By Joan Schweighardt
Bloomers Blazing is a regular feature at BLOOM, presenting interviews with (and stories about) people who found their life’s passion after the age of 40.
Marietta Benevento had the advantage of meeting her muse at a very early age; she always knew she loved music and that her relationship with it would set up the parameters for the decisions she would make throughout her life. Accordingly, she hung in there, even when it became clear that her genre of choice—jazz—was seldom as welcoming to women as it was to men, even when the challenges of everyday living threatened to pull her in other directions. And when opportunities to move forward required the help of already established musicians, she fell back on her unwavering belief in her own worthiness and petitioned until those musicians acknowledged her talents and agreed to help.
Joan Schweighardt: How did you come to study jazz at the Berklee School of Music?
Marietta Benevento: I had been singing in rock bands in high school and also in college (at Northwestern University). During my freshman year, a friend turned me on to jazz, and by the end of my sophomore year, I decided to focus on studying the music I was now so in love with. Jazz moves me, delights me, engages my mind, and feeds my soul!
I waited tables in a hamburger shack near campus, saved as much money as I could, and then persuaded a hippie friend with a VW bus to move me to Boston, where I enrolled in Berklee. At that time, they had no vocal department, so I registered as a composition major with piano as my instrument.
JS: Berklee is very expensive, yes? How did you manage it?
MB: I believe Berklee is expensive now, but it wasn’t so much back in the early 1970s. I took a loan to pay tuition, found a share in a funky apartment, worked part-time in a record store, and I scraped by.
JS: Did you anticipate that your studies (at Berklee) would lead you to a career in music?
MB: I felt very serious about making music my life work, but I had a lot to learn, and I wasn’t sure how things would unfold. I was in a couple of different combos, gigging in restaurants and bars around Boston, singing covers of popular rock and R&B, and also doing some studio work. But, being young and female and a vocalist, actual jazz gigs were hard to find. Jazz at that time was overwhelmingly male-dominated and instrumental. So I was kind of searching, until one night I caught the great jazz singer Sheila Jordan at a local club. I was knocked out by her creativity as an improviser, her emotional courage with lyrics, her phrasing and sound. Not long after that, I left Boston and moved to New York in hopes of studying with her.
JS: And did you have the opportunity to do that?
MB: Oh, yes. The very day after I arrived in the city, I called Sheila from a pay phone and introduced myself. She told me she wasn’t taking private students, but I wouldn’t accept it. I remember pleading: “You can’t say no! I’m calling from the street and living out of a suitcase; I moved here to learn from you!” She was amazingly kind, and said I could come meet her and visit a class she was teaching at the Manhattan School of Music. So I did that, and I also got all her records and played them over and over, and I called her to talk music on the phone like three times a week, and I followed her around to all her gigs and hung out with her on her breaks. We got friendly and she saw I was serious, and after a while, she started inviting me to sit in on her last sets at a club called The Tin Palace. She worked with great musicians, and it was a thrill to get up and sing with them and an honor to be invited up and encouraged by Sheila. My gratitude to her is boundless.
JS: Where did your career go from there?
MB: Within a year or so, I was getting some gigs of my own, but never enough to rely on. To make rent, I burned through a bunch of part-time jobs—waitressing, cold-call phone marketing, and the like—all pretty terrible and dispiriting. I saw that even Sheila, with her incredible accomplishment, couldn’t only sing jazz for a living but also worked full-time as a secretary. I figured I had best finish college (which I did, as a major in psychology at Columbia University) and discover a more dependable way to go. It hurt a lot to give up the musical career dream, but I never felt I would give up music itself. That would be impossible for me.
JS: How did you get into advertising?
