Shirley Nanette vocalist extraordinaire!
This video was shot at the JSO HOF, Jazz Society of Oregon Hall of Fame ceremony at Jimmy Maks.
This article appeared in the JSO (Jazz Society of Oregon) newsletter called "Jazzscene" before the April 18th show.
Shirley Nanette. Named to 2013 Jazz Society of Oregon Hall of Fame. Concert and Induction Ceremony April 18 at Jimmy Mak’s.
By Yugen Rashad
Vocalist Shirley Nanette adores the color green. To her, green symbolizes emergence and freshness. “Things are growing,” she explains. “It’s movement. Don’t stop, get moving.” And so green also symbolizes her long career in music. Her longevity is due to her natural instinct to cull resonance from a lyric, phrasing that helps audiences feel real emotion, and the articulation of lived experience as wisdom. This is the performance magic that connects Ms. Nanette with an audience and informs her success.
And that’s why Ms. Nanette is the 2013 Inductee into the Jazz Society of Oregon Hall of Fame. This annual award is presented by JSO to musicians for excellence in performance and advocacy for the jazz art through education and community outreach. “Long overdue,” says fellow musician and friend Ron Steen. “Shirley is one of the finest jazz singers in United States; one of the best singers I’ve had the pleasure to work with.”
A stellar performer with demonstrated skill across genres, whether pop, torch, R&B, jazz, or gospel, Ms Nanette displays a nomenclature and music style that is head and shoulders above the norm. “I came up in the church and grew up in a home where music was always heard,” she says. She can even recall her mother telling stories about how she literally sang herself to sleep at night. “I did,” she says. “Since I was seven years old, singing has been my thing.” Her family linage might also have something to do with it. “My grandfather’s cousin on my mother’s side was Bessie Smith,” she explains. Evolving from such ripe DNA isn’t the only reason for her talent. But a connection like that certainly lifts one’s self-esteem and confidence. Before settling on jazz, though, Ms. Nanette considered other vocal styles; after all, she had the chops and wind for anything. “I wanted to be an opera singer,” she says. “And while in my twenties, I was introduced to an opera coach.” She pondered a career expansion after her work with the Oregon Symphony under the direction of Norman Leyden. But she ultimately stayed with jazz and related styles.
Ms. Nanette’s vocal powers grew as did her stature in the industry, fueled by a restless determination to be her best, to venture and challenge herself. And she found those challenges in a variety of styles and venues, from late-night spots in Portland like the Upstairs Lounge in the 1960s, where she met Ron Steen, and numerous dates opening for national touring acts coming through town, such as Frankie Vallie and the Four Seasons at the old Civic Auditorium, to popular downtown clubs with local artists such as Count Dutch, Sonny King, Tom Grant, and her famous cousin, Mel Brown. Her induction into the Jazz Society’s Hall of Fame, Brown says, “… is well deserved, and I’m very proud.” Brown calls Ms. Nanette the last of the great entertainers. ”A lot of folks sing but don’t understand entertainment protocol in between songs,” he says. “She knows what to say to an audience.“ During the 1980s, Brown recalls, he first turned his cousin on to chicken wings in Las Vegas. She had just won Star Search, the nationally televised competition, and the Mel Brown Trio was in town backing Diana Ross, so Brown ended up backing Shirley, too - and broadening her taste in food. And speaking of connecting to au audience, one of Ms. Nanette’s fondest memories is of a fan she met at the Jazz Quarry. The woman had been ill, and before she died, she wanted to come hear her. “That touched me,“ she says. “That is deepest thing, because I never knew the depth of how much they loved me.” She also met the woman’s children. “They called me their surrogate mom,” she recalls. She would later be invited to their home for a wienie roast as part of the memorial service. Her love for children is supported by the numerous awards and invitations to community functions and events she’s been invited to in order to share her gift and mentor young aspiring artists. She recently garnered an award from Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church for her volunteer work and mentor ship. “Singing in a church choir is a wonderful opportunity offered to young people as a way to learn the craft,” she says. She also taught classes in arts and communications,voice and performance skills at the Arts Magnet Academy. Her community work reaches back to the 1970s, when she was a supervisor for the first wave of children involved in the federally mandated bus program when schools became racially integrated. “I’ve lived through some very interesting times,” she says, as she recalls society becoming more tolerant and race relations improving.
Her concerns for community health show over the years with her connection and volunteer work with American Lung Association, American Heart Association, and American Cancer Society. Being considerate to others is a life mantra she holds dear. “You may never understand what a person might be facing or going through in life,” she’s says. After concerts and gigs she still marvels over the confessions fans offer. The lyrics from the title tune to her studio recording, “Starting Here, Starting Now,” she believes, sum up her spirit and humanity. “I’ve lived through some very interesting times,” “When we walk, we walk together, year by year. When we talk, we say the most with silence, when we are near, starting here.”
So, when will Ms. Nanette stop? Does the music ever end? “I’m going as long as my ability allows. I will know when to stop. Not there yet.” She can still hit those high and low notes. “I’ve learned how to maneuver,” she says with a smile. Indeed, Ms Nanette has a humorous side that comes out when she’s talking with her friends. “Shirley’s impersonations are a riot,” says Steen. “It confounds you to hear coming from her mouth the voices of Satchmo, Dinah Washington, Esther Phillips – it makes you smile, and marvel at her gift.” And that fits her approach to music as well. Become the song. Live the melody, be the performance that makes the composition relevant to an audience. It’s why Shirley Nanette is a treasure. And for her, the musical landscape remains green and in bloom. “Keep it fresh, keep it moving,” she says.
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