An inheritance of music

Whitney Ross-Barris at her "Everybody's Her" CD launch in December.
Whitney Ross-Barris at her “Everybody’s Here” CD launch in December. Photo by Matthew Wocks. (ROSS_BARRIS_E)

It was like finding treasure.

It happened one day when Whitney Ross-Barris, 33, was riding a Toronto streetcar. She was listening to the songs on her iPod repeatedly. Suddenly, she recognized the singer as her grandfather.

“Something in the way the singer said a certain word or a couple of words together,” she said, remembering the moment.

Although fully aware that her grandfather, Alex Barris, wrote many jazz songs, Ross-Barris found songs the family didn’t even know existed. The songs were written in 1941 and recorded in 1946. Alex Barris was in his 20s at the time. Discovering the songs this way, spurred the granddaughter to explore the grandfather’s music and lyrics and eventually to assemble her first CD recording earlier this fall.

She decided to record part of her first CD in New York City, the same studio her grandfather recorded his music. Recording at Nola Studios was a huge part of the album. It was during this recording that she said she learned what jazz meant to her.

“It was a big, defining moment,” she said.

“For me as a jazz singer and musician the history was really thick there. You could just kind of feel it. You could feel that really important people had been there,” she said.

They had. Just two weeks before Ross-Barris recorded, Tony Bennett was there recording. Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, Barbra Streisand, all had recorded there. Ross-Barris felt honoured to be a part of that legacy, singing songs her grandfather wrote there.

“His songs really feel like an inheritance that I can interpret and use. I hope when people hear them on the album they that will be interested in his music, not for me but for him.”

Ross-Barris has also written songs for the recording and recognized the hard work that goes into songwriting. She remembers the difficulty she had when she wrote her first song ‘Stay yet’ for a new translation of an old German play Woyzeck by Georg Büchner.

“Songwriting is really rewarding I find,” she said. “It can be really frustrating too because you keep wanting to write the next great song…”

That’s why she said she appreciated the treasure-trove of songs her grandfather left her.

“I feel especially lucky to have these songs that nobody else has and that nobody else is singing,” she said.

According to Richard Flohil, who promotes artists such as Lorena McKinnet and Downchild Blues Band, the fact that Ross-Barris has original material is a major plus. He emphasized the importance of standing out as an artist, having unique material and a unique voice.

“There are a lot of female jazz singers,” Flohil said. “You have to have a hook to stand out. You have to have a unique voice. Billie Holiday has a unique voice. You can spot it right away.”

An Artist, Flohil points out, must also have a strong Internet presence. They also have to be persistent, ambitious and focused.

According to pianist Mark Kieswetter, these are qualities that Ross-Barris has. He has accompanied Ross-Barris in recent years.

“She’s amazing. She’s really, really good. She’s a jazz singer in the true sense,” he said. “She comes in totally prepared. She has a great ear. She’s really focused.”

Ross-Barris, a young mother and wife, said she is able to pursue her dreams because of the love and support from people around her.

“I’m lucky to have the support that I do from my husband, family and friends,” she said. “I’m lucky to know the wonderful musicians that I do, who are willing to play with me whenever I play or record. I learn a tremendous amount from these guys.”

Ross-Barris hopes that others will find joy listening to her album.

“I hope it gives them a bit of an escape from whatever trouble they are dealing with. I really hope I give people something a little different,” she said.