Jazz Artist Richard Cortez’s “Roots As A Performer Come From Activism”

if anyone knows and is redefining nightlife, it is jazz artist Richard Cortez. As one of the sole artists to have kept performing during the pandemic, he brought jazz music to NYC hotspot Club Cumming (where he formerly performed as a dancer when it was Eastern Bloc) and is now performing at spaces like The Django on New Year’s Eve alongside music notables like Jerry Weldon and Emmet Cohen. As Cortez prepares to play The Django on New Year’s Eve (tickets available here), I sat down with him for an extended chat where we discussed his road to jazz music, being one of the mainstays at a space like Club Cumming, and how activism is at the root of everything that this performer does. 

Photo Credit: Melissa Hill

Michael Cook: What does it feel like to finally be back in front of fans and live audiences after so many artists were doing zoom shows during the pandemic?

Richard Cortez: I didn’t stop performing during the whole pandemic. I work with Club Cumming pretty intimately and Alan Cumming was very supportive the whole time with having me curate things for Club Cumming. When cancellations first happened, I thought “what can I do”? I am also an essential worker, I work in a homeless shelter during the day, so I was working full time and walking over the Williamsburg Bridge daily; the fist six months of the pandemic were very stressful for me. During that time, I was able to curate content for Club Cumming. I did a series called “Conversations On Jazz” where I would interview people over IGTV. After that, I did a series called “Alone Together”. After that Alan suggested we use an emergency fund that we had to get some of the artists working.

With the keys to Club Cumming, I went in once a week with two people who had worked together previously. They would play together on stage we would record the show, and post it on the Club Cumming instagram. Early in the pandemic, I was definitely still curating music in-person and trying to pay the artists who didn’t have the luxury of having a job. As soon as we were able to gather in small groups, I was back to performing live at Club Cumming with just a piano player. It has been an amazing opportunity that Club Cumming gave me to continue to perform.

MC: So essentially, you gave many of those artists who had lost their stage during the pandemic and ability to get back on stage again.

RC: I was one of the only people who had gigs during that time. I was able to hire some of the best jazz musicians in New York City because they were not on tour all over the world; they were just happy to play. I was playing with people like Russell Hall and Emmet Cohen and people like Jerry Weldon on a saxophone; people that didn’t even know that I existed before the pandemic. That strategic move on my part really elevated what I was doing and the exposure that I was getting. Suddenly, these people knew who I was and these people saw the flyers.  We sold out Club Cumming when it was still limited capacity for about seven months. I remember we played inside on Halloween and they would allow fifteen seats inside and they would go in a minute on Club Cumming’s instagram. I almost got this circumstantial notoriety and people wold see that not only did I have one of the only gigs, but when we were able to move back inside in February I had a seven piece band. I was the only person playing with a seven piece band for about seven months; venues just weren’t doing that.

Photo Credit: Melissa Hill

MC: Club Cumming is a fantastic space for queer artists and they have been so supportive of your own art. What is it like to have support like that from Club Cumming?

RC: It;’s so funny that I have fallen into jazz music because the way that I have done it is actually very traditional for jazz vocalists. I was actually a stripper at all of the places that I currently sing. I moved to New York five years ago and about a year in I was in the locker room changing, and I got a DM on Instagram. It was from a guy who had been watching be in the locker room who said that I looked “very comfortable naked” and he asked how I would feel about go-go-dancing. I had moved to New York in my thirties, go-go dancers are usually in their twenties and I just thought “fuck it”. I started working for Daniel Nardicio and Frankie Sharp, and they booked me at Eastern Bloc. I slowly started dancing at Metropolitan Bar, where I sing on Friday nights also. To get into a position where I was propositioning these people who they didn’t know was a musician, but I had been playing the acoustic guitar and singing and touring since I was eighteen or nineteen years old. For them to only see me as a go-go dancer and for me to ask to sing jazz at their club, even for one booking….

