Born on January 22, 1980, in Hahira, GA. Education: Attended Georgia State University. Addresses: Management--Direct Management, 947 North La Cienaga Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90069, phone: (310) 854-3535, fax: (310) 854-0810. Website--Lizz Wright Official Website: http://www.lizzwright.net.
Since her 2002 breakthrough performance at a Los Angeles Billie Holiday tribute, Lizz Wright has been regarded as an important young talent in contemporary jazz. Wright inked a deal with seminal jazz label Verve soon after the Holiday performance. She released her debut album, Salt, in 2003, followed by Dreaming Wide Awake two years later. Her husky contralto voice and penchant for mixing jazz standards with pop, gospel, and soul numbers have earned her comparisons to such legends as Abbey Lincoln and Nina Simone, to young neo-soul singers like Jill Scott and Angie Stone, and to crossover artists like Norah Jones and Cassandra Wilson.
Wright was born on January 22, 1980, in the tiny south Georgia town of Hahira. The second of three children, she was raised in Hahira and in Kathleen, Georgia, by her parents, both ministers. Gospel music was a part of Wright's life from an early age, and she and her older brother and younger sister sang together in a gospel trio. Wright detailed her sheltered upbringing in a 2005 interview with Peter Culshaw of the London Daily Telegraph. "It was mostly Pentecostal and very strict," she told Culshaw. "Women were not allowed to wear colored nail varnish, do sports, or wear trousers. We had no television and I only heard the radio when my parents went out to a Bible study group. They liked a quiet, meditative house. I'd listen to radio dramas, which is where I got my love for storytelling. I had to create what I didn't have. I did listen to some pop music, but I didn't like it much."
Wright learned about jazz by listening to pianist Marian McPartland's weekly show on National Public Radio. "Marian's show was my first introduction to jazz and I loved it," she told George Varga of the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2004. "It was very ladylike and modern sounding to me, but still had a lot of colors and ideas from gospel and blues that I'd heard before. It's something that called out to me (because) it was sacred." The mixed-genre sound of contemporary gospel artists also made its mark. "The contemporary gospel movement really influenced me and that was mostly the artists out of Detroit, the Winan family, Hawkins family and Commission. These artists started taking on the sounds of R&B, soul, blues, and jazz, but still sang the gospel. It really got me through school. I wouldn't have made it with just quartet music or the spirituals," Wright said in a 2005 interview with Beatrice Richardson for JazzReview.com.
After high school, Wright studied music at Georgia State University in Atlanta, but dropped out when she decided her college education didn't merit the cost. She first drew attention in 1999, when she sat in on a jam session during the Atlanta Jazz Festival. After singing the two jazz standards she knew, the crowd asked for more. She responded with "Amazing Grace." One of the enthusiastic audience members was Ron Simblist, who introduced Wright to the gospel ensemble In the Spirit, which she joined in 2000. A friend of the wife of Verve Music Group president Ron Goldstein, Simblist also sent Goldstein some of Wright's recorded tunes. Simblist followed up with another demo a year later and helped secure Wright a deal. Around the same time, Wright appeared on the bill with Lou Rawls, Dianne Reeves, and others at Billie Holiday tributes in Los Angeles and Chicago. By all accounts, she stole the show. "Lizz Wright walked on stage at the Hollywood Bowl last summer a virtual unknown. Fifteen minutes later, she walked off a star," wrote Don Heckman in a 2003 article for the Los Angeles Times.
Wright began recording Salt in 2002, with John Clayton producing. Eventually, the sessions with Clayton were scrapped, however. "I had some more growing to do," Wright told Heckman in 2003. Veteran producer Tommy LiPuma, who has worked with numerous Grammy-winning artists, took over production duties, assisted by former Joni Mitchell and Wayne Shorter drummer Brian Blade. Salt was released in 2003. Due to the album's eclectic song selection, which included five originals written by Wright alongside jazz, Latin, and spiritual numbers, and even a song from the musical The Wiz, Wright immediately drew comparisons to crossover artists Norah Jones and Cassandra Wilson. "I don't fall in any of those traditional definitions of what a 'jazz singer' is," Wright told Varga. "But to me, jazz embraces a lot. It is a fusion, it is eclectic, and I don't know where it's going. But I definitely want to give back what I've gotten from jazz, which is a liberation (that results) from mixing things and seeing how they are connected."
Wright secured an opening slot on a tour with Ray Charles, and film director Spike Lee interrupted his own shooting schedule to direct the video for Salt's first single, the Chick Corea song "Open Your Eyes, You Can Fly." Salt became one of Billboard magazine's top ten contemporary jazz vocal albums of 2003, and the Associated Press named it one of the top ten albums of the year. Wright was named Best New Artist in the Jazz Times magazine readers' poll, and she performed at the Newport and Playboy jazz festivals. Still, some critics offered tempered praise. "Her only major failing at present is that the heady passion and sophistication she brings to her music is not yet matched by her abilities as a lyric writer, which sometimes veers toward mawkish sentiments and too obvious word rhymes. That weakness aside, her debut album impresses with its artistic maturity and welcome subtlety," wrote Varga.
Wright moved briefly to New York City, then settled in Seattle. She released Dreaming Wide Awake in 2005. Craig Street, who had worked on Jones's debut and Wilson's popular crossover album New Moon Daughter, produced the album, which was recorded in the Catskill Mountains with all the musicians playing together in one room. The album was hailed as a daring, honest effort. "'Awake' is a brave and naked album, wildly eclectic but always under control. It is at once slow-moving (like the rural South) and cosmopolitan (like New York and Seattle)," wrote Nick Marino in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Wright told Heckman that she has not determined her next direction. "[I] can't tell you that I've even really found myself yet. I really just want to continue to keep learning more music," she said. "I want to maintain my spirituality, and I want to be in an environment where I can grow. If I can have those things, everything else will take care of itself."
by Kristin Palm
Lizz Wright's Career
Member, In the Spirit, 2000-02; released first solo CD, Salt, on the Verve label, 2003; released follow-up, Dreaming Wide Awake, on Verve, 2005.
- Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 19, 2005.
- Chicago Tribune,June 15, 2003.
- Daily Telegraph (London, England), June 2, 2005.
- Los Angeles Times, April 13, 2003.
- San Diego Union-Tribune, Jan. 22, 2004.
- "Lizz Wright," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (June 29, 2005).
- "Lizz Wright," JazzReview.com, http://www.jazzreview.com (May 30, 2005).
- Lizz Wright Official Website, http://www.lizzwright.net (October 1, 2005).