By Steve Provizer
Camille Bertault is an uncommon talent. She has a crystalline voice, good intonation, understands the rhythmic and harmonic underpinnings of jazz, and has a prodigious memory.
A recent headline on Fortune.com read: “Why ‘Success’ on YouTube Still Means a Life of Poverty.” Hundreds of thousands, even millions of views on YouTube (owned by Google) garnered by musicians often result in measly royalty checks. And yet, there are performers whose videos on that platform, combined with an effective Facebook and Instagram presence, have either created or dramatically elevated their careers.
While this is a much likelier scenario for a pop or hip-hop artist, it has happened to a jazz musician. 33-year-old French vocalist Camille Bertault may be the first YouTube jazz star (within the limited definition of the term). Her performance of John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” posted on YouTube, has been viewed over 281,000 times. As a result, Bertault went from failing a conservatory exam in France to a viable career in music. Her YouTube channel has 70 videos and 70,000 subscribers, her Facebook page has 84,000 likes, and 18,300 people follow the performer’s Instagram posts. These are far from Beyoncé stats, but they are big numbers for a jazz newcomer. For comparison’s sake, one video I shot of trumpeter Woody Shaw playing “There Is No Greater Love” in 1985 has 35,000 views on YouTube. This is five times the number of views any of my other jazz videos received; it is comparable to the vast majority of jazz posts. Not, of course, the views garnered by those featuring Miles, Coltrane, and a few select others.
Bertault is an uncommon talent. She has a crystalline voice, good intonation, understands the rhythmic and harmonic underpinnings of jazz and has a prodigious memory. And she comes from a strong French tradition of vocalese artistry, This is a good foundation to work from, but no guarantee that an artist will pop out on YouTube. Her approach to video-making had a lot to do with her success.
Most live jazz videos, whether shot by one shaky camera in an art gallery or five high-end cameras in a well-lit concert hall, are fairly formal. What happens on stage is neutrally recorded. A subgroup of jazz videos makes up the “Making of…” genre. Here we see jazz musicians in a studio recording a track, the performance intercut with short interviews. Bertault, however, either had a more profound understanding of how the medium works, or stumbled onto a winning formula. Check out the 2015 “Giant Steps” post that served as her initial takeoff point.
Notice that she is taping herself, wears no makeup, and allows the virtuosity of her performance to speak for itself. She is singing not to an audience, but to the camera. The intensely complicated music, when juxtaposed with the straightforwardness of her presentation, is an important reason her initial videos have attracted such a large, presumably non-jazz, audience.
Bertault upped her artistic game and wrote lyrics for “Giant Steps,” while retaining the homey quality of her videos. This version is slightly more elaborate, but not much. It’s still a static shot, but she is dressed in an African-esque costume and has added a live guitarist.
Bertault’s fandom grew to the extent that followers took her simple selfie videos and framed them within the more formal recordings of the songs she chose to scat.
Her repertoire broadened and, with this recording of one of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, she references the important vocalese progenitors Swingle Singers.
More recently, Bertault has released some elaborately produced videos, but she retains her “natural” image, portraying herself as a free spirit rather than a glamour queen:
Bertault is still taking risks, although she seems on slightly shakier terrain scatting on Tom Jobim’s “Agua de Beber”:
Bertault brings some of the dramatic quality of the French cabaret tradition to her performances. She handles the playful side of the approach well, but is less comfortable with the tragic. I see intonation problems in her singing of standards, particularly her attempts to force vibrato. But she is a strong performer and communicates so well that these musical weaknesses take on less importance.
Jazz fans know YouTube as a treasure trove of historical recordings. The rise of Bertault is an anomaly. Perhaps unwittingly, she discovered a video formula — mastery and simplicity paired together — that spread her name well beyond the jazz audience, and she is now touring all over the world. She is talented and photogenic but, unless she is enticed out of the genre to follow the career track of YouTube stars like Justin Bieber and Katy Perry, she is going to have to prove her mettle over the long haul in venues like Scullers, the Sunset Jazz Club, and Birdland. It will be interesting to check back in a few years and see how her career is going. In the meantime, here she is scatting “Blue Train.” Très amusant.
Steve Provizer writes on a range of subject, most often the arts. He is a musician and blogs about jazz here.