Q: When did your mother realize that you were so totally into singing?
A: I was three years old when she walked into the living room one day and saw me standing in a corner singing right into the wall. She just stood there for a minute trying to figure out why I was doing that until she realized I was doing it because I could hear my voice coming back at me echoing off the wall.
Q: Were there other gifted musicians in your family.
A: My maternal grandfather was an orchestra representative for jazz greats like Count Basie and Sarah Vaughan in the 1930s. He was a producer and choreographer for solider shows in the Army during World War II and the Korean War. My paternal grandfather was a professional violinist. While I studied dance and began taking private voice lessons at age 10, my brothers studied and played congas, bongos and Afro-Caribbean percussion instruments.
Q: Your maternal grandfather had a lot of influence on forming your musical taste early on, right?
A: A lot. I would spend every weekend at my grandparents' house, and my grandfather would have me listening to Billy Eckstine, the Andrews Sisters and Fats Waller on reel-to-reel tapes. I'd listen, and he'd say, 'Do you hear that? Listen to this one.' And he'd quiz me too. 'Who's singing now?' he'd ask to make sure I was listening and learning. On TV, I'd have to look at the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts with him, listening to Joan Sutherland, Leontyne Price, Grace Bumbry and Jessye Norman.
Q: When did you know what you wanted to be when you grew up?
A: In sixth grade we were encouraged to put what we wanted to be on the upper right-hand corner of all our writing assignments. I always put down singer and teacher. At New York's High School of Music and Art I did well in math and science, and even thought about going on to study neurology and bio-medical sciences because I thought I wanted to design mechanical body parts for transplants.
Q: After you graduated from Hartt, why did you stay in Hartford instead of going back home to New York City?
A: I liked Hartford and thought it would be a good place to start my life, so I stayed to teach music in Hartford public schools. Hartt School was my first choice for college. It was a Top-10 conservatory, small and tucked away, so I knew I could concentrate on my studies. I deliberately botched my audition at Manhattan School of Music because I didn't want to have to stay home and attend college in New York City.
Anyway, I loved my experience at Hartt, had great teachers and met my future husband who was an economics major at the University of Hartford.
Q: How about tours when you're thousands of miles away from the family home and hearth?
A: When I sat down with my husband [Wayne] and the kids the first time I had an opportunity to go to Europe, I told them I had this chance to do an 11-week tour, and asked them how they felt about that. My oldest son, who was then 13, said, 'You know what mom? You've been trying to do this for a long time, and we know that you love singing. So we want you to be happy. We'll be fine. Go.'
My mom and mother-in-law came up from New York to help intermittently, but Wayne manages the bulk of the responsibilities whenever I travel. My older sons always looked out for each other and helped with their youngest brother.
Q: What do you get out of teaching? Some singers and instrumentalists think teaching is a drag and a distraction interfering with their art.
A: If you have a gift, the gift is not for you to keep for yourself. It's for you to share. There has to be someone who comes after you in the next generation to pick up that torch and carry it. If you're not concerned with that, what are you leaving as a legacy?
Q: What are your thoughts on your latest album?
A: With "Rock of Ages," I found my niche in the sense of taking all these different styles and blending them together into what, I would say, is the truest representation of what my voice can do.
Q: I know that with your classical foundation, you have all the technical training to call upon as a performer. But, aside from virtuosity, how important for you is the element of pure feeling
A: It's absolutely essential. If I'm not telling a story, I'm not singing. It's that simple. Singing is sharing a gift and sharing a story. It doesn't matter if it's a full opera or one song, a cantata, an oratorio or a hymn. We're telling stories. We're sharing stories. If I can't feel that story and express that story with feeling, then I'm not singing. I'm just moving my mouth and making sounds.
Q: Not all that long ago historically, jazz and blues were demonized by some church folk as the devil's music. How do you reconcile mixing blues, R&B, jazz and other secular elements like that with sacred music like gospel, hymns and spirituals?
A: Let's go back to the 1940s and '50s when jazz was getting a bad rap from church- going families whose biggest complaint was that people took the gospel sound and infiltrated jazz with it, and that, they said, was sacrilegious. Well, now we're taking that sound back and putting it right back in gospel music. Jazz came from gospel music. Jazz came from spirituals, from the blues, from work songs, from pop music. It came from a combination of everything from within people that makes them feel. So we've taken all that back into the church. It's come home again. So, how is that sacrilegious?
Q: After all you've gone though, being cancer-free now and with your CD out there, is this like being given a second start in life?
A: Yes. I'm fine. I feel good. I'm healthy. I'm doing everything possible to maintain my health, exercising, eating healthy, staying active, staying positive.
Right now I'm focusing mainly on performing in churches. But I don't want to limit myself to churches because it's easy to have the church become a cocoon, a safe haven. And evangelism is part of my work, going to other places to let them hear God's incredible gift of music. This is what I'm called to do. God has put me here for a reason.
"ROCK OF AGES: HYMNS FOR THE SOUL" is available at CD Baby, Amazon, iTunes and on Brown's website through PayPal at www.jolierockebrown.com. Her debut disc, "Jolie Rocke Brown in Concert," is also available through PayPal on her website.