February 24, 2023 – The only music playing in the background during our interview with jazz singer Maureen Washington were the timers chiming at intervals as she coaxed loaves of sourdough bread through their yeasty, rising stages and into the oven.
It was a chilly, grey Monday morning in February, Family Day in British Columbia, and Washington was in the kitchen of her large Victoria, B.C. home that she shares with some of her adult children, her “kidults” as she affectionately calls them.
Counting herself fortunate, she says her children and their partners all live nearby. “They’re not allowed to leave me,” she jokes. “Everyone comes home for Sunday dinner.” The Washingtons had gathered the day before, all except for one of her sons who had been called in to work unexpectedly. The loaves of sourdough bread were for him.
Family, music and community are the threads that weave through the rich tapestry of Maureen Washington’s engaged, eclectic life, and infuse her sparkling performances.
Washington has long been one of the most beloved and in-demand vocalists on Vancouver Island, garnering praise from many quarters. “Equally versed in jazz, blues, and soul, Washington recalls the spirit of the classic jazz divas while putting her own stamp on material ranging from Etta James to Norah Jones.”
A review in All About Jazz says, “Maureen Washington exudes the impish irreverence of Jann Arden and the vocal agility of Holly Cole. And yet, with all splendor attached to such comparisons, Maureen’s musical style remains distinctly her own.”
The Maureen Washington Quartet will be performing at the Knox United auditorium on Sunday, March 26, 2023 at 7 pm.
Growing up in Prince George, B.C., Washington says she loved music, “any kind of music.” She “always had snippets of music playing in my head,” but Washington didn’t think her voice was anything special. “I thought everyone could sing.”
Asked about her earliest musical influences, Washington says, “my grandfather Bill Bricker, my mom’s dad, was Prince George’s ‘Singing Cowboy’, and he was on the radio way back when,” during the 1940s and 50s. “I never met him, he died before I was born,” she says, but “everybody, all of my siblings, nieces, nephews have a strong artistic side in some way, whether it’s music, acting, or the fine arts of painting and drawing. That gene runs in our family.”
It was her parents’ record collection though that stopped the young girl in her tracks and really lit the path that would lead to Maureen Washington’s career as a jazz vocalist.
“I was gobsmacked,” she says when she first heard one particular record. Her inspiration? Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, a group that shot to prominence in the 1960s with hits like “Sherry” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.”
“Listening to this record, I thought, ‘These guys are going to be famous!’” Washington says, laughing at the naïveté of herself as a child not realizing “these guys” were already at the top of the pop music charts.
Mixing music and motherhood with “the best dance band around”
While a career in music was Maureen Washington’s goal, so was being “a mom of a lot of kids.” Washington managed to combine the two with aplomb, inspiration and the energy of a dynamo.
Cue the children, five in all. Oh, and she homeschooled them. And was president of the local homeschool association, organizing workshops and events to give the kids opportunities to socialize within the community.
“When the kids were young,” she says “I started a coffee house at a local book store. The kids helped to sell concert tickets and CDs.”
But, she says, her 20s were “dark years” for her as a musician. “I sang to my kids, but I lost my abilities as a performer.” That changed when she took a job doing cooking shows with Pampered Chef, a cookware supplier, where her persona attracted audience attention, leading to requests for her to sing. That was the catalyst that brought her back to performing.
When Washington started to sing at community events, the kids would be pressed into service there too, grousing a bit as children do when presented with chores, but then proudly whispering to people after her performances, “That’s my mom!”
Washington joined forces with other Prince George musicians, including pianist David Sproule, who introduced her to jazz and blues. Together they played the lounge circuit in Prince George until she was asked to lead a new group. BOP became widely acclaimed as the best dance band around, performing lively, re-arranged originals and classic funk, blues, swing and jazz tunes, according to Last.fm Music.
Daniel Cook, one of the musicians in BOP, proved to be another catalyst for Washington’s career. His wife was finishing her practicum in Prince George and they were returning to Victoria, B.C. so she could start her medical practice there. Cook knew the music scene in Victoria and suggested that Washington move to the province’s capital to establish herself there as a jazz artist.
Washington says her immediate reaction was, “That’s ridiculous. I can’t do that — I have five kids and a mortgage!” After several months of dithering, she finally “jumped” at the possibility to take her career to a higher level.
