Austin's queen of Jazz / By Molly McManus / Photos by Rudy Arocha
Pamela Hart was five years old when she began singing. Her school didn’t start until the middle of the day, so in order to know when it was time for her to leave, she followed the same radio show each day, anticipating its close.
“This is Brad Pride, Jr. recording. … Have a ball!” This was the DJ’s sign-off, which led in to Nancy Wilson’s song I Hope You Had a Ball. The song was Hart’s signal to get to school, as she was the last one left in the house; her five older siblings were already in school and her mother was at work. Hart recalls listening to the wonderful jazz singer and trying to mimic Wilson’s melodies, phrasing and overall sound.
“I would really try to make my vocal chords do what hers did, in terms of texture, whether she was belting it out or singing high falsetto notes,” Hart says.
Her mother heard her singing in the house one day and began coaxing her to sing in front of guests when they would come to visit. Singing came naturally to Hart and, at that young age, she had no fear singing in front of others. She gave it everything she had, choreographing dances to go along with her performances. This, however, drastically changed in the years to come.
Growing up in Los Angeles, Hart had music connections everywhere. It was the ’70s, the music scene was booming and everybody was trying to get a slice of it. Hanging out in the city at various stores, Hart had friends and acquaintances trying to set her up with people who might be able to get her a record deal or singing gigs . When she was 13, an opportunity came her way.
“I remember being in front of someone who may have been able to make a difference in my life and it just couldn’t come out,” Hart reminisces about her voice.
She was so nervous that literally no sound came out. The opportunity—gone.
I had a very hard time believing this after seeing her perform last summer. This woman did not seem to have a nervous bone in her body. Performing at the Paramount Theatre in downtown Austin, it was like she was singing in her living room to close friends, intimately connecting with the audience, even in such a large venue. For those who have not had the opportunity to hear this amazing jazz musician, I’ll put it plain and simple for you: You are missing out, big time. Her voice is as smooth as velvet, as bold as dark roasted coffee and as luxurious as fine silk, and she sings in a way that appears effortless. She demands all your attention, not because of showy riffs or belting out high, loud notes, but because she has perfected her sound, style and delivery, keeping you excitedly anticipating her next musical move.
In a lot of ways, Hart has remained under the radar, mainly because she has a lot on her plate; it’s practically overflowing: She balances her time between her job, her family, her nonprofit and her singing. Hart’s “day job,” as she calls it, is working for the State of Texas as a manager in the application development section. I was lucky enough to catch her on her lunch break, meeting at her favorite South Austin restaurant, Enoteca, over spaghetti and meatballs.
This was not the woman I had seen in concert eight months prior. At her show, she filled the Paramount with her powerful sound. At the restaurant, Hart was soft-spoken, and a few times certain words were lost in the loud chatter surrounding us. At her show, she wore a billowy, bright peach-colored top that flowed over a tight black mini skirt, emphasizing her toned, slender legs, which ended in a pair of killer pumps. At the restaurant, she was modestly dressed in dark colors, coming from work. However, she was as fashionable and beautiful as I had remembered.
I honestly expected Hart to be a bit of a diva. On the contrary, she is far from it. She’s down to earth, extremely humble and an absolute pleasure to be with. Hart’s knowledge of jazz is impressive. (There were about 20 things I wanted to look up as we were talking.) She’s amiable and engaging, quick to laugh and very detailed in each story she tells, never one to brag about her accomplishments. I mean, the woman holds several degrees, including a master’s degree in business, sells out shows, had success with her debut album (May I Come In?), released in 1998, and has entertained audiences with some of jazz’s most esteemed performers. Furthermore, Hart started and runs the inclusive and much needed nonprofit Women in Jazz with her husband, Kevin. At its core, Women in Jazz provides exposure to female jazz performers andfosters the appreciation of jazz in Austin.
Hart was not always the jazz connoisseur she is today. While her mother played jazz at their house, Hart preferred folk music, listening to the likes of The Beatles, Carole King and Roberta Flack. It wasn’t until she moved to Austin that her appreciation of jazz began to blossom. At age 22, Hart packed up and left California after graduating from the University of California, Los Angeles. Living at home while attending college, Hart didn’t really have an adult life in L.A. Upon moving, she was awakened and invigorated with her first time of truly being on her own.
“I immediately loved Austin, how safe it was, how clean it was, how friendly it was,” Hart says of her first impressions of the city. “And then I learned how giving it was, because the community accepted me.”
During this time, Hart began doing research on jazz music, becoming transfixed with the legendary Billie Holiday.
“I was like, 'Who is this Billie Holiday anyway?'” Hart laughs. “I went down to the Austin Public Library and they had everything on Holiday. I checked out albums, learned who the real Billie Holiday was and fell in love with her.”
