Faculty Profile: Gabrielle Goodman
The worlds of popular and classical music don’t often merge successfully. In fact, it’s pretty rare to find an opera singer who performs backup for Chaka Khan or Roberta Flack one night and sings with the Boston Pops the next. But over the course of her career, Associate Professor Gabrielle Goodman has found professional success partly because she’s straddled these universes so adeptly.
Goodman’s divergent musical interests can be traced to a family where music was central. Her mother is a classically trained vocalist, and her father is a jazz trombonist with an affection for r&b. All three of Goodman’s brothers are accomplished musicians with major careers in the industry. Her parents nurtured her music from an early age, when she began singing both classical repertoire and gospel. She pursued a college degree at the Peabody Institute, a conservatory in her hometown of Baltimore, and focused on classical studies. But she also developed a love for Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, learning their solos by ear—not the usual fare for a vocalist accustomed to singing Schumann.
Goodman was a conservatory student by day and a jazz singer by night, and the gulf between the two, she says, sometimes felt “schizophrenic and bizarre.” In her first year at the conservatory, she got a call that changed her life. She was offered an opportunity to work as a background singer for Roberta Flack, provided she could be in New York the next day and learn an entire show for a performance by the following day. “I was scared out of my mind,” says Goodman. “Roberta was impressed that I was a conservatory student, but it also meant that she was a little hard on me. She would say, ‘If I sing it once, you should have it.’ It kept me on my toes. I was on that gig for eight years.”
At 21, Goodman was touring Japan with Flack who shared the bill with Miles Davis. A true soprano, Goodman was singing up to a G above high C at the time, and Miles was so impressed with her pipes that he asked her to sit in with his group. “I remember being excited about it then, but when you are moving through a situation like that, you can’t really grasp it until you look back years later and think, ‘These were legends!’ I feel blessed,” Goodman says.
During her time with Flack, Goodman sandwiched in college studies and her own tours. She also began working with Chaka Khan, whom she met through her songwriting. “I had cowritten a song called ‘You Can Make the Story Right,’ and I went to the rehearsal to meet Chaka. Because I was such a fan, during the rehearsal I began singing along. She turned to me and said, ‘What are you doing tomorrow?’” Goodman was soon singing backup for Khan. As for the song that got her the gig, it reached the top ten on the Billboard charts and won an ASCAP award.
A call from an old friend, saxophonist Gary Thomas, started her on the path as a recording artist performing under her own name. Goodman’s first two CDs were released on JMT Records (part of the Verve/Polygram label) and included both jazz standards as well as Goodman’s jazz originals. Travelin’ Light features guitarist Kevin Eubanks, and Until We Love features bassist Christian McBride and Gary Thomas and Gary Bartz on saxophone. Goodman toured Europe extensively, performing at the North Sea and Montreux jazz festivals and at venues across the continent. Her third CD, Angel Eyes, an independent release, showcases her r&b talents and features saxophonist and Berklee Professor Walter Beasley.
Berklee’s Vocal Department Chair Jan Shapiro invited Goodman to do a clinic at Berklee and subsequently asked her to join the faculty. At the college since 1998, Goodman has found teaching at Berklee enriching both personally and musically. “After my second CD, I was somewhat bitter about the music industry, and I went through a blocked time,” she says. “I’d lost my passion. When I came to Berklee and I started working with the students, the pure love for singing returned and reignited my love for music. I’ve always liked teaching. The students at Berklee are so diverse, and we have a very open interaction. We’ve got a great new crop of jazz singers, and that is exciting to me.”
Since joining the faculty, Goodman has remained an active performer, combining her love for gospel and classical music in performances with the Boston Pops, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and the Cleveland Orchestra and a concert with the Delaware Symphony Orchestra conducted by her brother, pianist David Bunn, and featuring bassist Marcus Miller. She’s also appeared on the Forever Swing tour, where she costarred with Michael Bublé. Additionally, Goodman has also delved into stage acting and costarred in Ain’t Misbehavin’ with Dee Dee Bridgewater.
Currently Goodman is writing a book on improvisation for the r&b singer. She’s also working on new jazz and modern gospel CDs that feature her original music and a CD of German lieder. “My experience in performing and studying different genres of music has informed every aspect of my teaching,” she says. “Classical music gave me a strong technical foundation, and my involvement in the theater has enabled me to incorporate acting technique and stage movement into my work with the students. My background in jazz, gospel, and r&b music has been most helpful in demonstrating improvisation and the ability to convey passion for the music.”