Kalil Wilson sat on a black wooden stool, crooning the jazz tune “I Get a Kick Out of You” by Cole Porter fora singing competition at UCLA.
It was the first time in his life singing jazz, but he finished the 2007 José Iturbi Competitionas a finalist.
Wilson, a 2006 alumnus, is now performing jazz in venues across Northern California through April. Although his early music training involved singing in the opera genre, Wilson eventually turned to jazz, leading to a personally fulfilling musical career of jazz performance, he said.
Wilson performed opera from when he was 16 years old through his time at UCLA. He said he grew accustomed to a routine of yearly operatic shows and rigorous training in classical voice technique.
Wilson studied classical music and performed opera while earning his degree in ethnomusicology from UCLA.
“I was feeling artistically that there was some component that was missing from my classical performance – it was the improvisatory aspect and the rhythmic of felt-body aspect of music that makes you dance or move,” Wilson said.
[Throwback: Blending Beats: Kalil Wilson’s 2008 interview]
Mona Lands, a retired member of UCLA staff, was Wilson’s accompanist and opera coach during his six years at UCLA. Although she is not asfamiliar with jazz music as with opera music, she did not have to be an expert in the genre to understand how magnificent Wilson’s jazz voice was, she said.
“He would open up his mouth and it just made people melt,” Lands said.
As head of the José Iturbi Competition, Lands heard Wilson sing jazz for the first time at his performance in 2007. She said the audience wasshocked at the beauty of his voice,and opera vocalist David Daniels approached Wilson afterwards to praise him for his performance.
Wilson turned his attention towards jazzafter graduating and meeting student jazz pianist Berkeley Everett at the fateful José Iturbi Competition. Everett accompanied the jazz pieces including “I Get a Kick Out of You” and “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.”
Everett, a 2008 UCLA alumnus, was trained in classical music yet was more familiar with jazz, he said. On the other hand, Wilson was most familiar with classical music and looking to explore jazz, Everett said.
They recognized their shared desire for musical exploration and began collaborating and teaching each other: Everett coached Wilson in jazz, while Wilson coached Everett inclassical.
Everett saw Wilson’s newfound jazz talents progress during their musical sessions together over several years, and Wilson began to let loose and have fun in the practice room experimenting with his voice, Everett said. Wilson trained his voice by impersonating other artists like Stevie Wonder.
“Because he was so well trained as a classical musician, there were a lot of things he would hear in his head that he wanted to sing, but that he never gave himself the permission to sing,” Everett said.
Everett and Wilson eventually recorded the album “Easy to Love” in the Jan Popper Theater in Schoenberg Hall.
Wilson also performed jazz with Everett for a gala event in Palm Springs, California in summer 2007.
“Two hours never felt like five minutes before,” Wilson said. “I had a choice to either continue opera because I knew what to expect, or pursue this avenue that feels like so much more of a release and coming home of all my operatic skills.”
Although Wilson ultimately chose jazz, he said he still uses the skills he learned as an operatic singer in his new pursuits.
“Jazz is what happens to classical music when it met electricity,” Wilson said.
In reality, the genres both include similar musical elements in formatting, tonality, harmonics and especially improvisation, Wilson said. Baroque classical music incorporates the expectation to freely improvise over prearranged chords, and improvisation being a part of both genres drew Wilson towards jazz, he said.
Jazz allows Wilson to interact with the audience and fellow musicians in a way he had never experienced before, he said. When performing opera, he said he felt he was a single individual elevated on a stage and bright lights obstructed his view of the audience. But jazz involves performing with close friends on a smaller, ground-level stage and interacting intimately with the audience, Wilson said.
“The quality of music and the quality of the experience was heightened by people who knew and loved each other participating in it,” Wilson said.
Wilson is enjoying the heightened energy of jazz performance, he said. He will be performing in Oakland and at the San Jose Jazz festival in February, as well as with the jazz trio Love at the Bear Valley Music Festival this summer.
“I know what jazz does to people: It makes them smile, it makes them move, it makes them care, it makes them fall in love, it makes them think about love, invites participation, invites discussion,” Wilson said. “I have never found a more intimate relationship with my creativity and with my voice than through jazz.”