3:55pm

Fri April 1, 2011
Music Interviews

Ella Leya: American Jazz By Way Of Azerbaijan

Ella Leya has quite a voice and quite a story. Born in Azerbaijan, she was a Muslim girl who loved jazz. When a couple of influential Americans heard Leya sing, they helped her and her son Sergei leave the USSR. They wound up in the U.S., where she married a rabbi and settled in Chicago.

Leya's new album, The Secret Lives of Women, features songs about Anne Boleyn, Cleopatra, Princess Diana and Sappho, all of whom Leya says inspire her.

Leya calls Azerbaijan "a magical land, just a magic carpet away." She grew up in a part of the country that was partially Muslim and partially Soviet, mixing religion with communism. Her first musical influence was mugham, an indigenous improvisational form of singing, before she learned classical music and jazz.

"Initially, I thought that classical was going to be my life, my future, but hearing jazz, I just ... I had to try to do it," Leya says in an interview with Weekend Edition host Scott Simon. "I can probably say that I was the first girl to play piano and sing jazz in a club in Baku [Azerbaijan's capital]."

Performing in a club across the street from the American Embassy in Moscow, Leya found out that billionaire business tycoon Armand Hammer was having a party for his 90th birthday. She was asked to give Hammer and his coterie a tour of Moscow's jazz scene and, in time, Hammer helped bring Leya to the U.S. But tragedy struck her life as she settled into a Chicago suburb with her new husband. Her son was diagnosed with leukemia and died right before his 9th birthday.

"I remember one lady gave me very good advice: 'You can never overcome, just keep yourself busy,' " Leya says. "I think it's in human nature to grab any reason to continue on. And, for me, it was going back to music."

Looking Back To Look Ahead

Complex lives connect all of the women who inspired The Secret Lives of Women, Leya says.

"Femme Fatale" is Leya's tribute to Mata Hari, whom she calls the "ultimate archetype of femme fatale." During WWI, the Dutch exotic dancer spent much of her time with high-ranking officers on both sides and witnessed many secret conversations. She was accused of being a German spy and executed by firing squad in France.

Princess Diana inspired "Irresistible Lies," which Leya calls a "beautiful fairytale that turned into a nightmare of lies and loneliness and, ultimately, self-destruction."

"In a way, putting words and giving voice to these women, I also wanted to learn more about myself, to see what's ahead of me," Leya says. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, host:

SIMON: Jazz singer Ella Leya, its quite a voice, isn't it? And she has quite a story. She was born in Azerbaijan, a Muslim girl in the old Soviet Union who loved jazz and married a high-ranking Soviet army officer. She sang for a Moscow jazz orchestra, although by law, though days, she couldn't sing in English. They had a son. A couple of influential Americans heard Ella Leya sing, and helped her and her son, Sergey, leave the USSR and immigrate to the United States, where she married a rabbi and settled in Chicago.

And we'll get to the rest of the story in a while, but first, Ella Leya has a new CD, "Secret Lives of Women" and on it she sings about Anne Boleyn, Cleopatra, Princess Diana, Mata Hari, Sappho and Sarah Bernhardt, remarkable women, all of whom she says have been a great source of inspiration for a remarkable singer.

Ella Leya joins us from NPR West. Thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. LEYA: Thanks you for having me.

SIMON: Tell us about the Azerbaijan of your childhood.

Ms. LEYA: I always say that it's a magical land just a magic carpet away. I grew up in the country, Azerbaijan that was partially Muslim, partially Soviet; so very interesting combination of Communism and religion, Muslim religion. Moscow was far enough so we could probably say that we had more freedom than the rest of the Soviet Union had. Lots of music. For example, Mugham, its a traditional Azerbaijani form of improvisational singing.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Ms. LEYA: Thats what probably my first influence - a musical influence. Then I studied classical music and then I was introduced to jazz. Initially, I felt that classical music is going to be my life, my future, but hearing jazz I just, I had to try to do it. And I was - I can say probably the first girl who played piano and sang jazz in a club in Baku.

SIMON: Now I gather that you were a big hit in Moscow, but earned about as much as a bus driver, which is good and honest work but probably not what you're thinking when you going into show business.

Ms. LEYA: I will tell you a funny story. We recorded an album of children's songs.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Ms. LEYA: And before even I left the Soviet Union, the number of sold recordings stood somewhere around three million and I earned 15 rubles.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEYA: I wouldnt even know how to compare it to American...

SIMON: Fifteen rubles is not $15 million but it's probably closer to what, a dollar or something.

