My first introduction to participating in live music in The Valley was the Jazz scene. Back in my HCC days I lived for the open jazz jams or student nights at local bars where we would all get to perform and witness some of the other actual working musicians in the area. I first saw Mary Witt play back then and, bass being my favorite instrument, I remembered her years later when we were in a choir together and when we both attended a vocal workshop I had been trying to get into for two years. It has always been clear to me that Mary is an extremely devoted, passionate, and hard working musician. This April we are hosting a number of excellent Jazz concerts in celebration of Jazz Appreciation Month, and we are looking forward to welcoming Mary back to Gateway City Arts with her band The O-Tones. The O-Tones have been playing Swing and Motown music for almost 30 years, and with a history like that it is no secret that you're in for a great Saturday night if you choose to come out and groove with us on April 6th. Mary recently took some time to chat with us a bit about her experiences and what we have to look forward to as we approach their concert with Les Boulevardiers.
Hi! Thank you so much for taking the time to answer questions for our blog. We are looking forward to having you here in April!
I wanted to start by asking you to just tell us a bit about the band and how you came together.
The O-Tones started as a vocal trio in Atlanta with Mary Witt (bass player), and 2 male vocalists/guitarists. Soon thereafter, Mary and one of the singer/guitar players met Ann Percival (vocal/guitar) at a Swing Camp in NY state and spent the entire week singing swing tunes with harmonies together. Within a few years the band moved its base from Atlanta to Western MA where Ann lived and played a lot of local and regional swing dances along with a sax player, a pianist and a drummer. They soon added blues and Soul/Motown to the group to expand the variety for other types of dancing as well as weddings.
What brought you to jazz? How long have you been playing?
I personally (Mary Witt) grew up in a classical family playing classical French horn from ages 9 to 29. In junior high I began hearing jazz and fell in love with it, the melodies and rhythms. At age 30, I decided to give up the horn and switch to electric bass, an instrument I could sing with as well as play any style of music. I’ve been singing all my life (only harmonies until age 30 with my older sister singing all the leads) and playing bass for about 30 years. I love the instrument because I can dance with it on stage while I’m singing and scatting. I love being part of the rhythm section.
What made you want to pair up with Les Boulevardiers? Have you performed together in the past?
Les Boulevardiers is led by Sean Mallari who is my piano tuner. He also has a history of competing in the dance world when he lived in Eastern Massachusetts. We hit it off and have been friends. Last year he told me about this group he’d been arranging music for and playing accordion with. I think he feels the same way about accordion as I do bass - you can dance with it. I have sung a few songs with them at a show in the fall and it was a blast! Their cafe orchestra sound is beautiful as well as unique for this area. They fill in some of the holes that we don’t play as often - tango and Latin - as well some swing tunes. Their sound is hauntingly lovely and I thought the dancers would really enjoy hearing them and dancing to them.
What can we expect to see/hear at the 4/6 show?
Les Boulevardiers will open up the night with their great dance mix of Tango jazz with a shot of swing.
What record do you have on repeat currently?
Aretha Franklin, many albums and styles
Are there any groups from The Valley that you have been digging into lately?
Lake Street Dive, not technically from here, but have some recording roots here
Can you tell me about an experience that has really informed where you are coming from as a musician? Or even a person or piece of art that has really inspired your own?
I grew up in NC listening to Soul and R&B and Motown on the radio. It got into my bloodstream and my bones. I wasn’t popular, but I loved to practice dancing at home to that music. I also fell in love with jazz and the singers and horn players melodies really moved me. I listen to a lot of different styles of music and a lot of different singers to be inspired. Working with other singers in The O-Tones always gives me new ideas as well as having an amazing tenor sax player, Kerry Blount to constantly influence me, especially my improvising and scatting. In 2015, I decided to record an album (Groove Duets), singing duets with 12 Pioneer Valley singers of all styles. It was a really fun project and other than one song that was already a duet, each of my singer partners and I arranged our song to suit our voices and personalities. We traded verses and scatting, telling a story between the 2 of us, and of course supported by a great rhythm section and horn section.
As a professional musician working in jazz, do you have any insight on the experience of women working in this field that you don't mind sharing with us?
I have played music all my life and my parents were very supportive of me doing what I love. So I am constantly striving to find new ways to express myself by working with other musicians and having conversations with them musically in rehearsal and performance. I have led and managed The O-Tones for almost 30 years, and I’d say overall, I’ve been respected by other musicians, male or female. Since I am on every single gig (from duo to 6-piece, even 14-piece big band), I want to make each gig enjoyable and inspiring and satisfying to our musicians as well as our audience. Maybe seeing me as a female bass player running the band, people immediately think I might not be a pushover ;) Who knows, but I feel lucky to have had mostly positive experiences as a woman musician and band manager/booking agent.
What's next for The O-Tones?
I’m not sure, probably much of the same. But I am starting to brew ideas for a future recording. I’m not sure what shape it will have yet, so I’m not going to say, but I know, as with each recording, it will have some new aspects as well as paying homage to our signature styles: Swing/Jazz, Blues/R&B, Soul/Motown, Latin, Gospel, and Ballads.
Thanks for taking the time to chat with us! We will see you on April 6th!
The O-Tones and Les Boulevardiers perform at Gateway City Arts on Saturday, April 6th at 8PM. Tickets are $15 in advance and $20 at the door.
Learn more about The O-Tones here.
Purchase tickets to the show here.
See our full list of upcoming events here.