Two things made my father cry in his lifetime. When his beloved sheepdog ‘Jad’ passed away and whenever he heard the Great Errol Garner’s first album ‘Serenade to Laura’ 1945. Every time I put that record on I often wondered if he named me ‘Laura’ for that reason despite the rest of my family calling me Sara, which is my second name. I wish I’d asked him now. What I can say with absolute certainty was my father loved Jazz, it was a big part of his life and it became an even bigger part of mine.
At a young age my environment played a significant influence in my musical journey, swaying between my father’s record collection of Erroll Garner, Art Tatum, Fats Waller, Wynton Kelly, Bud Powell, Lester Young and Ben Webster to the haunting melodies blaring from my mother’s radio of the great Arabic chanteuses Fairuz and Umm Kalthoum.
My dear papa made sure that I got whatever opportunities were available for a 9-year-old girl living in Landsend Cornwall. It was there one of the nuns from my primary school gave me a rather shiny looking cello and said “ Dowling, see what you make of it, it’s only gathering dust in that music cupboard”. After a few years of private lessons papa flew me from Landsend Aerodrome to Bristol, yes he personally flew my cello, and me since he was a pilot. We caught a connecting flight to Manchester where I had an audition for Chethams School Of Music. Age 12 I was awarded a scholarship and spent the subsequent ten years until 2004 far from home, loving, living, breathing, practicing and crying over the cello, receiving a thorough classical training before gaining a degree at the Royal Northern College of Music. Those years reinforced the fundamentals of my musical basis and ability to perform. Accolades on the cello included performances for Yo Yo Ma, Steven Isserlis, and a concerto performance with the Halle Orchestra.
You must be wondering where the singing came in. In truth, my only experience of singing was in the school chamber choir and my only exposure to jazz was listening to records. At this point in my life I felt lost with music, burnt out and unsatisfied with only being able to express myself in orchestra. The thought of having to raise enough money to buy my own cello felt a mountain to climb, let alone orchestral auditions. I have a very heavy heart when I think retrospectively about this period of my life for the simple fact that I let go of my cello. In fact the road became so hazy that I left music altogether to become a classroom teacher at a comprehensive school in Bolton. I wondered through the next 4 years feeling empty and lost. Until one day I walked past Matt and Phreds jazz club in Manchester where I felt a moment of utter madness, which led me to get up and sing a number. I finally found it.
2010 was quite a year. I quit my teaching job, which to my parents’ horror meant their daughter had given up all financial stability of being a full time teacher. In fact my favourite writer explains it perfectly.
“I am sure it is everyone’s experience, as it has been mine, that any discovery we make about ourselves or the meaning of life is never, like a scientific discovery, a coming upon something entirely new and unsuspected; it is rather, the coming to conscious recognition of something, which we really knew all the time but, because we were unwilling to formulate it correctly, we did not hitherto know we knew.”
I gradually started to learn the nuts and bolts of jazz, building a repertoire, listening and absorbing. It’s amazing how much one can learn about phrasing, harmony, and rhythmic interplay by purely listening to the greats. I have never been afraid of expressing myself and when I think back, I was very expressive as a cellist. It was a whole new world being able to extemporize with words and melody. No lady in jazz did it better than the stylish Anita O’Day who also gave me the courage to tackle those faster tempos. It’s obvious to say that Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday were heavy influences too. There’s no other way of saying it, If you’re a jazz singer and you’re learning repertoire, you’ve got to start with Ella. She’ll teach you everything you need to know. Billie will remind you that you’ve got to be true and real and mean every word you sing. Then along came Nancy Wilson and Betty Carter of which all these women have been tremendous teachers to me through the recordings they have left with their legacy.
As well as pursuing a career in jazz I have been exercising over the last four years my ability as a writer, penning songs for the music industry`s most iconic and prestigious publishing companies EMI, SONY, ATV, WARNER and ITV JUICE label writing for National advertising campaigns, the most recent a Dulux Advert, ‘Paint the Town’. I have also had the privilege of co-writing for BBC programs and moreover, mainstream US film music.
It is said that the number one tip to losing weight is to go through a break up. Well I lost a little weight but I made a record. In 2015 I gathered some wonderful musicians, Rob Barron, Jeremy Brown and Matt Home to make my first jazz record, ‘From Shadows into Light’. Jazz journal gave it a 5 star review saying, “Dowling has a vocal with timeless quality” as well as Jazz Views making it album of the month, saying, “A remarkable one off voice”
So my journey continues here in London…