RUTH NAOMI FLOYD
By Deborah Johnson and Terrence Richburg 2009

Ruth Naomi Floyd's music "marries a firm Christian conviction to a keenly felt appreciation for improvisation," all fueled by her love of God, His Word and the compelling influence of Jazz music. She says, "When I use the word 'Gospel' in relation to the music I offer, I am referring to the lyrical text that finds its root in the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ, not a style of music. Whereas, when I use the word 'Jazz' in relation to the music I offer, I am referring to the way the music sounds in relation to the rhythms, the chord structure, the harmony and the improvisation."

Ruth is "a gifted vocalist-composer, who has been at the forefront of creating vocal Jazz settings that express Christian theology for over 13 years." She leads her own ensemble and her recordings are primarily original compositions. Listening to the music of Ruth and her band, you get the impression that they are "so in tuned with each other they appear to flow from the same mind, heart, soul and spirit." Never before has the experience of Jazz improvisation and the Word of the Gospel been more delicately and elegantly intertwined, with a hint of Classical and the rhythms of her African heritage in the mix. The anointing that encompasses the music, the lyrics and the vocal prowess of the incredibly astounding Ruth Naomi Floyd will leave you changed forever.

JGC was introduced to the music of this phenomenal vocalist by world-renowned bassist John Patitucci . During our interview with John, he suggested we check out an awesome Jazz singer out of Philly name Ruth Naomi Floyd . We immediately did so and have been singing her praises ever since.

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JGC : How did you get your start as a vocalist and artist, and what made you gravitate towards Jazz as a genre?

Ruth: I come from a family that really loves music. We grew up listening to Leontyne Price, Mahalia Jackson, Marian Anderson, a lot of classical music. My parents decided that when they did have children, they would have their children study music. They definitely sacrificed to do that with me and my sisters; we each play piano and two other instruments. It's nothing more complex than I'm the daughter of a Black, Baptist preacher. We started in church choirs and mostly singing with my dad, who is an urban missionary. I continued on through high school and then had an opportunity to go to France to do a concert. The first half of the concert was Jazz standards. The second half consisted of spiritual and Gospel songs done with Jazz music. A French reporter came backstage to interview me. She said, "I loved the freedom vocally you had in the first set with the Jazz standards, but, there was something deep that you communicated, soulful, about who you were singing about in the second half. I really want both. You need to work on that," and, that was it. I thought about it and said, I'll do a combination of both. I'll sing about my Great Redeemer and put it to Jazz improvisational music. I came back and started doing that. Out of that came Paradigms for Desolate Times . It was a really wonderful, profound moment.

JGC: How and when did you come to be a believer in Christ?

Ruth: Certainly being a PK [Pastor's Kid] and MK [Minister's Kid], it surrounded me even in the womb. But, in my late teens, I said I need to make sure that this is something I believe in without these beautiful, profound and wonderful influences. I really need to know that I believe the foundation of this faith in a real way. I took some time and just went over it and asked questions of friends, ministers and mentors who would really give it to me straight. I didn't sway off the path, I didn't have a conflict or crisis of faith, it was just to make sure that it was "just me, me, O, Lord, standing in the need of prayer," and that faith was something that I embraced and God had called me to.

JGC: You have an incredible voice which is very much suited to singing the difficult intervals that are normally in Jazz. What formal training and education prepared you to perform Jazz with such passion?

Ruth: If you listen at my CDs, about 70% is instrumental, including Classical, Jazz, Folk and all different styles of music. I also go to a lot of instrumental concerts. Don't get me wrong, I love listening to and experiencing the human singing voice. I listen to all the great singers -Jazz, Folk, Classical, Opera, Gospel - but also listen to the instrumentalists and learn from them. My degree is in Fine Arts [Photography], not in music, but I am a student of it and have always invested time and money to educate myself. Right now, my teachers are the great flutist and composer, James Newton, and James Weidman, who is also my musical director.

JGC: Tell us about your latest CD, Root to the Fruit.

