Claudia Acuña

Publication: The New York City Jazz Record
Author: Suzanne Lorge
Date: March 2013 issue

Claudia Acuña moved to New York City from Santiago, Chile in 1995. She’d been working as a singer with some success in her home country, but American jazz is what captured her imagination. She worked her way up through the New York club scene during the late ‘90s, impressing many influential personalities in the jazz world with her compelling voice and rhythmic acuity. Her first record deal came from Verve in 1999 and other companies and producers soon followed - MAXJAZZ, ZoHo Music and Marsalis Music. Acuña spoke with The New York City Jazz Record about how she turned her career visions into reality.

The New York City Jazz Record: What were your early days as an unknown jazz singer in New York like, newly arrived from a foreign country?

Claudia Acuña: My first years here, I didn’t know at the time much English. I couldn’t afford to go to school and I didn’t know how to apply for scholarships. So I started going a lot to places like Smalls, where I met [pianist] Harry Whitaker, an amazing musician and composer. We used to get together almost every day at Smalls and we’d just do repertoire or arrangements. He was the first one to encourage me to arrange and write.

TNYCJR: Who were your other teachers and mentors?

CA: I participated in the workshops of Barry Harris and one of the first drummers I worked with, Jeff Ballard, used to teach me. Then I worked with people like Jason Lindner, who became a very strong collaborator. We co-wrote songs and worked consistently for almost 12 to 13 years. I also had the fortune [to meet] people with so much history, like Frank Hewitt, Jimmy Lovelace and Stanley Turrentine. And also to work with [bassist] Avishai Cohen and Avi Leibowitz and Pablo Ziegler - it just doesn’t stop. It’s a beautiful journey of having the honor and blessings and working with people who have been very patient and generous.TNYCJR: And the singers?

CA: I had the amazing blessing to meet one of my idols, which was Abbey Lincoln. She really opened her world to me. She had a lot of stories and experiences and just thoughts. Just to be in her presence was a master class. A few of [these singers] I have been very blessed to get to know and call them even friends, like Dianne Reeves, someone who is an amazing singer and
also a mentor. We became friends and [she is] someone where I can pick up the phone and ask a question.

TNYCJR: Your music contains many different elements. Do you draw more on your Chilean musical sensibilities or on your American influences?

CA: I feel both. To be honest, if I’d never moved to this country, I would never have had the opportunity to meet the people who were my teachers, who inspired me and motivated me to work harder to become the artist or singer or songwriter that I’m dreaming to become. I would not ever have been influenced or learn about so many [different types of] music. I consider myself a New Yorker and I do also consider myself an ambassador from my country. Because ever
since I moved from Chile I promised to myself and I think that’s why I’ve always made an effort, from my first album, to have even one song in Spanish. [With these songs] I’ve paid tribute to people like Violetta Parra, who was a great inspiration and one of the greatest singer-songwriters from Chile, along with Víctor Jara and others. Even though I’ve been here for 17 years, my roots are from Chile.

TNYCJR: Parra and Jara were part of the politically influential La Nueva Canción Chilena [New Chilean Song] movement. Do you identify with them personally as an artist or is your interest more broadly cultural?

CA: Violetta Parra was the first musician, female singer, that I heard in my life, in my consciousness. I was very intrigued and she had a very strong impact on my life as a child. At the time I was too little to understand what exactly the words and what the movement was, in a country that was taken by a dictator. I was a little baby and had no knowledge or understanding about what was going on in my country. For some reason I was very attracted to people like her
and like Víctor Jara. Along the way, when I left my country and came here to do what I was doing, I
decided that I was going to tribute the first couple of singers who influenced my life. As I grew up, I could sympathize with a lot of the words that they express and a lot of them touch a deep part of how I think or feel about life and about my country.

To read the rest of The New York City Jazz Record’s interview with Claudia, please visit their website and look for the March 2013 issue.