The ‘dark side’ of a young vocalist

Jazz singer Veronica Swift’s unlikely role models have shaped her powerful stage presence

Veronica Swift’s wide range doesn’t just apply to her vocal talent. When citing her musical inspirations, the 24-year-old first names legendary jazz singer Anita O’Day. However, she is quick to point out that she’s also been greatly influenced by opera, hard rock and even metal.

“Marilyn Manson is one of my big influences,” Swift says. “It’s the draw of the theater, the great stories and the edgier side of music. Opera is one of my other passions. I like how opera and metal have such an edgier thing going, whereas jazz is the art of subtlety.”

Hailing from Charlottesville, VA and now residing in New York City, Swift has written a rock opera (she describes it as “Lady Gaga meets Marilyn Manson”) and played a role in a low-budget zombie movie. But most importantly, she’s established herself as one of America’s greatest modern jazz vocalists. Her earliest musical influences were of course, her parents. An only child, Swift began performing with her father, celebrated jazz pianist Hod O’Brien, and her mother, singer Stephanie Nakasian, before she reached double digits. Playing the piano and the trumpet from a young age, music has always been such second nature to Swift that she can’t even recall when it became a pivotal part of her life.

“Did you ever realize you enjoyed speaking English growing up? There was never a sense of duty about singing or playing music. It was my environment,” she says.

By the time she was 10, she was recording with and sharing the stage with saxophonist Richie Cole, singing a Telluride Jazz Festival duet with vocalist Paquito d’Rivera and at age 11, landing a spot in the Women in Jazz series at Lincoln Center.

Her darker alter ego didn’t develop until college (she attended the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami).

“When I was in college, I didn’t do jazz for two years. I was doing the goth/metal thing,” she says, adding that it was her experience in the Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition (where she landed second place) and the passing of her father that “brought me back to my roots.”

“That set the seriousness and the tone. I got to thinking this is a serious career path. When I started performing from that point on, all the rage and frustration that I got to utilize with my rock stuff, that undertone was in the jazz tunes. It added so much to telling the story.”

Regardless of genre, some of the world’s greatest songs are born from sadness, anger and rough times and Swift believes that her “dark side” makes her a stronger jazz singer.

“100 percent it does,” she says. “When I’m dealing with some seemingly big deal … whether there’s a guy, or financial stuff, I put that energy into the music. You feel it physically. It’s alleviating the weight. You can’t hold it in and let it fester. You have to let out the darkness. You have to let people feel that together and rise above it.”

Swift possesses a strident and uncanny ability to hypnotize with her vocal instrument, performing powerful renditions of everything from the Great American Songbook to bebop to Frank Sinatra hits, also originals developed in vocalese fashion. If she were to isolate a single model for her dynamic style, O’Day is it.

“As a jazz singer, the woman who really inspired me was Anita O’Day, not just because of her voice and her approach, but because of her personality. Back then you either had to be really tough and kind of a bitch or really passive. You were either a Lucille Ball or an Ella Fitzgerald. Anita was one of the first female jazz singers to be one of the boys. She was one of the first to wear a suit.”

Swift’s song selection changes with every performance. Above all, she aims to capture universal truths.

“I’m always looking for songs that are more complex in that way. I like to mix it up between American Songbook and obscure tunes. What am I? I’m a storyteller. A jazz singer is a storyteller. I have to sing lyrics that will apply to a large range of ages and races. That’s what jazz does.”

Vail Jazz @ Vail Square: Veronica Swift with the Emmet Cohen Trio

Veronica Swift makes her Vail debut with the Emmet Cohen Trio at 6 p.m. on Aug. 16 in the all-weather jazz tent at Vail Square in Lionshead. Swift, who plays with the trio on the annual Jazz Cruise, promises “sophistication, elegance and spontaneity.” “They are some of the best young professionals on the scene,” she says. “People will say to us, ‘you’re born in the wrong era.’ They’re all such creative people. It’s inspiring.” Tickets are $25 for general admission, $40 for preferred seat and $50 for premium seats. Beer, wine and cocktails are available for purchase. Get tickets here