MB: Psych was considered a good background for advertising, and I first found my way in as a junior copywriter for a small sales promo agency in downtown Manhattan. There was an excellent copy chief there who whipped my writing chops into good shape. Over the next two decades, I moved onward and upward to larger midtown agencies and eventually wound up as a creative director for accounts servicing various divisions within AT&T, IBM, Merck, the U.S. Postal Service, Kraft Foods, and other large corporations. The work was demanding, but it paid well and was also quite often exciting. And the people I worked with were smart and ambitious and talented, which made it fun. At the same time, as I had promised myself, I kept going with music: I studied classical voice for ten years, taking private lessons with a wonderful teacher. I was so lucky to find him! I also sang for several years with a very fine choir. We performed a wide range of classical and modern works in major venues, including Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. That was great musical experience.
JS: But then you later left New York?
MB: By the time I reached my early 50s, the ad biz was changing, becoming more and more numbers-driven, with less creative stretch. I was feeling more and more cramped and pressured on the job, and my love relationship with my man had hit its limits. I was burnt out and angry, and I totally needed to open a new life chapter. I had been out to New Mexico in the past and loved it, and I decided it was a place where I might find room to breathe and let go, live more freely.
JS: What career changes did you make once you settled in Albuquerque?
MB: At the ad agency I had always liked bringing young writers and designers along, helping them learn the business and launch their careers. I thought of myself as a kind of teacher in that light, so going into the classroom seemed like a good choice for my new life in New Mexico. I got certified and earned my masters in education, and boy, did I find out how hard it is to teach in our public schools!
JS: After all the prep you had to go through to get into teaching, did you feel disappointed? How long did you stay in education?
MB: I started out with high hopes, and cared a lot for the kids in my classes, but the overriding emphasis on testing was terrible policy. I taught for eight years in high-needs areas and schools categorized and condemned by the system as failing. But, really, it was the system itself that was failing. When my combined age and time on the job were enough to retire, I rather sadly decided to leave.
JS: Did you assume that you would return to music?
MB: If “return to music” means return to paid performance, I wasn’t always into that. But I never stopped loving music or going on with my learning. The first years I lived in Albuquerque, I didn’t know anyone in the music community, and teaching school kept me very busy, but I had bought myself a piano and I sang around my house. Then a friend talked me into doing a few tunes at a showcase she was producing. I sang along with pre-recorded CDs, kind of like jazz karaoke, I guess. It was a kick, and afterward I thought I should look around for opportunities to do more—and do it with live musicians.
JS: How much work was it to set up with a band and put together demos and all the other stuff you had to do to start playing gigs?
MB: To get started, I bugged this one fabulous pianist I’d heard, until he finally agreed to meet with me. He wound up helping me get my stuff together and also put me in touch with additional musicians for my demo. Then there was a website to build and promo materials to create and so forth. That took some doing, but my advertising background came in handy. Looking for gigs was and is another story. Live music gigs—especially jazz gigs—are very, very hard to locate and hold onto. These days, rather than searching around for gigs, I think mostly about musical projects I want to work on, and when the time is right, I’ll put a performance together.
JS: At what point did you begin to feel that you were truly becoming part of the Albuquerque jazz scene, and what was that like to realize that?
MB: When I first started singing out around town, I was anxious to prove myself. For a couple of years, I went to a lot of jam sessions, and I do mean a lot! It was an ideal way to meet and hear people and also to be heard. Plus it meant players already known were “up” for making music with me when I later moved on to doing actual gigs of my own. Leading up to one of the first major concerts I put together, I was fortunate to be featured in a local cultural magazine and also to be interviewed and have my music played on local public radio, which certainly raised my profile and helped to bring in an audience.
I’m deeply grateful that two major jazz-supporting organizations in town have now sponsored me in concerts at major venues across a few seasons. But really, the happiest thing above all is feeling welcome among and connected to the many superb musicians, singers, dancers, and other creative artists here in Albuquerque. It’s a beautiful community and I love being part of it!
Check out samples of Marietta’s work.
Joan Schweighardt is the author of Before We Died and other novels.
Photographs courtesy of Joan Benevento