In the beginning it was just one booking, and it was just me and a guitar player; that was three years ago. It is very “Billie Holliday”. Nothing in the way that I have done jazz music has been conventional, from an academic standpoint. Jazz came to me super late in life; so have the support of a place like Club Cumming is incredible. To be eleven years old, and watch Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion and now Alan Cumming texts me and offers me quotes about my band; I have to remind myself, if this is only as far as you go, you have to tell the little kid from Pembroke Pines, Florida that he already made it. It’s not to say I have not put in the work, because I am a hard worker. It is one in a million; I used to go to Barnes and Noble and take all of the gay magazines I could find and hide them in a really big atlas. I would sit there and dream of getting out of suburban Florida. I wasn’t even a jazz singer before I moved to New York. That is only thing that I have learned to trust really; we love to try to run the show in our lives and be behind the wheel. In reality, the minute that you just show up and be open too exploring opportunities and don’t be afraid to trying new things, you are doing a completely different thing that I never thought I would be doing. It really blows my mind. As long as you are contributing to society as a whole, you’re trying to be a good person, and you are honest, I believe that whatever is for you will show up for you.

Photo Credit: Melissa Hill

MC: When did your own love affair with The Great American Songbook truly begin? 

RC: I loved The Great American Songbook growing up, it is so much of how I was honed as a music listener. I had a catalog of music and lyrics that my grandmother had shown me when I was a kid; we would drive around together and she would play cassettes of Judy Garland and Nat King Cole; she was one of those fabulous women, hair and nails done. She would feed me the lyrics to the songs before Judy would sing them so I knew the words in time to sing along with the singer. My first vocal training was my grandmother prompting me in the car to learn these songs; I was seven years old. Fast forward to now, and when I finally happened upon the jazz community and that I wanted to give it a shot, I knew way more than I thought I did; it had been planted deep inside my mind for years until I was finally able to use it.

MC: Who are some of your own favorite artists that you love to interpret?

RC: This is always such an interesting thing to talk about. For instance, Ariana Grande’s “Into You”-no one else sang that. We live in a time where music is popularized based on a song being identified by the artist who sang it. Back then, everyone sang “Embraceable You” from Billie Holliday to Nat King Cole. The challenge back then was “what will make your interpretation of the song unique enough that it will be popularized“. Now, no one else sings an Ariana Grande song because it’s an Ariana Grande song. I think it really all changed in the time of rock n roll, in the wake of the Great American Songbook era. The voices that speak to me, if you look at their books as a whole, Billie Holliday is not known for being exactly “jovial” and is definitely more of torch song singer. Then there is people that are more athletic, like Ella Fitzgerald who basically sounds like a horn when she sings. I think for me, it has changed over time. I wasnt exposed to a lot of this stuff until just within the last three years. I hang out with jazz musician friends and they talk abut who played this on that record and I dont know what they’re talking about; it can be very hard to keep up.

MC: Who do you consider one of your own biggest musical inspirations? 

RC: Dinah Washington is a huge influence for me, in both attitude and the songs she sings and the way she sings them. There is a way that she throws caution to the wind with the way that she interprets the work. She also is a firecracker; she died at thirty-eight, had ten husbands, and took no bullshit. By the end of her romantic life, the men that were marrying her knew that she was prone to violence. She would take all of the suits of a man she was with and simply set them all on fire. One of her last husbands, before telling her that he wanted to split, had already moved all of his things out since he knew she was prone to destroying things. There is just something about the way that she sings and the way she lived her life that really speaks to me. Who knows how long we’re going to be here; talk about someone who lived every moment to the fullest. In the face of adversity, she was told that as a black woman she couldn’t wear a blonde wig and she did it anyway on television.

I look to that kind of energy as “I cant believe I am singing at The Django on New Year’s Eve”. I remember a couple years ago thinking, this is never going to happen for me because I am queer and it’s just never going to cross over. We think we’re progressive, we think we’re in that place, but once you get to the door and it says “safe space” they look at you and say “yeah maybe someday”. I like to think we’re so inclusive, but I also think its very niche and I also think its about heteronormativity also. How digestible is what we do for the consumer, who we still presume to be straight, cisgender and white. I don’t apologize for putting my identity into my work at all; my roots as a performer come from activism, not from music.

