While other girls her age were in their bedrooms pretending to be Madonna or some other pop idol, Champian Fulton was busy channelling a legendary jazz singer who died back in 1963.
“You know how kids like to pretend and tell stories? My story was that I was Dinah Washington.”
Born in Oklahoma, Fulton grew up surrounded by jazz. Her father, Stephen Fulton is a trumpeter and music educator, and her family’s circle of friends included jazz luminaries such as trumpeter Clark Terry and bassist Major Holley.
“At the time, I didn’t think anything of it. I just sort of took it for granted that every kid had that kind of friends,” she says.
Before she was 10 years old, Fulton started to become “really serious” about wanting to be a musician.
“I discovered that a lot of these people I knew were on all my favourite records. And even if they weren’t on my favourite records, they knew the people who were. That’s when I started to realize I was part of something special.”
It was on one of her weekly outings to the record store with her father that she first encountered her musical heroine, when her father bought her a copy of Washington’s For Those in Love album.
“I was so excited that Clark was on it, and when we listened to it, I completely fell in love with the sound of her voice, her rhythm, the whole record, I was just fascinated by it. I just identified with it musically so strongly,” she says. “It wasn’t until many years later, when I learned more about her as a person, that I even thought about her in that sense of being a woman in a man’s world. That all came much later.”
Fulton can’t remember when she first started learning piano from her grandmother, and she has always been a singer.
“I think all little kids like to sing, because it’s something you can do right away with no instrument. It’s just like talking; you can open your mouth and sing. It’s easy to do.”
Along the way, she also learned to play trumpet and drums, but decided to dedicate herself to singing and piano when she graduated high school.
Fulton doesn’t bristle at the observation that her performances seem to suggest more than one musical personality, with the strong block chords of her piano playing contrasting with a softer, melodic vocal line.
“I think most of us have two sides to our personality, and I think having the two instruments gives me an opportunity to work with both sides, either simultaneously or back and forth.”
While it’s easy to trace her vocal influences to the likes of Washington and Sarah Vaughan, Fulton cites Red Garland, Wynton Kelly and Bud Powell as early piano mentors.
“Many years later on I became really obsessed with Erroll Garner, again because of the block chords,” she says. “But I think one of my favourite musical influences in general was the Count Basie Band. I love the aesthetics of the Count Basie band, either in the small group, the trio, or the big band.”
So, if she were not so busy as a bandleader in the male-dominated world of jazz, who would she most like to perform with?
“This is going to sound funny, but I’m going to say it. I would like to work in the Count Basie band, but as the piano player. Maybe there could be two pianos, one for me and one for Bill Basie,” she laughs.
This weekend, Fulton will perform in Whitehorse with a quartet that includes trumpet player Cory Weeds, founder of the renowned Cellar Jazz Club in Vancouver, along with Jodi Proznick on bass and Julian MacDonaugh on drums.
The repertoire will be largely from her latest CD, After Dark, a tribute to the music of Dinah Washington. The foursome will also play a few numbers from a CD she recorded with Weeds, called Change Partners. One of tunes will be her father’s composition, “Bring Enough Clothes for Three Days.”
The Jazz on the Wing concert is Sunday, March 6 at 7:30 p.m., on stage at the Yukon Arts Centre.