s and has been a preeminent jazz educator, TV and radio figure, and artistic adviser over the six decades since. Yet South Florida-based Nicole Yarling -- a multitasking educator, performer, composer, recording artist and author -- is a rare musical figure who merits comparison.

"Teaching is more than a full-time job in itself," says the Boca Raton-based music instructor at both Florida Memorial University and the University of Miami. "Some nights I teach 'til 7; others I stay later for student concerts. And driving from home to FMU is 80 miles round trip, and UM is 10-15 miles more, so I'm on the road a lot."

As a vocalist and violinist, Yarling has also done roadwork through the United States, Europe and Mexico since moving to Florida from her native Brooklyn in 1980. She's fronted the R&B act Little Nicky & the Slicks, blues band The Weld, and her current, self-titled jazz "4-Tet," and toured and recorded with international artists ranging from traditional jazz (multi-instrumentalist Ira Sullivan) to fusion (guitarist Randy Bernsen) to pop (singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffett).

Though more than 30 years Taylor's junior, Yarling has also rubbed elbows with several of the jazz icon's associates and former bandmates, both onstage and off. Like trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie (1917-1993), who saw Yarling perform in Miami and subsequently hired her for a weeklong engagement with his band. Or Taylor's former manager, 97-year-old John Levy, who played bass with Billie Holiday and George Shearing in the 1940s before becoming the first African-American talent manager in music.

Levy coaxed Yarling into participating in an Ella Fitzgerald tribute concert at the Hollywood Bowl in California shortly after that legendary jazz vocalist's death in 1996. Several singers performed with the Count Basie Band, including Joe Williams (1918-1999), who'd fronted Basie's group from 1954 to 1961.

Williams then decided to further Yarling's career. He helped organize her 1999 concert recording session in Pittsburgh, and appeared as a guest vocalist for a few tunes. The resulting debut CD was called Joe Williams Presents Nicole Yarling Live at the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild (Jazz MCG). Williams planned to take Yarling on tour with him afterward, but he died months after the concert.

Yarling has since written a book honoring Williams called Here's to Life, which features interviews with the likes of Taylor, Shearing, Bill Cosby, Lou Rawls and Doc Severinsen. It's currently being considered by publishers.

"It's truly a labor of love," she says. "I held off starting it because I didn't want people to think I was trying to capitalize, but I do want Joe to be remembered. Most people only recognize him if you mention his Grandpa Al character on The Cosby Show."

With an ebullient personality and matching smile, Yarling has one of the few singing voices that merit comparison to Fitzgerald's. Her violin style is Stuff Smith-influenced, and she's still trying to find time to record some originals and standards for that elusive sophomore CD. Teaching has become all-consuming, allowing her to use her master's degree in musical education from Columbia University. But it's her experience as an all-purpose touring musician that helped her become an open-minded educator.

"Initially, I never even wanted to teach music," she says. "It took a while before I did, but once I started doing it, I had a lot of practical knowledge. I feel comfortable teaching music in any genre. I have a strong jazz background, but a lot of my students want to learn the other styles I've played as well."

At FMU, Yarling has taught musical history courses on styles from hip-hop to gospel. She was hired by UM in 2008 to teach a workshop within its Creative American Music Program, instituted by another open-minded recording artist, singing pianist (and UM grad) Bruce Hornsby. Her CAMP course is on African-American folk music styles, including spirituals and field hollers.

The tireless Yarling also hosts open jams through South Florida, and helps underprivileged kids find links between music and language as a public service through the Boys & Girls Club.

"I'm a big advocate of literacy," she says. "And since I love music, I help the kids find ways to tie the two together."

Bill Meredith is a freelance writer based in South Florida who has written extensively about jazz and popular music, including for Jazziz and Jazz Times.

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