Allegra Levy is truly The Jazz Singer. The singer/songwriter from West Hartford, CT has received critical acclaim for her work in the jazz world. But with the birth of her first child, daughter Stella Plum, Levy moved away from moody adult jazz clubs and turned to bright and colorful music for kids — but with a decidedly sophisticated jazz sound. We spoke to Levy about the rich history of jazz music, the battles she and her husband faced when naming their daughter, and why listening to music should always be an experience enjoyed by the entire family.
How did you fall in love with jazz music?
I grew up in West Hartford and it’s a meaningful place to me. Just down the road they have King Philip Middle School and Hall High School, and they have really incredible jazz programs. That’s what started the jazz bug for me. My brother played the saxophone, and I looked up to him. I got into musical theater and started singing jazz which then became a passion for songwriting and performing. I studied at the New England Conservatory of Music where it was jazz heavy and almost leaning towards avant garde and contemporary progressive music. There have been some new directions, but jazz will always be my first love.
So why is there a new direction now?
I think that jazz will always be a part of me. My sound is influenced by all the great jazz singers from the past and present. I’ve been working on singing simple songs and I had a baby. I’ve always been interested in kids and education and music for everyone, something that everyone can enjoy.
With your new children’s album, “Songs For You And Me,” you haven’t completely left your jazz roots.
Absolutely not. The new album, “Songs For You And Me,” definitely has jazz. There are swing tunes, horns; there’s a 13-piece band with trumpets, trombones, and saxophones. The idea was to keep it swinging so that kids could really listen to jazz now while they’re little. Some are folk tunes that are fun to sing and get into your head — but hopefully not in an annoying way! [laughs] It’s about my journey overall but also my journey as a mom. I put a lot of heart into this project. I have a dream to put together a moms’ jazz big band to perform for families. I feel like if kids see these awesome jazz moms presenting music in a fun, exciting way, it will do more to bring it to younger kids. And ultimately, my goal as a musician is to create things that have goodness, diversity, equity, and inclusion in mind.
Would you say that when parents introduce their kids to music, it’s usually of the pop variety? It’s not as common for parents to introduce other genres of music, like jazz, but what do you think are the benefits for doing so?
The generation of jazz, which is from the 40s and 50s, was the pop music of that time. A lot of people had that in their ears the same way we listen to Katy Perry, for example. It comes from this rich history of Black American music. It’s the true American art form. It has rich harmonies; it comes from an emotional and a musically spiritual place. It’s sophisticated but it’s also for the people. That’s why I think it’s important to start young and get the ear used to hearing these sounds because then it becomes the best form of self-expression.
I think it’s also important to challenge our kids in a good way. Listen, my daughter Stella’s favorite song is “Baby Shark” for sure, but I can also put on Ella Fitzgerald or Sonny Rollins and she’ll start feeling it and dance.
That must be so satisfying as both a musician and a mom.
Yes! [laughs] But it’s also interesting when she doesn’t want to hear something, like my own song and she’ll say, “No, Mommy!”
Have you been performing your music for kids yet?
I have some shows lined up. But I’ve also done birthday parties and performances for her friends. Sometimes we’ll go to a park, I put down a blanket, and kids come around. We start doing some little tunes together. I just want them to have fun.
How have you been preparing for going from an adult audience to a kid-centric audience? I’ve heard that it can be a real eye-opener.
[laughs] Yes, you’re right. First of all, some jazz venues are dark and dingy.
Sure, they’re a vibe.
Yes, they’re a vibe. You want to have a presence that’s mysterious but also sarcastic because you want to draw people in. And in a way, that’s the same for a kid audience. I saw a concert where there was this whole choregraphed dance and there were a lot of questions and getting the kids engaged. It was less about your instrument and what’s coming out of it. I do have to change up that adult jazz vibe a little bit and make it a bit sillier and looser.
I’m still playing jazz for sure and writing. I’m supposed to record another album in the fall that’s jazz and not for a kid audience. But this is fun and I love the idea of the family together as a unit and listening. That’s how I grew up; my parents always listened to The Beatles. We listened to Joni Mitchell and Cat Stevens and some jazz. Road trips were really fun with those tapes in the car.
I like how now it’s all combined; there’s no adult music and then kids music.
I don’t think it should all be so separate. Sometimes my husband and I will Google an Elmo song and then other songs come on and we’re like, “No!”
It’s that damn algorithm.
It is! But music has to appeal to both kids and parents. There’s a song on my album called, “It’s So Hard To Be You,” and part of that is literally sarcastic but then it’s also that it’s so hard for us, too!
Now we have to talk about Miss Stella Plum.
Ahh yes. My husband is Chinese and German, and we met in Hong Kong. So while I love the color plum, a plum blossom is the Chinese flower. It symbolizes perseverance through the winter, and she was born during Covid, so that was the purpose. I was trying to give her name meaning. I actually wrote a song about naming her because it was a huge battle in my family. I made a Doodle poll for which names people liked and I sent it around.
That’s a rookie mistake.
Oh my God, talk about rookie mistakes! I learned my lesson and then named her Stella, which wasn’t even on the list.
You went rogue. I love it.
I went rogue because it was so out of control. It got really ugly, and I wrote a song about it because it was the only way I could handle it. But it all worked out in the end, and everyone came around to Stella Plum. She’s really amazing; she loves dinosaurs and sharks. She’s a big personality and she sings all the time, making up little melodies, which is really great for me! As a mom, I’m totally impressed with who she’s becoming, and I couldn’t be prouder.