Living the life of Leaside’s Laila Biali – How One Artist Was Determined Enough to Make It
What happens when you take a classically trained pianist, throw in a car accident, a couple of scholarships, a sense of adventure and some singing gigs with Sting? A jazz legend in the making, of course! Not bad for a nice girl from North Van with a mesmerizing voice and mad piano skills..
I leapt at the opportunity to get together with award-winning Canadian pianist and vocalist, Laila Biali. It’s not every day one has the chance to peek inside the mind of a musical genius.
Having toured extensively including stops at the North Sea Jazz Festival, Tokyo’s Cotton Club, and Carnegie Hall and having toured with Grammy award winners Chris Botti, Paula Cole and Suzanne Vega, and recorded with international icon, Sting, it was sure to be an exciting evening.
We sat down at Fresh near Yonge/Eglinton where she is a regular and proved this by making informed, enthusiastic suggestions. It’s evident that whatever Laila Biali is discussing is done with enthusiasm—and gesticulation! No doubt she needs the ivories in front of her to absorb all that natural fervour.
Once I had convinced Laila we were there to discuss her, and not food writing and photography, she generously opened up about her life, craft, family, travels and tribulations.
After a car accident when Laila was 15 which resulted in a severe arm injury, her classical piano training came to a halt. She turned her attention to jazz. She joined her closest group of friends at school in the jazz program and discovered that it suited her personality more closely than did the rigidity of the world of classical piano.
The youngest in a large family of academics, Laila was easily up to the exacting standards of her family and was offered a scholarship in science at UBC. She convinced her family however to allow her to accept a musical scholarship at Humber College in Toronto instead, explaining that she was deferring a science education by only a year. That persuasive conversation took place almost 20 years ago, with only the occasional glance backwards.
Laila and her classmates moved to Toronto in ’98 to attend Humber and thus began the emotional upheaval that we now see as a blessing in disguise as the health issues that followed for Laila proved to further fortify her passion for and commitment to her craft.
Immersing herself utterly in the world of jazz, she was heavily influenced by Maria Schneider, which resulted in her desire to become a big band composer. In 2001, she auditioned for and was chosen by the IAJE (International Association of Jazz Education) for the piano chair at their annual competition as one of only three Canadians chosen. Although a thrilling time of egrowth for Laila, it was also emotionally draining. She not only had to overcome the judges in the audience but more challengingly, the judges in her own head.
She suffered a solid case of “imposter syndrome” believing she was perpetually on the cusp of being found out as lacking talent. The critics disagreed and fell in love with the young pianist/composer.
The notion of authenticity cropped up repeatedly during our conversation. Laila’s desire to remain true is what continues to drive her. Supporting her in this endeavour is her husband, drummer Ben Wittman, who shares not only this passion for artistic integrity, but also a desire to provide stability and a true family environment for their young son, Joshua.
With an eye on establishing this lifestyle, Laila turned down an offer of the piano/vocal chair on the Meredith Vieira Show in 2014 as the contract requirements would not have supported what she and her husband Ben saw for their young family.
After some near comedic yet dark series of events in New York, which Laila described as the “New York beat down,” they packed up their world, no small task when one is married to a drummer, and moved to Toronto. Laila spoke easily of how moving here has allowed them the physical space and head space to live and dream again, the ability to afford artistic freedom. “In New York we had to simply make a living. In Toronto we can catch our breath and join forces artistically. It’s hard and it’s fraught and it’s messy and we’re so excited about it!” She furthers her commitment to this by stating “that in challenges there are opportunities.”
She knew they had found a home in Leaside that would support this notion with the amazing combination of excellent schools, sense of community, great restaurants and vegetation.
What’s next in the vibrant world of Laila Biali? “We are in the midst of recording a new album which we’ll release later this year. We’ll tour the jazz festival circuit across the country this summer, including Toronto Jazz Fest. I am going to be performing at Koerner Hall this December!” Something we can all look forward to from one of our massively talented locals.
CREDITLINE: STACIA CARLTON is a culinary school graduate and food writer who enjoys digging into a fascinating conversation with a talented musician as much as she loves food. Find her weekly at www.bestillandeat.com