Offstage, she's known as Ashli Christoval, but kids probably know her best as Jazzy Ash, whose music brings some of the sound of New Orleans to kids music. She's just kicked off a PledgeMusic campaign for her new album Bon Voyage! and, yes, she's going back for another trip through the city's rich musical heritage.
So I thought it appropriate for Ashli to take a look back at her own musical heritage, and in the latest iteration of the "How I Got Here" series, she offers praises to three albums from a couple artists you may have heard of, Ella Jenkins and Ella Fitzgerald.
I had never really thought about it before, but my musical career has really been shaped by two ladies named Ella.
My childhood was surrounded by an eclectic collection of music. My mom is from New Orleans, my dad is from Trinidad, and when I was growing up my mother ran a daycare in our home. So, I was exposed to music of all kinds - music for learning, music for fun, music of tradition, and music of culture. I was really blessed - or weird, depending on how you look at it.
In the way the every home has a certain scent, that’s how music was in our house. It was always there, but not necessarily something I had a keen ear to. Although, I would find myself humming Greg & Steve tunes down the halls of my junior high school - because Greg & Steve songs are so darn catchy!
One day, we were watching Mister Rogers. I was way too old for Mister Rogers, but remember, I practically lived in a daycare. Anyhow, my mom explained, “This episode is about Ella Jenkins. She shares songs from the African American tradition.”
I winced. “Oh, no,” I thought, “slave songs.” As far as I could figure, everything I had heard about African American history or tradition had to do with slavery or segregation or something like that. Obviously, those topics are really important to learn about, but they also can be really depressing. And, as a young black girl, it used to make me really blue when all anyone ever talked about in black history were the bad things that happened to us.
But Ella Jenkins didn’t come from that angle at all. This kind-faced woman stood on Mister Rogers’ front lawn and glanced into the camera, quite warmly. The songs she shared were, dare I say, fun! They were playful, and they had rhythm and groove and soul. I felt proud.
That moment was very monumental for me. I knew that I wanted to be part of the artist community that used art to preserve the wonderful the stories of culture.
By my freshmen in high school, I was really deep. I was too cultured for pop music, and was looking for something more…“satisfying.” Haha!
In Target one afternoon, I stumbled up on a compilation CD called Sirens of Song and took it home. It promised to be a collection of the best voices in jazz. I had been exposed to traditional New Orleans jazz since I was a baby, but most New Orleans jazz doesn’t include a vocalist. This was something new for me entirely.
Now, everybody’s heard of Billie Holliday. But now I had Sarah Vaughn, Edith Piaf, Lena Horne, and Nina Simone. It couldn’t get better. And then, it did!
Ella Fitzgerald sauntered in on Track #4. She was singing “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You,” and it’s not overstated to say that I have never been the same. I was completely engrossed.
I had to have more, so I stepped up my game. I went to Virgin Records.
I bought Ella Fitzgerald’s albums Flying Home and Ella & Louis. Oh, Lordy. I played those CDs over and over, trying to figure out how she could make her voice sound like a sip of hot chocolate. I mean, “Moonlight in Vermont” still brings a tear to my eye. Her ballads are so effortless and smooth. Her work with Louis Armstrong is so beautifully rough around the edges, and has that familiar New Orleans, street-side flare. And then I moved into her playful be-bop tunes, like “Air Mail Special.” She’s a scatting genius! I spent months memorizing every phrase. Someone was finally speaking my language.
It’s because of Ella that I become completely obsessed with jazz. My collection expanded: more Louis, Sidney Bechet, Fats Waller (love him!), and Duke Ellington, whom I named my son after.
Having children of my own re-inspired my love children’s music. In my early twenties, I developed a preschool music program, and I had the privilege of sharing the music of children’s music legends: Greg & Steve, Cathy Fink, and Hap Palmer and, of course, Ella Jenkins. Through her albums, this Ella taught me so much about how to share cultural music in a playful, engaging way.
A few years into my music program, I started writing and performing my own music for children. I was still listening to Ella Fitzgerald and other early jazz religiously, and had even purchased a record player to make my jazz appreciation appear more legit. But I never thought about bringing my love for early jazz into my songwriting.
Then I went to KindieFest 2013. It was magical for me in two ways. First, I got to meet - no, hug! – Ella Jenkins and tell her how much she her work meant to me. I’ll never forget that moment.
Secondly, somebody on a panel said, “Even in kid’s music, you have to find your own voice.” That stuck with me. I knew my “voice” was roots jazz, but I guess I thought it might be too heavy for kids. But then I remembered Ella Jenkins’ playful approach to traditional music. I remembered Ella Fitzgerald’s sweetness that felt like a warm hug. Well, playfulness and sweetness – what kid doesn’t love those things?? That was my aha! moment.
Since then, my music has been a gumbo pot full of the rich children’s music I grew up with and the roots jazz tunes that are so close to my heart. For me it’s the perfect combination, and I’m in heaven every time I take the stage. Thanks Ellas!