Just Play You

BOB LIDDYCOAT/PHOTOVanessa Collier has racked three Blues Music Award Nominations (BMAs), a Blues Blast Award nomination, the Jammingest Pro Award bestowed by the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise, First Place for lyrics in the International Songwriting Competition and Best of 2014 Blues Breaker on Dan Aykroyd’s BluesMobile. Legendary blues guitarist Buddy Guy recalled that “there’s a young lady [Collier] came onstage with me, I forget where I was, but she’s playing an alto saxophone, and man, she was amazing.” 

PLATTSBURGH — Vanessa Collier's 200-plus gigs this year includes a stop at Olive Ridley's Taphouse and Grill on Saturday as part of Plattsburgh Blues & Jazz concert series.

The concert is from 8 to 11 p.m.

Tickets are $15 in advance online or at Alpha Stereo, 332 Cornelia St., Plattsburgh.

Day-of-show tickets are $20 at the door.

It's been a busy year for Collier, and that's a good thing in her book.

Numbers run in the family.

Her parents teach finance and accounting, and she's a musical outlier.

“My mom has always been super creative,” Collier said.

“She's not that Type-A kind of accountant personality. When I started, I started piano lessons with her and just ended up not liking the teacher.”

Collier quit about six months later, then she caught a “Two of a Kind” episode (“Peeping Twins,” episode 10), when she saw widowed dad/professor/landlord Kevin Burke (Christopher Seiber), father of Mary-Kate and Ashley, (Olsen in their “Full House” follow) pretending to play saxophone.

“I just fell in love with the sound of it,” Collier said.

“It took another six to eight months to play. Thankfully she (her mother, Beth Collier-Vermeer) caved. It's been 19 years.”


Collier first studied a year with Bill Welty, a U.S. Army Band musician.

“At that point, he was like 'You've outgrown my saxophone knowledge and you need to go find a saxophone teacher,'” she recounted.

“My middle-school band director was an LA sessions musician and knew this guy, Chris Vadala, who happened to teach at the University of Maryland.”

Vadala, saxophonist/woodwind specialist, performed with Chuck Mangione for 20-plus years.

He also made appearances with the National Symphony Orchestra, Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin.

“His credits go on and on,” Collier said.

“My middle-school band director calls him and said 'You got to hear this kid. You got to teach her.'”

Vadala was resistant.

Middle-schoolers were out of his purview, only high school and above and that was a stretch sometimes.

“So, thankfully, again, he caved,” Collier said.

“We had an hour lesson. It was like, 'Oh, okay.' My mom said he was smiling from note one kind of. I don't remember these things. I wasn't watching. I ended up studying with him for seven years.”

Vadala gave her a great tonal foundation playing with joy.

“That's what I've tried to carry through all of my playing now that I'm professional,” Collier said.

“I think about him every night. He actually just passed away in January, unexpectedly to everybody else. He had cancer for 10 years and nobody knew.”

She saw him after she graduated college because he was talking to her about a master's program with him.

“I had kept in touch,” Collier said.

“It was like from seventh grade he took me on through freshman year of college. I would come back to see him when I was living in Boston.”



Vadala was the perfect teacher in a lot of ways.

He was not trying to force Collier to go the way he thought she should go. Even with  music school, he gave her list of top music schools and then a list of second-tier schools.

He told her to audition for all of them and see what one fits her best.

She explored the University of Miami, University of Maryland, Berklee College of Music and the Manhattan School of Music among others.

“To be honest, the first time I visited Berklee I really didn't like it,” Collier said.

“I said this is so not the school for me. I wrote it off. It was funny. Yeah, totally. I did not like my first experience there.”

She went back for her college audition and a school visit and then saw the light.

“It was kind of, but wait, oh, okay, you can craft your own degree program in a way,” Collier said.

“They are one of the few schools that's well versed in everything.

They had a bluegrass department ensemble. They have these jazz fusion gigs. They have country & western. They have R & B. They have James Brown. They had anything, right? That all appealed to me at that point.”

Once she received her letter of acceptance and received a scholarship, Berklee went from an option to a possibility.



Collier lucked out.

She had done all of her AP credits and had tested out of a bunch of classes, so her freshman year she didn't have to take basic gen-ed courses.

“I really got to dictate,” she said.

“I'm going to take guitar and piano. I'm going to take this acoustic course, a business class and song writing. I got all that into my degree program.”

Most people take the prescribed steps in their degree plan.

“If you just go into performance degree, you don't get business classes, which I think that's silly,” Collier said.

