SINGER/SONGWRITER/BANDLEADER, ONE OF THE JAZZ WORLD’S PREMIER STORYTELLERS
Rondi Charleston knows the importance of a story well told. This talent, which served her well as an Emmy and Peabody award-winning producer at ABC News, has continued to blossom over the years. Charleston is a jazz vocalist who matches superior musicianship with a unique ability to craft resonant narratives. “I feel that the artist’s job is not only to capture what’s going on in the world around her, but to reflect on what’s going on; to try to make sense out of chaos, so to speak. Hopefully, I can also entertain, inspire, and leave audiences with a feeling of hope for the future,” she insists. “My challenge is to write music and lyrics that do all three.” She has been meeting the challenge since 2009 in a series of impressive releases on the Motema Music label, and reveals new depths as a vocalist, composer and bandleader on Resilience, her newest release.
Along the way, she has collaborated with some of the jazz world’s most highly respected musicians. With pianist Fred Hersch, she co-wrote the song, “The Cave Knows” for the film No Place On Earth, which had worldwide theatrical release with Magnolia Pictures. With pianist Lynne Arriale, she co-wrote “A Song For The Ages” for the 2008 presidential inauguration of Barack Obama which was featured on Entertainment Tonight. She has been featured at the Women In Jazz Festival at Jazz at Lincoln Center, Birdland, Blue Note, Joe’s Pub, and Lyrics and Lyricists in New York, and around the country at Yoshi’s, Dakota Jazz, Catalina’s, and Mayne Stage in Chicago.
“I’ve had several chapters in my life. I’ve gone from being an actor and opera singer at Juilliard, to the world of investigative journalism at ABC News, and now, back to my first love, which is traditional and contemporary jazz,” Charleston explains. “There’s a lot more uniting all these things than meets the eye. In each case, you’re telling a story and in it, hopefully, revealing a powerful truth, whether it’s a corporate cover-up or a deep, hidden emotion. “
Music has surrounded Rondi Charleston her entire life. Her father, an English professor, at the University of Chicago, was a jazz fan who took the then six-year-old and her brother, Erik (now a renowned New York percussionist) to hear Duke Ellington, her mother, a singer and voice teacher specializing in contemporary classical music. Admitted to Juilliard as an acting student, Charleston also studied classical music. After graduation, early years singing opera led to frustration and a change of careers. “Being small, I was always cast as the maid, never the countess,” she notes, “it was frustrating not to ever get the meaty parts, so I decided to shift gears, and learn to be a cultural reporter like my idol, the late Charles Kuralt.” She was admitted to the NYU Masters program, where she won an award for an investigative report that led to a job at ABC News. Beginning as a researcher, Charleston ultimately became a field producer, winning Emmy and Peabody awards in that capacity for her work with Diane Sawyer.
Yet Charleston had hardly abandoned music. During lunch breaks, she took voice lessons from Peter Eldridge of New York Voices, and at night she played cabaret gigs in the village. “I put jazz singers on the highest pedestal, and never thought of myself that way at the time,” she admits, “but Peter saw that I had something special, I guess, and could swing, and he really helped make the transition organic.” In fact, Eldridge ended up producing Charleston’s first jazz album, Love Is the Thing, on the LML Label. When her daughter, Emma, was born, Charleston realized that she didn’t want her life controlled by the demands of her job. “So,” she explains, “I decided to focus on motherhood, return to my first love – music, and see what would happen.”
What has happened is a series of increasingly ambitious and powerful albums – In My Life, Who Knows Where The Time Goes? and Signs of Life – featuring what has become a working ensemble of unique sensitivity and range. “I consider myself extremely fortunate to create music with incredible musicians and human beings,” Charleston says of pianist Brandon McCune, bassist Ed Howard, drummer McClenty Hunter and percussionist Mayra Casales, and “being on the road has only deepened the whole experience on and off the bandstand.” She reserves special praise for guitarist, co-composer and musical director Dave Stryker. “Dave is my musical alter-ego, mind-reader and Partner in Crime, so to speak. He brings a deep well of jazz knowledge, musical sensitivity, creative juice and endless patience to the table.”
In addition to recording and touring, Rondi Charleston has created the podcast/webcast series Art Matters, in which she interviews guests ranging from vocal icons Jon Hendricks and Ann Hampton Callaway to Emily’s List President Stephanie Schriock and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, shedding light and raising hope as she does in Resilience. “I’m just doggedly curious about the world,” she admits, “some folks would say too curious! I ask a lot of questions and don’t stop until I can connect the dots, and again, make some kind of sense out of this crazy world we live in! It’s the same way I’ve approached music, getting bolder and bolder with each album, challenging myself to keep adding more originals, to the point where I can acknowledge and celebrate my own, and our collective ability to overcome our setbacks and become the best versions of ourselves and our communities.”
In addition to writing and performing, Rondi is an active music educator, as well as arts advocate and journalist. With a private voice studio based in New York City, her students work in clubs as well as on Broadway and in film. Rondi is in demand for her workshops and masterclasses in vocal performance and interpretation, which she conducts at colleges and universities around the country, frequently in conjunction with her concerts, and through community outreach programs.
She has been on the panel of distinguished judges for the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Young Artist Scholarship Competition in Newark, NJ for six years.
She has recently continued her journalism career with a new series of webcasts called “Art Matters,” in which she interviews artists, musicians, politicians, and activists about matters relating to the urgent importance of art in today’s ever changing society.
As an arts advocate, she a passionately involved board member of the Jazz Power Initiative, a not-for-profit organization that transforms lives of youth through the power of Jazz Arts Education.
Rondi has Bachelor of Music, and Masters of Music degrees from Juilliard, where she is a distinguished alumna, also having the distinct honor of having studied in the Drama Division (Group 9) for two years. She is also a certified teacher of The Voice Workshop; Somatic Voicework, the Lovetri Method, for Contemporary Commercial Music.