Ms. LEYA: I don't know. But I have to say that on the other hand, there was something very pure about just being an artist.

SIMON: You were not discovered by like Sir Elton John or Sir Cameron Mackintosh, but a couple of influential people at any rate. If you could tell us the story. You were singing in a jazz club, well, I'll get you to pick it up.

Ms. LEYA: Yes. I performed at a club that was located across the street from the American embassy and once I was told that its Armand Hammer is having his group for his 90th birthday in Moscow.

SIMON: This is the man often described as billionaire industrialist, Armand Hammer.

Ms. LEYA: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEYA: He was surrounded with very interesting people. And they asked me to show them jazz Moscow and I took them through a few jazz clubs. They were all, of course, underground and we had wonderful time and later they helped me to come to this country.

SIMON: You left - let me see if I can put this together you left your husband who was the Soviet army officer.

Ms. LEYA: Yes.

SIMON: You came to the United States. You married the rebbe.

Ms. LEYA: Yes.

SIMON: And you settled in the Wilmette, right outside Chicago.

Ms. LEYA: Yes.

SIMON: And you're living a happy life and then...

Ms. LEYA: We started. Yes. We started living beautiful life.

SIMON: And then your son got sick.

Ms. LEYA: It just happened. Mama, my tummy hurts. That was it.

SIMON: He was nine?

Ms. LEYA: He was, when was diagnosed with leukemia he was five-and-a-half years old but he died a few days before his ninth birthday.

SIMON: I'm so sorry.

Ms. LEYA: You know, it's what - I remember one lady gave me very good advice. She said you can never overcome, just keep yourself busy. And then you - its, I think it's of human nature to grab for any reason to continue on. And for me it was going back to music.

SIMON: Thank you for talking to us about that. And well talk about this new CD, Secret Lives of Women.

Ms. LEYA: Yes.

SIMON: In fact, lets listen to, if we could, Femme Fatale.

(Soundbite of song, Femme Fatale)

Ms. LEYA: (Singing) Shes a mistress of deceit. Before you know youre at her feet. She steels your money and your heart. Shes like a fine work of art. A secret alley of desire, that takes you higher, higher, higher, until her...

SIMON: Song about Mata Hari, huh?

Ms. LEYA: Yeah. She's the ultimate archetype of femme fatale, an exotic dancer. And it's very interesting because she was in a way at the beginning of the 20th century, Hollywood star-like. She was also courtesan and she liked to spend time with high-ranking officers on both sides.

SIMON: We're talking about World War I now.

Ms. LEYA: Yes, World War I.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEYA: Just, she witnessed a lot of conversations and secrets and everything and someone just wanted to get rid of her and she was accused of being a German spy, which there's no evidence whatsoever, but she was shot.

SIMON: I want to ask you about a song that is very sad for almost everybody still, and this is the song Irresistible Lies.

(Soundbite of song, Irresistible Lies)

Ms. LEYA: (Singing) I won my sweetest prize, your irresistible lies. Blue like the morning skies, your irresistible lies.

SIMON: You imagine this as Princess Diana's song.

Ms. LEYA: Of course. And she was the one I, kind of inspired me to create this work - this beautiful fairytale that turned into nightmare of lies and loneliness and then ultimately, self-destruction.

(Soundbite of song, Irresistible Lies)

Ms. LEYA: (Singing) You placed me on a throne and left me all alone. A foolish queens demise, your irresistible lies.

SIMON: Is there a part of you that identifies with all of these women?

Ms. LEYA: I think that one thing that unites probably me and reflects on their lives is very complex lives and a lot of changes that each of my heroines had to go through. In case of Anne Boleyn, its a (unintelligible) knights daughter to have being crowned as the Queen of England, then from the throne of England to the block. In case of Mata Hari is again, coming from the where? Becoming a star of the stage and then being shot, executed. So working and writing, in a way putting words and giving voice to these women, I wanted also to learn more about myself, to see whats ahead of me.

SIMON: I'm glad you're doing well.

Ms. LEYA: You know, it's music. You cannot do badly with music.

SIMON: Ella Leya, her new CD, Secret Lives of Women. Its so nice to talk to you.

Ms. LEYA: Thank you.

(Soundbite of song, What Goes Around Comes Around)

Ms. LEYA: (Singing) I had enough, what to say? Just another throwaway song against the wall, all alone with your lies, 10 miles long...

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

(Soundbite of song, What Goes Around Comes Around)

Ms. LEYA: (Singing) Im nowhere to be found, wasted and coy, with another rich boy. What goes around comes around. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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