Ruth: I have a running joke with my friends. I say, if you don't understand what I'm doing by the time you've listened to my five CDs, particularly Root to the Fruit , you're just not going to get it. I had to go through the other four CDs to get to it - to the "Fruit." It's very straight-ahead and directly addresses and honors the African-American spirituals as being the root of Jazz music - of most American music, if not all, but certainly Jazz. I'm excited about that because obviously that spirit of Christian faith is at the heart of it, too. Root to the Fruit is the staple of what I identify as Gospel lyrics with Jazz improvisational music. It's a strong example of what some people call "Gospel-Jazz."

JGC: So, would you say that of the projects that you've done, Root to the Fruit is probably your favorite and expresses the heart of ministry for you?

Ruth: It's like picking your favorite child. I look back and I see and hear different things. I would say that Root to the Fruit is a culmination for me of the four previous CDs. I wouldn't say favorite, I would say newest. The newest baby, and because it's new, it gets the most attention for a while then it gets in line with the rest of them.

JGC: In listening to your recordings, Debbi [Johnson] of JGC said that you and your musicians are so in tuned with each other that it would seem that you all flow from the same mind, heart, soul, and spirit. Give us some insight into the incredible chemistry that seems to exist between you and your musicians.

Ruth: I would say, number one, they are not musicians who can play Jazz. They are not musicians who happen to play Jazz. They are Jazz musicians. They have sat at the feet of this genre of music and have studied and are brilliant and experts in it. That's one of the main things. Number two, - and I was greatly criticized for this - I really allow them to play. It's not just, "take a chorus and thank you very much, I'll take care of the rest." I allow them the freedom to bring in their style, brilliance, giftedness, and musicianship to the music and allow them to communicate and express themselves within the music. It's very much a collaborative effort. I have musicians, who I trust, and a lot of them have been great mentors to me and I think they really enjoy playing with me because they can play. To not have them play is crazy.

Not all of the members of my bands are Christians or believers. I had a choice early on - do I choose Christians who can play Jazz, or do I choose Jazz musicians? When I started out over 15 years ago, this combination was not embraced, particularly in the Christian community. It was called the "devil's music," and I was asked, "What are you doing?" There were people who didn't understand it, even people who loved me, who just didn't know their history and didn't think Jazz was the correct vehicle to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For me, as much attention and focus that I put on the lyrics, I also want the music to be that way and I'm grateful for the wisdom of that the Lord gave me. Attention was garnered in the secular press because the musicians were so great and the musicianship was at a high level. We sometimes need to be reminded that God's instruction was to play skillfully. It's a very convicting, encouraged message that God gives to the psalmist for all of us to do it with excellence. To do that, I needed musicians who could do it well. I definitely prayed and thought through about who to choose.

JGC: What does the term "Gospel Jazz" mean to you, and how does it apply musically to what you do as an artist?

Ruth: Gospel is not a way of singing, and that's the biggest thing I have to combat. People are expecting a Gospel singer to sing over Jazz chords or a Jazz vamp or Jazz music. For me, Gospel Jazz means communicating and proclaiming the unadulterated Gospel of Jesus Christ. When I think about Jazz improvisational music, it's taking a melodic line and improvising on it with chords and with syncopating rhythms. I think sometimes what Gospel Jazz means to one person, it means something different for someone else. For me, it's something separate, but brought together as a beautiful combination.

JGC: What would you say was your defining moment as a Jazz artist and vocalist?

Ruth: Musically, the most defining thing that has happened to me was walking into a rehearsal to do Paradigms for Desolate Times and seeing all these brilliant musicians from different backgrounds and different journeys and saying to myself, "When I walk in this room, I will be the weakest link. They know it and I know it." Terri Lyne Carrington on the drums, Bryan Carrott on vibes, Craig Handy on saxophone, Kevin Bruce Harris on bass, Ed Howard on acoustic and Uri Caine on piano. It was my first recording right out the gate, but feeling, in a sense, that as the leader of the record I had the right to be there. I appreciated their willingness to be patient with me, to show me, to correct me, and for me to be able to sit and learn from them. It was a very humbling and grateful moment.

