Jazz singer Tessa Souter a performer at the Rochester International Jazz Festival

As a child, Tessa Souter had few answers as to why she had dark skin, a trait that separated her from many of her British friends.

“I used to put lemons on my skin to try and make me whiter because I wanted to blend in with my friends when I was really young,” Souter said.

It will be years before the jazz singer learns the truth, a very different story from what her mother told her – a claim that her father was a Spaniard who died in a plane crash.

Instead, as Souter discovered, his father was a black man from Trinidad, a revelation to this day that, years after the discovery, still strikes Souter at his emotional heart. Although still sensitive to issues of race and inequality, Souter now had a new focus on the plight of black people, especially those in the United States, where she now lives and where the ugly legacy of slavery still reverberates. .

Now, she finds herself more acutely sensitive to the occasional and more blatant racism that many black women and men face. Some people still see her as white, while others recognize that she has black roots, Souter said in a phone interview from her Manhattan apartment.

“The treatment is interesting when you find out you’re black,” said Souter, who is returning to the CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival this year, where she has performed several times in the past. His first visit dates back 15 years.

Souter is known for her sultry vocals and laid-back reworking of some pop classics and standards that she appropriates with delicate spacing altered with the lyrics. However she might reconfigure a song, there’s one constant: “Everything I sing has got to have some kind of meaning to me.”

“People always suggest songs to me, and sometimes they’re right, but often they’re not,” she said. “I don’t just sing a song because it’s a beautiful song. There are a lot of beautiful songs out there. It must mean something to me.”

It’s no wonder, then, that for Souter, her very life and the mysteries she unraveled find their way into her music. His 2018 album, “Picture in Black and White,” is an eclectic assortment of songs, and in each one – whether it’s Broadway’s “A Taste of Honey” or U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name” – Souter has found connective tissue with her Biography.

She merges the U2 hit with “Dancing Girl,” a lesser-known meditative classic by late soul singer-songwriter Terry Callier. For Souter, the musical union made sense: Callier’s song is an ode to a charming rhythm dancer whom Souter always imagined to be black, like Callier was, and Souter said one lyric particularly resonated with her.

This line – “holding on to a tear of sunshine in the mouth of the night” – evokes for her slavery and “what incredible strength it took to hold back that tear of sunshine”, she said. In the song, she shifts seamlessly to U2 and their anthem – tempered and jazzified by Souter – and the urgency to “tear down the walls that hold me inside”.

She first gathered the songs at live concerts. “The merger started just for the music, but I realized later that it made sense.” She decided to include the mix of two songs on “Picture in Black and White”.

Tessa Souter's album cover for

Other songs, originally constructed by songwriters about found and lost loves, instead take on new meaning when paired with Souter’s life. The album ends with “Nothing Will Be As It Was” by Brazilian singer Milton Nascimento, best known by the late jazz singer Sarah Vaughan.

The opening lyrics:

Learn the truth about his father

Souter was entering his teens when his mother concocted the lie about his father. Souter has accepted the story and, five decades later, thinks she knows why her mother did what she did.

His mother was well aware of the difficulties Souter had at school with students who bullied and teased her about her skin color. She was once spat on by a skinhead and often suffered verbal taunts. Sometimes she fought back.

“I remember once grabbing a boy by the lapels and lifting him off the floor,” she said. “At the time my mother told me about my father, (the harassment) was really excessive.”

Her mother’s story became a shield. When she started telling her classmates that she was Spanish, a lot of the racism stopped.

“I went to school and I said, ‘Yes, I’m brunette because my father is Spanish.’ If I was European, I was fine.”

Souter was 28 when she learned the truth about her father. His mother had actually given Souter his father’s real name, which was far more Irish than Spanish. Souter tracked him down, only to find he was from Trinidad.

Souter sent her boyfriend at the time to meet him for the first time. She did not find the strength to do so for almost a year. In part, she said, her concerns stemmed from the reaction she feared from her adoptive father, who had been married to Souter’s mother before a divorce.

“The whole time it was a big secret from my other dad, who I was terrified wouldn’t want me anymore,” Souter said. “I felt like I was going to get dumped.”

Finally, she and her biological father met in London and visited a teahouse. “He was darker than me. He had this fabulous copper color. …He had a lot of hair. I kept drinking it in with my eyes, kind of taking it all in.”

Then they went to a park, and, while walking there, he launched into a song. Passers-by stopped, enchanted by the purity of the serenade.

“It was almost like it was vibrating in my sternum,” Souter said. “When I hear something that’s very true, that’s when I feel it.”

Souter herself had been singing since childhood, but she would not pursue a musical career until her forties. She developed a relationship with her biological father, although she admits it was difficult at first.

“It was hard for him because he wanted to get to know me and be in my life and I had this reluctance because I felt like I was cheating on my dad,” she said.

Over the years, the two have built a relationship. He died in the late 1990s, after being struck down by Alzheimer’s disease in his final years. During this time, Souter and his adoptive father maintained their close bond.

“He’s still my dad,” she said.

A favorite of the Rochester International Jazz Festival

Tessa Souter has become a regular at the Rochester Jazz Festival, performing at several venues and occasionally appearing as part of the “Made in the UK” series.

Whether in Rochester or elsewhere, she has found that many of her audiences find personal resonance with her songs, even as she selects and shapes them through her own journey.

“My songs. They’re sort of organic,” Souter said. “Maybe it’s that the songs I choose or the songs I write have multiple meanings.”

Once, she recalls, a man approached her after a performance and said, “This is the first time I’ve cried since my son died.”

John Nugent, co-producer and artistic director of the jazz festival, said: “Tessa Souter has become a fan favorite (of the festival) not only because of her beautiful voice and incredible artistry, but also because of her warmth. as a person.

“He’s a beautiful human being who relates to his audience as well as any artist we’ve ever featured,” he said.

Tessa Souter sings with cellist Dana Leong at Kilbourn Hall at the 2015 Rochester International Jazz Festival.

Souter will have two performances on the festival’s opening night, Friday, June 17, at Glory House International, formerly the Lutheran Church at 111 N. Chestnut St.

“What I really love about this festival is that it’s so beautifully curated, it’s kind of a brave curation,” Souter said, comparing the festival’s lineup to the work of a decorator taking pictures. varied and distinct pieces and wraps them in artistic symmetry.

“Because they’ve been curated by a designer, they’re cohesive,” she said. “They are all very different, but they are consistent.”

There’s another reason she keeps coming back, Souter said.

“Because they keep inviting me back.”

Contact Gary Craig at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at gcraig1.

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