by Ian Mann
April 04, 2022
Ian Mann pays personal tribute to the great jazz vocalist Tina May, who left us far too early on March 26th 2022.
Photograph of Tina May by Bob Meyrick
Memories of Tina May (1961 – 2022)
I was deeply shocked to hear of the death of the great jazz vocalist and lyricist Tina May, who has passed away far too early at the age of just sixty.
I’ve been listening to Tina’s singing for more than thirty years and have enjoyed seeing her performing live on numerous occasions, the most recent of these being at Kidderminster Jazz Club just seven months ago on August 5th 2021. Here she gave a brilliant performance in the company of the ‘house band’, bringing the best out of her fellow musicians and both charming and enthralling the audience.
Here’s a paragraph taken from my account of that event, which I like to think sums up Tina’s approach to music making in a nutshell;
“An excellent evening of music that was a cut above the average ‘guest vocalist plus house band’ provincial jazz club session. Much of this was down to Tina May herself, a technically gifted vocalist, a skilled interpreter of a lyric and a confident and engaging stage presence. A consummate professional May was also able to bring out the best in her band, all of whom performed admirably”.
The full review can be found here;
Tina was in terrific form at Kidderminster, which makes the news of her untimely death so saddening. Even now I can hardly believe it, I haven’t been so distressed by a ‘celebrity’ death for a very long time.
This isn’t intended to be an ‘official’ obituary or a comprehensive overview of Tina’s career, instead it’s just a few personal memories of a jazz singer that I have always regarded as being one of Britain’s best. I’ve also been fortunate enough to speak with Tina on a couple of occasions and found her to be a warm and gracious personality with a genuine passion for jazz and for the arts in general. The sincerity of the tributes paid to her by fellow musicians, industry professionals, local jazz club promoters and jazz fans is testament to that.
I first became aware of Tina back in 1988 at that year’s Brecon Jazz Festival. Among the gigs we saw was a storming performance at Christ College by Stan Tracey’s Hexad group, featuring Clark Tracey at the drums. As we walked through the streets my mate Glyn nudged me and said “Isn’t that Clark Tracey over there?”. I was too busy gawping at Clark’s beautiful blonde companion to notice.
This was my first sighting of Tina May.
Fast forward two years and I heard Tina sing for the first time when she appeared at the 1990 Brecon Festival as part of the eight piece ensemble Frevo, led by the Cardiff based guitarist and composer Dylan Fowler. Tina was married to Clark by this time and heavily pregnant with the couple’s first child. She performed seated but still sang like an angel. It was another terrific gig and after the show I purchased the band’s self released cassette, a real DIY job with no art work to speak of other than song titles and credits. It’s remained a personal favourite for all these years and is playing as I write these words. Tina contributes wordless vocals in addition to providing the lyrics for some of the songs. In 1993 a different version of Frevo released an official, all instrumental album for Danny Thompson’s The Jazz Label, but although it’s a good enough record I missed Tina’s voice and still prefer that battered old cassette.
Tina had left Frevo to pursue a solo career and in 1992 released her début solo album “Never Let Me Go”, an album that began her long association with 33 Records. Label founder Paul Jolly has already paid tribute to Tina in a moving article published on London Jazz News. Link here;
For me, “Never Let Me Go” remains a favourite recording and in the early 1990s I enjoyed seeing her perform music from that album at a gig at Shrewsbury’s Buttermarket venue. I was able to talk with her afterwards and she readily signed my copies of “Never Let Me Go” and of, of course, that old Frevo cassette. She remembered that memorable Festival gig with Frevo with great affection.
In 1999 I enjoyed Tina’s “Music and Mischief” show at Huntingdon Hall in Worcester, which teamed her with pianist Mike Hatchard and bassist Herbie Flowers.
May had studied both music and acting at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama in Cardiff, and although English by birth her links with Wales, and Brecon Jazz Festival in particular, were strong. In 2016 she returned to Brecon to sing “The Music of Brazil” in the company of a one off octet, convened specifically for the Festival. This was an excellent show, performed in front of a full house at Brecon Guildhall and my account of the performance can be found as part of my Festival coverage here;
It’s significant to note that Brecon Jazz Club / Festival organisers Lynne Gornall and Roger Cannon were among the first to pay tribute to Tina in the comments section on LJN’s obituary page. This includes a statement from Tina’s son, Ben Tracey. Link here;
In 2020 The Jazzmann gave a favourable review to what I believe was Tina’s final album recording, “52nd Street and Other Tales”. The album was itself a tribute as Tina sang the songs of the recently deceased Scottish saxophonist, composer and songwriter Duncan Lamont (1931 – 2019). This was an excellent recording that came as a welcome reminder of Lamont’s talent as a writer, while also highlighting May’s expertise as a jazz vocalist and interpreter of songs. “Classy and accomplished” was my brief summary, although the full review can be read here;
The “52nd Street” recording whetted my appetite for seeing Tina perform live again and in August 2021 she came to Kidderminster Jazz Club, as alluded to previously. KJC founder and organiser Annette Gregory, herself a highly accomplished jazz vocalist, had seen Tina singing at the Brazil themed show in Brecon and had been determined to bring her to Kidderminster. The date was originally scheduled for 2020 but was delayed for over a year by the pandemic. Nevertheless the wait was worth it as Tina turned in a sparkling performance, as previously alluded to. I’m sure Annette must also have been devastated too when she heard the sad news and I note that KJC have paid tribute to Tina on their Facebook page.
After the show I spoke to Tina again, for the first time since the 1990s. She was warm, charming and full of enthusiasm, and indeed full of life itself. Even now I can’t believe she’s gone just eight months later. We laughed again about that Frevo gig and my old cassette and Tina was very appreciative of my “52nd Street” review, gifting me a copy of her “Musica Paradiso” album, a 2013 collaboration with the Argentinian vocalist Guillermo Rozenthuler that explored the “Songs and Stories From The Silver Screen”. It was a typically generous gesture from a beautiful person.
My wife often accompanies me to gigs and is frequently seen knitting as she listens to the music. Tina had spotted this from the stage and the pair were soon deep in conversation. It was probably nice for Tina to talk about something other than music with over earnest fans (guilty as charged m’lud) and the two women quickly struck up a rapport. Wendy Kirkland has also talked to Pam about knitting, again at a Kidderminster gig, while Ian Shaw (who else?) even made reference to it from the stage!
So my final memories of Tina, from August 2021, are fond ones. Like so many musicians she was a genuinely lovely person and her untimely death is a devastating blow, especially for those closer to her than I. My sympathies are extended to her children Ben and Gemma and to her partner, saxophonist Simon Spillett. Simon is due to bring his own quartet to Kidderminster Jazz Club in July 2022, which will no doubt be an emotional occasion.
Tina May passed away on March 26th 2022, just days before her 61st birthday and shortly after watching online a fund raising Gala Concert given in her honour at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho. This featured many of her musical friends and colleagues, all of whom paid warm tribute to her. At least she passed knowing that she was much loved by the UK jazz community as a whole.
I first heard the news two days later on March 28th at a performance by Matt Ridley’s Antidote group at Cheltenham Jazz Club. It was perhaps appropriate that I heard about it here. Tina was born in Frampton on Severn in Gloucestershire, had attended Stroud Grammar School and Cheltenham Ladies College and previously performed at Cheltenham Jazz Club.
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