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Camille Thurman Is A Rare Jazz Double Threat

Camille Thurman performs onstage during the Jazz at Lincoln Center 2017 Gala in New York City.
Camille Thurman performs onstage during the Jazz at Lincoln Center 2017 Gala in New York City.

In the world of jazz, most musicians choose one single thing and get as good as humanly possible at it, but not Camille Thurman. She's known as a double threat: The rare jazz musician who has mastered both a highly technical instrument — in her case, the saxophone — and sings. Thurman's vocals have been compared to Ella Fitzgerald. Her latest album, Waiting for the Sunrise, is out now.

Thurman was 15 years old when she was gifted her first saxophone by her aunt's mother-in-law. Thurman recalls the manner by which she received the sax as a "story you would dream of."

"I call it The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but the jazz version," she says. "The house is all dark, the stairs are rickety, you open the door and see all these papers on the floor. It looked like the room hadn't been touched in 30 years. And in the closet was a 1967 Selmer Mark VI Tenor Saxophone untouched."

As for singing? Thurman says she's been singing for fun since 4 years old, but never thought to take it seriously until she picked up her instrument. She would learn the saxophone solos by singing and scatting them, although she never realized that's what she was doing until one day at Jazz in July camp, an instructor pointed it out to her. "Is it possible to instrumentalists to sing and scat? Because we think we have one among us," Thurman recalls the instructor saying.

Camille Thurman performs at the Jazz at Lincoln Center 2017 Gala in New York City.
Nicholas Hunt / Getty Images
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Camille Thurman performs at the Jazz at Lincoln Center 2017 Gala in New York City.

As she's gotten older, Thurman has realized the pressure for women in music to be vocalists first and instrumentalists second. She says she often "throws people off guard" when they find out she's an instrumentalist as well as a singer.

"I remember when I first found out Sarah Vaughan was a pianist and it blew my mind away." she says (Though she was an accomplished pianist and composer, Vaughan was more prominently promoted as a singer.) "I was like, 'How can you just put one part of a person or an artist's gift out there when there's a whole person?'"

Thurman hopes that her music will expand people's ideas or expectations of what a jazz musician can be. "I think it's giving that awareness to people to see and to hear that this exists and that there's a high level to it, too."

Thurman spoke with NPR's Ailsa Chang about the recording process of Waiting for the Sunriseand showed off her scatting skills live in-studio. Hear their conversation at the audio link.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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