Jazz Philadelphia's Hometown Heroes: Spotlight on Vocalist Suzanne Cloud
Philadelphia’s Suzanne Cloud has maintained a life of making dynamic jazz and creating opportunities to benefit jazz, further jazz, and document jazz. So much so, on both sides of the ledger, that it’s hard to know where to start.
Should we begin with smoky vocal-filled albums such as 1986’s I Like It with the late, legendary Eddie Green? That she was a founding executive director of Jazz Bridge, which helps local jazz and blues musicians in times of medical and financial crisis? That Cloud is director of the Philadelphia Jazz Legacy Project, dedicated to finding and archiving elements of local jazz history? That she is the curator-editor of The Real Philadelphia Book’s second edition, which hosts compositions from 300+ jazz and blues writers? That she is one of the journalists in town who still covers arts and culture for the few publications that still care about arts and culture?
“Start with the fact that I didn’t even start with jazz, but, rather show tunes and disco,” Cloud said with a laugh. “My first love was musical theater from the time I was a kid,” she added, pointing out productions of The Pajama Game, The Fantastiks, Carousel, and South Pacific, for which she toured. “Rock and pop wasn’t my thing, though I did listen to WIBG. And when I really started singing professionally, it was either middle-of-the-road material or downtown disco stuff with a band called Autumn.”
What turned Cloud’s head around to jazz was the “vocal gymnastics” of Sarah Vaughn singing “I’ll Remember April,” as witnessed on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show, circa 1978. “I’ll never forget it. When I first started singing in front of people I was doing show tunes, very planned out material. I’d sung that canon since age 8. Same with disco—you had to sing it like the record. Seeing Vaughn set me off in a whole different trajectory. Do you want to do things exactly the same way every night, or do you want to scat-sing, have fun and experiment. There was no choice.”
With the change of music came a change of scene, with Cloud finding her tribe immediately in Philly’s jazz milieu and its masters; cats such as Catalyst keyboardist Eddie Green (“with whom I worked until he died”), bassist Tyrone Brown, pianist Uri Caine and saxophonist Denis DiBlasio. “I worked with giants,” she said, enthusiastically. “And I remember every bit of it.” And she does: ask her about getting arrested in Collingswood, New Jersey in what she believes was a racially charged incident with Green, or how the City of Philly gave its first so-called ‘jazz’ related award to an outsider, or the details of any giving recording session—recent sessions, included. She has answers.
“When I met Philly’s jazz community—one that was welcoming and supportive, no matter what—I met the community I would be a part of for the rest of my life. It was just a feeling of recognition.”
Being welcoming and supportive “no matter what,” figures into all elements of Cloud’s life, most philanthropically, when you consider Jazz Bridge, the organization she co-founded with fellow vocalist Wendy Simon, and how an ailing Eddie Green inspired their charity. “I wanted to live within Philly’s jazz community any way I could,” she said. Jazz Bridge was and is but a part of all that.
Take into account, too, that Cloud was trained as a nurse, and had returned to college for a graduate degree in history, and you get a feel for where she was coming from with all of her extracurricular activities, the not-for-profit Jazz Bridge included.
“Having played so many jazz clubs for so many years, I witnessed the greatest-of-the-greatest musicians just die like dogs, with no health insurance, no money to support them, and no one there to help. When Eddie got sick, that was his position. That couldn’t stand. And without Wendy, Jazz Bridge would not have happened. We would not have been able to deal with, and aid, musicians in crisis.” Jazz Bridge is still in operation (Cloud left in 2018), and its history of aid merits its own Hometown Heroes page.
Her work with the Jazz Legacy Project and her editing of The Real Philadelphia Book stems—as much of her life does—from this city’s “take” on that music, its soulful vibe and vibrant version of the jazz aesthetic, its hard, beloved compositions and its often secret history.
“I was always sad that people didn’t realize that their favorite song was written by a local jazz composer,” says Cloud, “or that so many of these personal or professional jazz stories were lost to time, that these talented people I loved and cared about would go without recognition. The City certainly wasn’t doing anything about this.”
Like everything else, Cloud took it upon herself and made things happen.
“They mark the fact that Philly jazz and its musicians are important, and that we must be counted. Listen to what we do. Listen to what we’re about. It’s my mission, my calling, to make sure that we are accounted for.”
In the account, Cloud’s own contributions to the Philadelphia jazz scene—her fierce protection of the musicians, her love and respect for the music, of her enchantment with our city’s history and her attempts to document it—are duly noted on both the ledger lines and staff lines, and will be for years to come.