When Cyrille Aimée walks on stage at Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival on July 18, she will be headlining her own concert in front of a few hundred people. It’ll be quite a contrast from the French-born, New York-based Aimée’s first appearance at a jazz festival.

In 1999, Aimée was just 14 and had never sung in public before, so facing an audience of 3,000 was daunting. “I was absolutely terrified,” Aimée says. “I was invited to sing a couple tunes with a guitar teacher of mine. After the thrill I felt there, I knew I needed more.”

Growing up in Samois-sur-Seine it was inevitable that Aimée would come into contact with jazz. Samois-sur-Seine is the home of an annual celebration of one of the great jazz pioneers, and one of the small town’s former residents, the gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt, and as a child Aimée used to sneak out of her window to go and join the gypsies who were encamped nearby for the Django festival.

“There was always music playing in our house,” she says. “My father loves classical music and my mother, who’s from the Dominican Republic, would play a lot of salsa. But meeting the gypsies changed my life. I fell in love with their culture, their freedom and especially their music and the way they live it.”

One of the gypsies she befriended gave her a guitar, and in exchange for lessons Aimée taught him how to read. His brother, who was also a guitarist, asked her to learn a song called Sweet Sue and sing it in front of the whole family. A career was born.

Just like her gypsy friends, Aimée went on to live an itinerant life. By the time she was 20, she had lived on four continents and had busked on street corners, gaining experience of how to keep an audience’s attention. Winning a competition at Montreux Jazz Festival helped her to finance her first album and gave her the confidence to try her luck in America.

More competition successes – she was a finalist in the Thelonious Monk Vocal Competition in Washington in 2010, before winning the first Sarah Vaughan Vocal Jazz Competition in 2012 – have helped her career. It’s the advice of vocalist extraordinaire Bobby McFerrin, however, that Aimée credits with winning her a fanbase that includes Stephen Sondheim, who cast her in an Encores Special Presentation at New York’s City Center in November 2013.

“I’ve studied music, but I’m not very disciplined about warming my voice up by singing scales and all that. I get bored,” she says. “Bobby McFerrin told me just to sing as much as possible and I still do it all the time – in the shower, at the grocery store … anywhere.”

Words: Rob Adams
Picture: Colville W.Heskey

Cyrille Aimée St Andrew Square Spiegeltent, 18 July, 7.30pm

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