Pursuing a music career with five kids and a mortgage
“When I first arrived here” [in Victoria] in 2008, “that night, I laid down in bed, then sat bolt upright, gasped and said, ‘What did I just do!?!’”
Washington knew almost no one in Victoria. But, the music community in the city was generous to her.
Largely self-taught, she was “speechless” when accomplished, established musicians agreed to work with her, in particular pianist Karel Roessingh. “He’s such a mentor to me. His freeness, how he chooses his chord progressions, I’ve just learned so much from him.”
Some grant money allowed her to make an EP, and by 2011, Washington was named Jazz and Blues Artist of the Year by Victoria’s Monday Magazine, the first of many such accolades.
In 2014 she won the Black Canadian Award for Best Jazz and Soul Artist. Washington has appeared on stage with jazz saxophone greats Vincent Herring and Joe Lovano and the Blind Boys of Alabama as well as Bruce Cockburn and Janis Ian.
“Harvest Moon,” her ninth album, was produced by Victoria’s Joby Baker, known for his Juno and Grammy award-winning tracks.
“Harvest Moon has become one of my signature songs,” says Washington. “I love Neil Young’s version, but when I heard Cassandra Wilson do it, that changed me. I loved the beautiful pure organic peacefulness of her version.”
This effervescent diva has also experienced tragedy and dark times, notably the loss of her husband, Darryl Schultz, to cancer in 2016. Washington told the CBC Radio’s Margaret Gallagher that the couple would dance on stage during the instrumental part of Harvest Moon, embodying its words, “I’m so in love with you, I want to see you dance.”
Washington says her approach to selecting music could best be described as organic. “I don’t make it a practice of listening to music, unless I hear something, and then I might want to just gorge on different versions until I settle on what’s right for me.”
“I don’t follow any particular artist, I follow the song,” she says. “Sometimes songs will find me. All of a sudden, my radar goes on. One time, across a crowded room in Mexico, I heard [a rendition of] Bette Davis Eyes that was so unusual I didn’t recognize it at first. So, I hear something and I think, ‘Oh, I’ve got to add this to my repertoire.’”
“The beauty of jazz is in the moment,” says Washington. “If you’re listening to it live, you’ll never hear that song again” in the same way.
Washington credits the three accomplished musicians who complete The Maureen Washington Quartet, Karel Roessingh, Joey Smith and Damian Graham, with creating a “rich tapestry” of music that allows her to deliver the emotional content of a song, trusting that they are there for her. “You just feel like you’re in the atmosphere, in outer space, no longer here on the ground,” she says, describing the experience. “They make it easy for me.”
Diva in the Dirt
Today, Washington divides her time between performing and producing videos for her newly-minted Youtube Channel.
Covid struck the performing arts world hard. Many artists tried to substitute live performance with virtual concerts, but Washington didn’t enjoy the process. She found that there were too many opportunities for technical glitches, and that ruined the experience for this consummate performer.
Serendipity came calling again. At the start of the pandemic, a friend persuaded her to get some backyard chickens. With the help of the friend’s husband, they built a chicken coop in the back yard. One thing led to another and, Washington says, to her surprise, “I fell in love with gardening,” something she had never been interested in.
“I embraced the whole homestead life, and I absolutely love it,” she says, “being able to grow clean, pure food.”
Inspired, Washington converted her entire yard into a food garden, and began shooting videos of her backyard exploits and achievements for her mother in Prince George, an avid grower. Washington says, “It was so much nicer for her to watch [videos rather than trying to describe it over the phone], and then we could talk about it afterward.”
“With my kidults being at home” during the pandemic, she says she was inspired to learn how to make sourdough bread.
Before long, Washington learned pressure canning, how to make her own cheese, and how to build rich garden soil using permaculture techniques. She says it’s a great opportunity to teach her children about the value of nature.
The family often holds “worker bee days where a couple of us will be cooking, someone else will be working in the yard or building something. They’re fabulous people,” she says, “and such a great support to me in my life.”
In 2022, Washington launched her own Youtube channel, Diva in the Dirt, an entertaining how-to guide based on her adventures as a “urban homesteader.” Known for her glamorous image on stage, she says, “I always make sure I have a little bit of lipstick on when I head out to the garden!”
Knox Presents Spring is in the Air with The Maureen Washington Quartet 7 pm on Sunday, March 26, 2023.