Whether you’re into a fast-paced improvisational sound or the smooth, mellow tones of the piano bar, jazz is a genre that can deliver what you crave. It’s a sound that can be at once nostalgic and incredibly new and fresh, sophisticated and also playful, upbeat or melancholy. For vocalist and Ottawa native Renée Yoxon, jazz is a love affair that began in her teens and has since turned into a successful and fulfilling career.
Though music was ultimately her calling, Yoxon initially pursued a degree in physics. But although they may seem almost diametrically opposed, she asserts that jazz and science are actually much closer than many people think. “To be an exceptional scientist you have to be a creative person,” she explains. “To design and experiment and adjust all the variables and to think outside the box, that requires a creative [mindset]. A person who doesn’t excel in creativity isn’t able to take the leaps that are required to make scientific breakthroughs.
“On the flipside,” she says, “music can actually be very regimented because if you want to get better at music you have to sit down in a room and practise the same thing over and over again until you’re good at it. So both things, both science and music, require both creativity and rigidity.”
Yoxon now performs and teaches full-time and is pursuing a degree in music at McGill University. She returns from Montreal each week to teach, though she confesses that her Ottawa performances have been less numerous of late. On Feb 14, she’s set to play the National Arts Centre’s Fourth Stage, joined by pianist Jeff Johnston and Fraser Hollins on bass, as part of the Ottawa Winter Jazz Festival.
“I’ve been really putting a lot of myself into [this performance],” she says. “It’s a little bit of a departure from what I think I’m known for in Ottawa. I’ve done a lot of jazz standards and it’s still that in a way, but I’ve taken inspiration from old musical-theatre songs as sung by some contemporary jazz singers. So it’s going to be really — as opposed to bouncy and happy — it’s kind of a sad, dramatic, introspective show.” Perfect, she observes wryly, for Valentine’s Day. “I’m really looking forward to sharing it because all the songs are a little bit off the beaten path and really unique.”
As a queer woman performing in a genre that has traditionally been dominated by heterosexual artists, Yoxon says her identity has greatly informed the music she makes. “My appearance is a little more queer than most contemporary jazz singers; I have short hair, tattoos, things like that, and I don’t try and hide my identity at all. It’s a crucial part of the choices that I make musically and how I dress and everything.”
She has also found a niche of other queer women jazz musicians in Montreal, which has provided her with an important support network. “In Ottawa, it was a challenge because I really felt isolated,” she says.
It’s clear that Yoxon is now in a confident place with both her career and herself and that, like jazz, she’s always evolving.