“It's very real-world in that way. You get out of it what you put into it. If you realize at the beginning that you need those skills, you have an outlet for that and you have a way to work it into your degree program. And if you don't and you don't have a good advisor, then you're kind of out of luck.”

Thankfully, her mother knew what to take and she had some inklings of what she wanted to take.

“Both of those things really helped me get what I wanted,” Collier said.

“Nothing really prepares you for the road and nothing really prepares you for what it's actually like until you're out here doing it.

“What Berklee gave me is a very career sense of like the doors that could open for me.”



Collier went in thinking she was a jazz saxophonist, but she double majored in music production and engineering.

She took guitar, piano and funk classes.

“I am now doing something completely different,” Collier said.

“All that was an option for me. I was able to find my own way and mold myself the way I wanted to be, just follow my instincts a little bit. So, I appreciate Berklee for that. Being that open and not making me into a cookie-cutter musician.”

Collier graduated at 22 with diplomas in hand and questioned her future.

“I sat at home that summer,” she said.

“I was touring with Joe Louis Walker my senior year of college. I was in and out and on the road already. By December of 2013, I had stopped touring with him. It was really that summer that I was like 'what do I do now?'”

She knew she wanted to do her own artist thing but how did she do that?

She researched how to contact concert venues.

She did cold calls and cold emails and started getting gigs.

During that time, she took a couple of songs she had written during college and she started making a record, her “Heart Soul & Saxophone,” debut, which she released in July 2014.

“I was thinking, 'oh, I'm going to get all these gigs,'” Collier said.

“I going to start touring, 100 gigs a years. I thought that was going to happen within three years. It took me about about four, which isn't bad.”

Collier had to get a record so concert venues could know her sound, what she was going for and what she was promoting.

Her first local gig was opener for Bruce Katz in New York at the Falcon in Marlboro.

“I played five or 10 gigs that year, and it has just slowly grown since then,” Collier said.



Vadala, her mentor, gave her words to live by.

“He was always like 'just be yourself,'” Collier said.

“Even when I was playing jazz, he said there's always players trying to play like Charlie Parker, trying to play like this guy, trying to play like Coltrane. He was like you are not any of those people, so just play you.”

He told her to quote them but be herself.

“He was always great about that,” Collier said.

“He didn't want to force me into being just his student. He encouraged me when I was going to the college thing, don't go back and study with me.

“He wanted me to be well rounded and what not. He taught me how to tow the line between jazz and classical and R & B and how to switch between the styles and again just find my own voice within all of that.”

Stick to your guns was the biggest thing she learned.

“If you really want to make it anywhere in this business, you have to stick to your vision and don't let anybody else kind of skew it,” Collier said.



Her mom and mentor were her tag team.

Her mother helped her order the records on her first release.

“She said, 'I really think it should flow this direction and here's why,'” Collier said.

“It was my first one. I didn't know, and I didn't have somebody helping me do that. I produced it myself, and I needed that second person to bounce an idea off of.

Her mother was a great support pushing her forward in the low moments when she wasn't sure what to do.

“She's like 'there's an out, there's a way,'” Collier said.

“'We'll find it.' She's just been the backbone of everything for me and a great cheerleader from the side.”

Collier comes to the Lake City with her third release, “Honey Up,” which dropped last July.

“I'm working on a new one,” she said.

Her creative process changes with each record.

“The first one, I had assignments in school and that's kind of where a lot of those were borne out of,” she said.

“The second one was kind of writing through a tough time and writing to keep my head above water kind of thing, so it happened while I was off the road and just trying to figure stuff out. 'Honey Up,' it kind of just happened.”



Quiet spaces and dedicated writing spaces are helpful, but she writes half the time on the fly while she's driving.

She records an idea or lyric and returns to flesh it out later.

“Everything changes every time,” she said.

Collier hasn't come to the realization that she's made it.

In her mind, she's still working at it.

“There have been a couple of cool things, though,” she said.

“This latest record was really cool. It spent nine weeks on the Billboard Top Blues Album. As an independent artist that meant a lot to me coming off a label deal and being able to do it myself. That was really quite cool.”

At this year's Blues Music Awards, Collier snagged Instrumentalist of the Year. “Horn player of the year, basically,” she said.

“That was very cool to kind of be acknowledged by your peers and be voted on by the audiences that see you. That was very awesome. The fact that we're doing 200-plus dates a year this year is incredible to me. I'm incredibly thankful for all of those things.”


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