In the ’80s, MaryLynn Gillaspie toured with Benny Goodman, met Dizzy Gillespie and was nominated for three Grammys as a member of the vocal jazz group Rare Silk.
For a jazz musician, it’s hard to get much better than that. But by the time Gillaspie decided to get back into jazz — just a few years ago — she hadn’t sang since Rare Silk disbanded in 1988.
“It was a challenge,” she says. “There was a lot of emotion when I tried to sing.”
But now she’s back in action, performing new and original music with a band of musicians from her past. Gillaspie formed Rare Silk in 1978 with her sister, Gaile, and Marguerite Juenemann. The trio sang oldtimey jazz in the style of the Andrews Sisters. There weren’t many groups like them on the national scene, let alone in Boulder, so the trio’s impeccable, soothing harmonies made them stand out. They built a small following, and they got their break in 1980.
“Benny Goodman was coming to Macky [Auditorium],” MaryLynn Gillaspie recalls. She called up Program Council, which was putting on the show, and asked if her group could open for him. Program Council was amenable.
“I got a call on my answering machine from Benny Goodman,” she says. “He was quite enamored with us.”
The show at Macky was a success, and Goodman invited the three to accompany him on his tour. The group went from performing in area clubs with local musicians to playing gigs for thousands backed by the top jazz vets in Goodman’s band. The group’s first performance with the clarinetist was at the Boston Globe Jazz Festival, which PBS broadcasted live. It was quite a bit of exposure for the young group, and they happily soaked it all in.
It was a break for Gillaspie, who says she didn’t receive any formal jazz training. It’s hard to believe when you listen to the Rare Silk recordings or watch the old performances with Goodman’s orchestra (some of which are on YouTube.) The three women sing in perfect harmony (pre-Autotune), each swell and vibrato and vocal shake executed exactly in sync. In lieu of formal training, Gillaspie says she instead grew up in a household full of jazz, and after high school her exposure to the music only increased.
“When I was 19, I fell in with these people that were just into straight-ahead jazz,” she says, referring to legends like John Coltrane, Miles Davis and others, and she’s grateful for the experience. “I grew up with it and then was force-fed the new stuff.”
The three were soaking up the success and the doors opened up by touring with Goodman, but they were restless. Goodman wanted them to sing standards, but they had their eyes on a more modern sound. They eventually parted ways, and the ladies added vocalist Todd Buffa to the ensemble and got a record deal with PolyGram.
With Buffa in tow, the group now had an incredibly unusual lineup. The other leading vocal jazz group at the time, The Manhattan Transfer, sported the standard two men, two women. Rare Silk had three women and one man, which made their sound markedly different. They recorded their first album, New Weave, in 1983, hiring the best session players money could buy, including Michael and Randy Brecker, Gary Bartz and Ronnie Cuber. The album garnered two Grammy nominations, and the group got to attend the award ceremony to watch Michael Jackson and company take down eight trophies for Thriller.
But shortly after, PolyGram inexplicably dropped the group, abandoning them to tour on their own.
Undeterred, the group continued to tour, and recorded two more albums on Palo Alto Records. But by 1988, tensions within the group started to rise, and Gillaspie and her sister made the decision to quit. Separating from the project felt like a divorce, Gillaspie says.
“It just kind of got to the point where it was more of a struggle than fun,” Gillaspie says, noting that financial struggles were started to dog the group.
“My identity was so wrapped up in being Rare Silk,” she says. “It was refreshing to not have that be part of my identity.”
She quit singing, started a photography business, raised a family. A few years ago, she decided she wanted to make music, and she had to overcome hurdles, physical and mental, to get her voice back into performance shape. She hooked up with guitarist Michael Schuller, who played with Rare Silk for years and who is now her main collaborator.
She’s making music that’s markedly different from what she did with Rare Silk, but her creative trajectory is the same. She and Schuller first started writing jazz-pop fusion, and now they want to start incorporating Ableton Live and a laptop into their sound. Just like in the ’80s, Gillaspie isn’t content to sit around making music that has already existed for years.
“We have no interest. It’s been done. We’re really into creating new sounds,” she says. “When I first started doing solo [shows], my first gig was at the Mercury [Lounge in Denver] with a pianist. ... I hired this guy and then it hit me. ... I didn’t want to just hand a guy a book of standards and say, ‘Let’s do it in this key.’”
She’s musically restless and eager to innovate. Who knows what could happen, but it’ll at least make for an interesting listen.
MaryLynn Gillaspie plays Caffe Sole at 8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 30. 637R S. Broadway, Boulder, 303-499-2985.