MC: When was that sense of activism initially sparked in you? 

RC: The Westboro Baptist Church came by way of me when I was fifteen years old. I was on the front of the newspaper in Broward County, Florida, I had done a sensitivity training video and was one of the only out kids in that county. This was back in 1999 and I did the first sensitivity training video as why teachers should not use derogatory language when referring to gay people in the classroom and in a school environment. Fred Phelps got a hold of this tape, put my name and image on GodHatesFags.com and then drove from Topeka, Kansas and protested outside my school, I then counter-protested with peace signs outside of my school, and it was on the front page of all of the newspapers. I had never thought of the kind attention you can get simply for being radically yourself. From that opportunity, GLSEN called, then GLAAD called, and the LGBTQ churches in Ft. Lauderdale called and wanted me to speak during their sermons. I incorporated the acoustic guitar and was talking about queer identity and signing songs in front of people about my life and being a queer person. The activism aspect of what I do has always been at the forefront and at the heart of it. To think that now being completely unapologetically myself and only playing in gay bars, when I started singing jazz I would only get bookings where I was a stripper and they were all gay bars. To make this crossover for me is so huge. I am signing at Birdland, the Djengo on New Years Eve. I am playing after Houston Person, a ninety year old legend. I have to keep reminding myself to take the criticism, compliment and the opportunities and put them in the same bucket and just stay focused.

MC: What did you learn the most during the past couple years as one of the few artists who performed throughout the truly insane time for artists?

Stop spending so much time telling yourself that you’re not good enough. Stop second guessing and trust your instincts. There was so much feeling in my relationships with heterosexual men that has happened in this very straight dominated genre of music. To try to bring live music into a gay bar is something that doesn’t exist, unless you go to a piano bar. The reason why is because I think when queer people were able to congregate in the forties and fifties, we had two be quiet. That does not leave a lot of room, for live music. As live musicians developed their career and honed their identities throughout history, queer spaces were not considered an option for employment. To bridge that gap was already intimidating. To ask these straight men during a pandemic, that are super famous…I mean Club Cumming and Metropolitan are both lovely and charming places. I was asking people who are playing at Dizzy’s and Jazz at Lincoln Center and touring the world, I was asking them to come play a gig with me and I am three years into being a jazz singer with so much to learn. Then I just thought “fuck it, what’s the worse they can say”? Closed mouths dont get fed right? It is amazing to be thirty-six years old and to be stuck between we have come so far, but we still have so far to go. I’ve seen the transgender rights movement unfold before my eyes. The progress that that community has made in the wake of Orange Is The New Black and Laverne Cox was so healing for me. There has been movement, but there is still so much to do.

Having straight men who are considered to be famous in the jazz world will put their name next to mine and will be willing to sacrifice whatever booking some homophobic person might not book them for and they will play with me. Every time I do it and I am able to make a dick joke in front of a straight guy or make them the butt of the joke and they’re cool with it, the bullying I experienced when I was a kid, in evens itself out in a way. There is a lot of healing by being in an ensemble with these people. I’ve learned not to be afraid to ask for what you want. And that there are loving kind straight and accepting men out there who are looking to be told how to be better allies. Being surrounded by these people who want so much to be connected to our community. They’ve come to understand by working with me that gay audiences are the best audiences, they’re the best tippers, they have a deep appreciation for music. To see what happens when you put a seven piece jazz band in a gay bar and see the consumer walk in, they’re like “what is happening”. They don’t realize they’re going to love it, and the entire thing has really been this great social experiment. Sometimes you just have to get up on a mic, light a candle. Do a show and keep it moving. Now that I have creatively and professionally survived this and things have only gotten better for me, the only way here is onward and upward. The fact that I am an “out artist” is no longer even a qualifier, and that is great.

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