Spiritually, as a Christian, it was really this process I was going through. This wasn't a whim; this wasn't just "what's in the market that hasn't been done?" It was really about taking that French journalist's words to heart and reflecting upon it and saying, "She's right. There's something that's missing in that first set, and I want more freedom in that second set. My dad has always taught us to think critically about things, to be deep thinkers. I came back to Philadelphia, and I thought critically. I examined Duke's work, Marian's, all the Jazz music that talked about Christian faith or even spiritual things. For me, the most defining moment was realizing that I didn't have to spend but so much time on it because we serve a God who is clearly improvisational. From Genesis 1 to the great improvisation on the cross. That it should have been you and me nailed there, but He said to His Father, "I will go down there, prepare me a body, I will go down and die." Then there's the improvisational images of Revelations, the improvisation that will go on in eternity, when we'll see Him in all His beauty, all His glory and have the chance to worship Him, every tongue, every nation. For me, that was profound. I felt the Lord saying, "Go, yes." Those two different events really crystallized and gave me the confidence and the green light to go forward.

JGC: Where have your travels taken you to perform and what places were the most memorable and why?

Ruth: I've been to several cities across the United States. I've been to London and France several times. For the first time in January, I went to the Czech Republic, Prague, Hungary and Ireland, and that was really wonderful. I've done some music in Africa, but that was not necessarily Jazz, per se. It was more involved with my HIV/AIDS ministry and part of that had a musical component. I've also done some singing in Egypt. Each one has just been so profound. For me, I take very seriously being invited into another country, another culture. Such great cultures, that are so rich and dense with their own art and music. It's hard to pick just one. Each one has such a special moment. My most recent trip, to Prague in the Czech Republic, I did a concert there and we decided to do a lot of spirituals and weave a story of hope and redemption. It was called "Heaven in a Night Club." We told the story of enslaved Africans in America and musically traced it all the way from Spirituals, to the Blues, to Jazz, to present day.

JGC: What goals do you have on the horizon? Do you have a new project you're working on?

Ruth: I do. When I first started Root to the Fruit , I was very excited. I was looking forward to a big CD release party, a big concert. I wanted to share it, people wanted to hear it. But, when it was done, it was very quiet. I felt that this season, if you will, of these five CDs was for a purpose to address certain things. I've really begun hearing different kinds of sounds, rhythms and melodies in my heart and mind and so I'm working on a body of music that I hope to start recording some time next year. Definitely, absolutely going to be Jazz - I've got to have that bass and drums - but, it's going to be wider. When I say wider, it's going to be different colors. I think it will sound a little different; the foundation of it, but there will still be a common thread throughout it. It will be a different season that I am in as a composer, as a vocalist, as a person, and as a Christian. I'm really excited about that and looking forward to the future.

JGC: In reading your bio, it states that you are the co-founder of Contour Records . Is this your label and do you have distribution?

Ruth: Yes, along with Keith R. McKinley, Esq. , we co-founded Contour Records in 1994. The first CD was handled by a distributor, but for the other four we've done our own distribution. Thank God for the web and other outlets that are now available.

JGC: You know we received information about you from John Patitucci . How did you meet him and when and where did you all connect?

Ruth: There's a wonderful ministry, The Chesterton House in Ithaca, NY at Cornell University that brought us all together. They were doing a fundraiser, and John Pattitucci is a friend of Karl Johnson, the Director of the ministry. He also knew Bill Edgar, a brilliant theologian and Jazz pianist. They asked John, Bill and me to be a part of the recording, Heaven in a Nightclub . We all came together in New York and did a live recording, and it was great. John and I met and talked, and I got to know him. Of course, I was well acquainted with his music, so it was a privilege to meet him and it was a great experience to share the stage with him. We look forward to doing some things in the future.

JGC: How can people get in touch with you for bookings or purchase your CDs?

Ruth: They can go to my website which is www.contourrecords.com or www.ruthnaomifloyd.com .

End notes: Ruth is an educator and teaches a Jazz, Pop course at Philadelphia Biblical University; teaches K-8 at Spruce Hill Christian School; and directs a high school choir.

Passionate about and especially close to her heart is her consulting and work with two different ministries to people infected and affected by HIV and AIDS. She says, "My giftedness is in the last stages, in the last season of their lives, to walk with people along that path until their lives are over." She also ministers to those in the transgender community sharing the holistic Gospel of Jesus Christ in love.