During my recent interview with Jazz singer Wanda Stafford, I got to know her much better than the one time I played with her at the Fairfax Jazz Festival, so I was happy when Jazz Now asked me to share my conversation with our readers.
From the smoky bars of her native Indy to the vibrant and hipster scene of San Francisco's wild North Beach, Jazz singer Wanda Stafford has seen it all.
Wanda has four CDs, and an LP recorded in New York on Roulette Records, which featured Bill Evans on piano. In Indianapolis, she jammed with the Montgomery Brothers, James Spaulding, Leroy Vinegar, ("A lot of big names who left there and made it big, who knew!?") She appeared on local TV and made the jazz bar scene. She's sung at various Playboy Clubs around the country, opened for the likes of Mort Sahl, Bill Cosby and Professor Irwin Corey at San Francisco's famed Hungry-I, and appeared at major houses in New York and Chicago. "These people were really something," she reflected, "and Professor Irwin Corey was insane! He was pretty much the same on stage as off, and he'd always ask for me to open for him. Mort Sahl was pretty standoffish, so I didn't get to know him as well."
I asked how she was introduced to the San Francisco Jazz scene. "I auditioned for Enrico Banduchi at Hungry-I, and was also hired by Al Plank at the San Francisco Playboy Club. Al was almost like my mentor." At the time, Plank was music director at the long defunct venue, and the two musicians have remained friends and colleagues ever since. The Hungry-I experience was during the late 1960's, when North Beach was still home to Jazz clubs along side the burgeoning strip club scene. It was at about this point in the interview that I thought Wanda's life would make a great book, or movie (a musical, of course.)
Since those days, Wanda bemoans the loss of so many Jazz clubs over the years, and feels the days of the Keystone Korner are over. "Even the so called Jazz clubs aren't 100 percent real Jazz all the time, but I like the club Jazz Nouveau and I think the new owners of Jazz at Pearl's have made it a very interesting and cool place. And once the Pearl Wong and Sonny Buxton find a new Jazz home, it should be great." As Wanda says, "Sonny knows how to do it." So on this subject this writer and Wanda agreed that overall the club scene ain't that bad right now. "I love all those new clubs and hope they make it!" Seeing that some of these clubs are operated by musicians, Wanda added, "I assume that they will probably be more kind and sensitive to musicians, since they are musicians, so it could be a healthy trend. And you remember in the old days everybody used to put down club owners, there used to be a lot of club owner jokes!" Unfortunately she didn't remember any, but she continued, "So now it seems club owners are nicer, and I'm supportive of anybody who wants to do anything to support the music, because it's my number one passion."
Wanda Stafford loves her work in clubs, especially on the magical nights. "Nobody can tell you how to make it magic, but everybody knows when it happens. And you tell yourself that's why you're in the music business!" Some of these clubs are offering cabaret as well as Jazz, but Wanda sees a major difference between the two. "There are a lot of great cabaret singers out there, and there always will be, but being a Jazz singer means having to improvise a lot. Cabaret singer's do not improvise, and usually sing the song as written."
Her new CD, Live at Pearl's, (listed in Jazz Now Direct mail order catalog,) features a heavy does of swing-era tunes, along with a few tasty blues and a Latin number sung in English. "Swing is who I am, but you can't just do all swing. I love Latin, but since I don't speak the different languages, I don't want to learn the words phonetically just to sound hip. So I like to do old standards with Latin beats. And of course, I love the blues, and, I love ballads, so it's those four things featured on the CD: swing, Latin, blues and ballads." Asked if these are the same elements one would find in her live shows, her answer was short and direct, "Absolutely!"
Ms. Stafford's taste in singer's ranges from the usual suspects, Ella, Carmen. Anita, Mel Torme, Frank Sinatra, to interesting modern female and male singers such as Karrin Allyson, Rene Marie, Curtis Stieger, Mark Murphy, who she studied with in the past, and Kurt Elling, etc. "I just love singers," she added, "that's why I go to hear Jazz singers, cabaret singers; I just like them to be what they are, not try to say something they're not, if you know what I mean. I go to the Plush Room, and I hope it stays around. Look at Wesla Whitfield, I adore her and I'm going to see her tomorrow night." That last comment brought up my observation that singers in this town, especially the female ones, really support each other at their shows and through their careers. Everybody just seems to get along. I asked Wanda about this: "It's a great sisterhood, and when I did my CD release [party] for Live at Pearl's at club Jazz Nouveau, I had this long list of every single singer that was in the house that I wanted to mention, men and women, it went on and on. There must have been fifteen to twenty singers there, and I was very honored by that, by the way, and very touched."
It's no surprise that all these singers, Jazz and otherwise, would want to show their love for this talented veteran. After all, she's one of their own, and everyone knows that we are all in this together. Look for Ms. Stafford soon and support your local Jazz clubs, and singers.
By Michael Handler