By Bobbi Booker | Photo by R. Carter
Jazz vocalist-composer and photographer Ruth Naomi Floyd has been at the forefront of creating sacred jazz vocal settings for over 20 years. Born and raised in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, Floyd honed her musical talents as a young child by singing in church choirs and studying piano, flute, and bassoon. Currently, she leads her own multi-faceted ensemble and has created a five-recording discography explicitly dedicated to a sacred jazz expression.
Floyd says her Philly hometown and its influential jazz players made a lasting impression upon her art. “We are gritty. We are fighters. We don’t give up. We’re not intimidated,” explained Floyd. “When I think of what that means musically, classically it speaks for itself. The jazz—the long, beautiful, stunning legacy of jazz musicians—it affected me in a way that was very sobering. I knew from the beginning if I was going to do this, I was not going to enter into it lightly because there were those that came before me that fought for the music; that protected this music and sacrificed their lives for the music, and so to honor them would be to learn it and to do it at a high level. I’m grateful to come from a place known around the world as a jazz city.”
Although it was a challenge to not name the many area-based artists who have contributed to her growth, Floyd credits the late bassist Chares Fambrough for her early career validation.
“He was the first one that made me understand that the bandstand is the greatest lesson: when you make a mistake on the bandstand you’ll never make that mistake again,” she recalled. Her mezzo-soprano voice and distinctive progressive jazz improvisation has now been featured on several highly acclaimed recordings and performances.
Floyd has been a presence and worker in areas of the arts and justice throughout her career, and recently debuted an improvisational jazz composition, “Frederick Douglass Jazz Works,” which explores the abolitionist’s fiery anti-slavery speeches and writings. She wants to give that spark to others.
“I’m an educator teaching jazz vocals, and so my hope is that students would learn the craft and then be able to make it their own, and that they would just continue to push this music forward,” Floyd shared.