Our next Culture Connection concert on Saturday, October 29 at Central Library will feature the soulful sounds of Milton Suggs, a commanding singer who's built his modern style on the struggles, triumphs, and stories of the generations that have preceded him.
As a third-generation musician, Milton recognized music as a gift from a young age. It was much later that he began to accept it as a calling. Beginning as a pianist and later incorporating voice, Milton began his journey in his hometown of Chicago and further honed his craft and developed his artistic vision in New York. He attended Columbia College Chicago to study piano and also received a Master’s in Jazz Studies from DePaul University. His latest album, The Truth Inside, is available now.
Milton answered some questions for us before his Culture Connection concert.
What role have libraries played in your life?
I began going to libraries quite religiously once I started college. While living in Chicago, I would visit the Harold Washington Library weekly and check out music scores, autobiographies of musicians and other notable black historical figures, and works of fiction and nonfiction dealing with any number of subjects, from history to cultural analysis and criticism. My visits were and are essential to augmenting my education and giving me the tools and insight I need to advance my career.
Which performers and albums have inspired your career as a musician?
All of the greats! If you can name them, I claim them. This is always a tough question to answer because the answers are so vast. I truthfully take something from everyone I listen to, but the most obvious are Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, Bob Marley, Louis Armstrong, Quincy Jones, Mahalia Jackson, and more recently pianists Kenny Kirkland and Mulgrew Miller.
As a performer, you like to use “vocalese,” where you write lyrics for classic songs that were originally all-instrumental compositions. Can you talk more about this musical style and what drew you to it? And what’s your favorite vocalese song?
Vocalese is a style popularized by legends such as Eddie Jefferson and Jon Hendricks. A lot of vocalists utilize it to enhance their creative expression and add another dimension to their performances. I was drawn to it for those reasons. I don't mind scatting every now and then, but early on I felt a need to do something more. I wanted to uphold that tradition, but also utilize my own skills as a writer and expound upon ideas presented in song titles and lyrics. Also, it makes you more functional and a more active contributor in jam sessions or performances, so that a singer isn't just singing the head in and head out. My favorite vocalese is “Moody's Mood for Love” by Eddie Jefferson.
You recently visited the brand-new National Museum of African American History and Culture and its many exhibits on the history of black music. How was that experience? And how important is the history of black music to what you express in your own art?
The museum was amazing! It is so vast and so extensive that it's impossible to really experience it in just one day. You would need an entire week in there to really ingest it all. I draw a lot of artistic strength and insight from the history of our music. It helps me to stay mindful of the purpose and legacy of the music of which I am a part. I’m reminded that I have to be honest and true to my experiences in order to create from a place of authenticity. From the beginning, black music in America was never solely about entertainment, but also about protest, social commentary, spirituality, and revolution. These are the elements that I am constantly inspired to include in my own artistic expression, as a continuation of our legacy in our enduring pursuit of freedom.
What are some of your favorite books and who are your favorite authors?
One of my absolute favorites is Standing at the Scratch Line by Guy Johnson. I liked Walter Mosley's work from a young age, and Walter Dean Myers was very important to me as an adolescent in a new and culturally unfamiliar school environment. In the realm of non-fiction, I am continually studying Dr. Yosef Ben-Jochannon, Cheikh Anta Diop, John Henrik Clarke, and scholars of their ilk. And most recently, Ta-Nehisi Coates has inspired me to take up my own literary pursuits.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to be a professional singer?
Find, develop, and accept your voice, in both a literal and metaphoric sense. Always aspire to honesty, authenticity, and integrity.
What can our customers expect at your concert here at Queens Library?
They should expect an honest performance, feel-good music, to learn more about me, my journey, and my values, and maybe even to participate. And if they leave inspired or entertained, then I will consider it a job well done.