In Choir or Solo, a Voice of Outstanding Character: Tammy McCann

The voice that can bring it all in the flirty “Candy” from her CD Classic can also belt out in love and gratitude in “Praise the Lord” and then tell her heart’s desire in the classic “More” and “I Took a Trip on a Train,” both from the 2018 album Never Let Me Go. What is most striking is vocalist Tammy McCann’s ability to hit the dynamics of a piece with precision and grace, never over-singing, only giving what fits the tune in volume, vibrato and verve. In 2021, she recorded Merry Christmas, Baby paired with guitar master Fareed Haque. She is as comfortable in praise music as she is in the depths of jazz and her career, which spans decades, exemplifies a commanding presence and awe-inspiring musical gifts.

She was just named Chicagoan of the Year in Jazz and will perform at Winter’s Jazz Club there in the summer, as well as in the near future heading up a master class called “Yes Mahalia” at the University of Louisville, KY.

When did you start singing and do you remember your first public performance?

I started singing as a young person in high school. My teacher was Dr. Lena Mclin at Kenwood Academy High School in Chicago. She created an environment for growth and nurturing and prepared us to present our music to the public very early.  So my first public performance was in high school with my choir. 

At what age did you hear jazz for the first time (also state the year), and how did you feel about it?

I received a scholarship to college for classical voice and I had no concept of jazz whatsoever. I didn’t know Ella, Sarah, Duke Ellington. I didn’t know who anybody was. I heard jazz for the first time in college. It came wafting out of a music practice room and initially, I thought it was some experimental classical music.  The young man playing said it was “Round Midnight” by Thelonius Monk and I said who’s that?

What moods do you like to coax from vocals?

As a vocalist, the mood that I set depends on the song, the setting, the audience. There are so many different components that come into play that make an organic moment for that time.

Where did you receive your formal training?

The “University of The Bandstand,” meaning that mine was an apprenticeship engagement with saxophonist and NEA Jazz Master Von Freeman. He set my foundation and was my mentor for several years.

What was the most difficult part of breaking into a career in music?

A willingness to be patient, to stay the course and learn from your mistakes.

What was the most important lesson you learned about technique that helps you today?

I was a classical vocalist at the onset and the most amazing technical guidance I was given was from guitarist Henry Johnson. He was able to teach me how to physiologically take control of my classical power and create an intimacy with my voice. I am forever grateful to him.

What was the most important lesson you learned about the music business that has helped you in your career?

The importance of understanding everyone’s role. Also, it’s important to assist in meeting everyone’s goal. That means the club owner, the promoter, your band members, and to be connected to the entire process.

How would you describe your sound, the vibe, what it brings to listeners?

I think the vibe that I bring to the listener is one of welcome. I consider myself a storyteller and I want to use the songs as a portal to transport them to a memory, a space, a place or a feeling. So when they leave my show, they take the memory and feeling of my show with them.

What is the jazz scene like in Chicago today?

It’s fantastic. However, for young musicians, it’s a lot different than when I was coming up. There are not many opportunities to mix with masters of this music and they’re not as plentiful as before.  However, there are wonderful organizations that are trying to create that space in a controlled way. Like the Jazz Institute of Chicago and the Music Institute of Chicago.

Name two of your favorite collaborations and what did you enjoy most about the experiences?

I’d say my favorites to date are my collaboration with pianist Laurence Hobgood on my last record Love Stories. He was so wonderfully collaborative and I believe the music will stand the test of time.  When people ask me what my favorite thing is, it’s what I’m learning or how I’m growing at that moment. Let’s say my next favorite thing would be that I’m going into the studio to create some wonderful music with guitarist Fareed Haque.

Name a few of your favorite jazz standards.

This is like choosing from your children, but I’d have to say the works of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn really bring me immense joy to perform.

What new projects are you currently working on?

The new project that I’m working on with Guitarist Fareed Haque is very exciting!   We want to take the listener into a myriad of spaces. From the intimate to the crowded loud space of a juke joint. So we’ll have some voice and guitar pieces and some full ensemble. It’s gonna be quite an endeavor and I’m really looking forward to it.

Best part of being a jazz musician today?

The best part about being a jazz musician today is that we get to bring the world into a healing space. As musicians, we mark time and space with our art. For all that the pandemic has taken away from musicians, it has given us so much. It’s given us time to go inside. For some of us, we reconnect with the purest form of our music. In other cases, we must let the music have its way with our gifts. I’m grateful to press reset and I’m excited for what the future brings.

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Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist.

© 2022 Debbie Burke

Debbie Burke, author

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