A song for all seasons
December 24, 2012
“My Funny Valentine,” a show tune from the 1937 musical “Babes in Arms,” is not an easy song to sing. It’s in a minor key, to begin with, and has tough intervals and transitions that would challenge even a seasoned vocalist.
That’s why Judy Bailey of Parachute was so surprised, one afternoon in 1986, when she heard her 3-year-old son Daniel giving it a try.
“I was in the other room and I heard him in the bedroom, singing it,” she said. “That’s when I knew.”
It’s no exaggeration to say that Bailey has been singing ever since. Today, the 26-year-old Glenwood Springs High School graduate is a member of Mix, a nationally acclaimed eight-member a capella singing group based at the University of Colorado, Denver.
The group recently took second place at SoJam, a national a capella competition in Raleigh, N.C., and the singers’ popularity has put them in high demand: they play gigs routinely around Denver, and have performed at numerous university events and parties hosted by Gov. John Hickenlooper.
While most a capella groups stick to catchy pop songs, Mix mixes it up, adding world music, classical and doo-wop songs to their repertoire. Their submission tape for the SoJam contest, for example, featured pop tunes from the likes of Nicky Minaj and Maroon 5, alongside songs from Colombian superstar Juanes and folk trio The Wailin’ Jennys.
That variety, combined with the complex choreography worked into their set, earned the group the “most original” award at SoJam.
Bailey is now a junior at CU Denver majoring in music business, and he hopes someday to start his own record label. For the moment, though, he’s content performing with Mix and other choir groups at the university.
“I feel like a capella is totally uninhibited,” he said. “It’s pure joy every time I get to sing.”
The circumstances that brought Bailey to Glenwood Springs in the first place are hardly something to sing about. As a teenager in Denver he struggled with alcohol and drug abuse, and he moved to town as a high school sophomore to live with his aunt, Robyn Starr.
Yet it didn’t take long for Bailey to leave his mark on the local theatre scene.
“Still to this day I can close my eyes and hear his voice,” said Gayla Rowe, the assistant principal and former theater director at Glenwood Springs High School. She directed Bailey in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in 2003, and Les Miserables in 2005.
“I have never seen a high school kid that could do what he did,” Rowe said. “He’s in the top five I’ve ever seen in terms of raw talent.”
Before coming to GSHS, Bailey had sung in several choirs and taken classical voice lessons. His mother, Judy, was a voice major in college and sang with the Denver Symphony Orchestra until Bailey was born.
But it was under former GSHS choir director Jeannie Miller that Bailey seemed to truly find his voice.
“She was my angel, she was fantastic,” he said of Miller, who died in 2006 after more than two decades of involvement with the school’s choral music program. Bailey sang at Miller’s memorial service.
It’s clear that Miller thought highly of Bailey, too. She allowed him to join the school’s concert choir as a sophomore, even though students typically had to be at least juniors to join.
And along with Rowe, Miller cast Bailey in the starring role in the 2005 production Les Miserables, which turned out to be the last high school production of Miller’s life.
It was a blockbuster show, involving the work of more than 100 students and drawing a flood of adoring letters to the editor in this newspaper.
“He was the epitome of Jean Valjean,” said Rowe. “He sang just as well as Colm Wilkinson did on Broadway.”
“I’ve gotten to do a lot of different things,” said Bailey. “But that’s still one of the highlights of my life.”
Practically everyone who has worked with Bailey seems to remember the first time they head him sing.
After high school, Bailey went to Colorado Mountain College, where he continued to pursue theater under veteran director Tom Cochran.
Cochran, who headed the CMC theater program for more than two decades before retiring in 2007, never did a musical with Bailey. Nevertheless, he recalls his voice clearly.
“He was always singing,” he said. “We did a Shakespeare trip to London, and I remember him standing up in this restaurant and starting to sing ‘Bring Him Home’ from Les Miserables.”
Bailey got a crash course in Shakespeare under Cochran, performing in “The Tempest” along with several other productions.
When he transferred to CU Denver after two years of college in the Roaring Fork Valley, his trend of making strong first impressions continued.
“He started singing in 2009, and I knew immediately that he had to be in my smaller group,” said Erin Hackel, a classically trained singer who is faculty advisor for both Mix and a larger concert choir at CU Denver.
“He’s a tenor, but he sings bass for my group,” she said. “He can do that, then turn around and do a screaming high tenor lead.”
In Mix, Bailey frequently serves as a vocal percussionist, or beat-boxer, a skill he began to develop while horsing around with friends in middle school. Beat boxing, which involves making drum and percussion sounds just with the voice, has its roots in hip-hop, but Bailey said the form is continuing to evolve.
“When I started, I heard some early hip-hop tapes, and I tried to emulate that, just making different kick drum, high-hat, and snare drum sounds,” he said. “Now, with the growing popularity of electronic music, we are trying to sound like electronic instruments.”
Bailey and his band-mates in Mix are working to push the larger form of a capella music in a new direction as well, most notably by introducing unusual music into their sets.
“The students are completely contemporary, and I’ve always felt that it was my job to expose them to as varied music and experiences as I can,” said Hackel. “I try to think outside the box when it comes to choosing music.”
Perhaps as evidence of Hackel’s impact, Bailey’s page on the Mix website lists musical influences from Chris Brown and Rage Against the Machine to classical masters such as Chopin and Mozart.
With eight members, Mix is smaller than most collegiate a capella groups, Bailey said, and it presents an alternative to the “wall of sound” that characterizes other groups.
“They tend to do a more traditional set, with pop tunes, and that’s not what we decided we wanted to do,” he said.
Unlike most groups at the collegiate level, Mix is a for-credit offering rather than an extracurricular activity, and the students take it more seriously as a result.
“We only have two and a half hours of class time each week, but we rehearse about nine hours,” said Hackel.
Even beyond that, Bailey said the members often sing together for an additional five or six hours without Hackel, for a total of up to 15 hours per week.
Mix is now at work on a new studio album, due out in the spring of 2013, and recently released an original single, “Water,” written by member Vanessa Spear.
“It’s fun to have something to show for the work that we do,” Bailey said.
Beyond its regular packed schedule of gigs and school performances, Mix is also preparing for upcoming competitions in Denver and Boston next year.
Though the pace can be frantic, Bailey wouldn’t wish for anything else.
“God gave me a voice for a reason,” he said. “You only live once, and I may as well do it singing.”