So at age 25, jazz became Hart’s life. For about two years, all she played and sang was Billie Holiday. Hart’s love for jazz continued to blossom through her 20s and 30s , and she began to take a more active role in its future in Austin. She joined the Black Arts Alliance, participating on its board of directors. During a programming meeting, Hart suggested starting a black women in jazz group. After a couple years, she left the board and learned they weren’t going to continue to apply for funding for the group. Hart decided to pick up the project herself, proposing an all-inclusive organization.
“Once I learned about the City of Austin Cultural Contracts, I applied and they liked the idea of Women in Jazz. The support here is just amazing,” Hart raves.
Women in Jazz operated under the umbrella of Women and their Work from 1994 to 2006, when Kevin and Pamela Hart applied for nonprofit status. They continue to direct the organization with dedication and drive to this day, always looking to improve and expand. The nonprofit is comprised of a few different elements. Each year, a concert showcases the talents of female jazz musicians in Austin. However, being in line with the all-inclusive nature of Hart, the event usually showcases the talents of males as well. Last year, the Women in Jazz Concert Series hosted Summer Jam, which featured Austin saxophonist Charmin Greene, as well as Grammy Award-winning guitarist Norman Brown and saxophonist Richard Elliot, with Hart opening the show. Hart also featured the talents of 17-year-old vocalist Shanice McKissick, who sent the crowd in to a frenzy with her radiant sound.
The exposure McKissick and Greene received is exactly aligned with the mission of Women in Jazz, which strives to provide spaces to nonprofessional and professional female vocalists who are not regularly featured in Austin venues, as well as provide a promotional opportunity for professional female vocalists who are ready for the recording industry. Women in Jazz also attempts to grow jazz appreciation among Austinites who may not be familiar with the American tradition.
This month, Women in Jazz is presenting something exceptional. April 14, Hart will perform with an all-female jazz band, the All Star Ladies of Jazz in Pink, at the Stateside at the Paramount Theatre. This is the first time Women in Jazz has hosted an all-female concert since 1998, when a group called Straight Ahead was featured, playing classic jazz music only.
“That’s our ultimate goal: to perpetuate classic jazz, the American art form jazz,” Hart says of her preference for straight-ahead jazz.
At the All Star Ladies of Jazz in Pink, however, you will hear some straight-ahead (think MilesDavis, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday), mixed in with smooth jazz, the softer contemporary sound (think Kenny G and Norah Jones), along with some neo soul and perhaps a jazzed-up version of Ladies Night or Beyoncé’s Déjà Vu. It’s important for Hart to reach the different audience members attending so they connect with the music and everyone leaves the event feeling fulfilled. I know I did after jamming out to my favorite Marvin Gaye song last year at Summer Jam.
In addition to coordinating concerts throughout the year, Hart also hosts vocal performance workshops in which she shares with aspiring vocalists her wealth of knowledge on the jazz performing arena. It was through a workshop that she happened to meet McKissick before inviting her to perform with her at Summer Jam.
“In jazz, you can do anything you want within the framework of the melody,” Hart explains, meaning that there is a lot of freedom.
However, there must be structure so each musician is on the same page, so to speak. Hart explains that, as a singer, it is important to know the tune you’re singing, the rhythm, so as to know how to count it off, how many measures you want up front, how to build rapport with the audience and how to communicate with the other musicians non verbally and verbally.
“It’s so important for us to teach that because if a singer wants to be respected, they have to become a member of the band, not just an add-on that the guys have to deal with,” Hart says. “As a singer, you become the lead instrument and you have to know how to direct the band.”
Through the Women in Jazz Concert Series and the Vocal Performance Workshops, Hart has seen the appreciation of jazz grow. She continues to become connected with more female jazz musicians, her hard work paying off. Last year, she was surprised to meet six young female jazz musicians who all knew who she w as. They have stayed in touch and some of them have continued to help her out with the workshops, also volunteering their time at the events. The mentorship Hart provides to aspiring and established musicians can be attributed to the lessons she’s received from great jazz teachers, such as James Polk and Sandy Allen. Along with the mentorship, Hart’s greatest reward is being able to perform on stage.
“It’s my utopia place, my freedom spot. You know how you think you know someone and then they enter their thing and they seem like a totally different person? It’s like that—totally free,” Hart says.
It’s funny to think the woman who had stage fright in to her 30s is no w as cool and calm as ever about performing. She still gets nervous before a show, but once she steps out onto the stage, all of that becomes a memory, drifting away behind her. She attributes her comfort with performing to the maturity she’s developed in her voice and with her life. After she had a baby, who is now 17 years old, she became more confident, letting go of her fears.
“Things that you used to sweat, you don’t because you have to have all your attention somewhere else,” Hart expresses, accrediting her courage to the life lessons and the experience she’s gained throughout the years. Hart’s support she receives from husband Kevin also helps, as well as support from her fans, who continue to attend the Women in Jazz events throughout the year. Although her singing gets the short end of the stick, due to her “day job,” maintaining her marriage and raising her daughter, Hart has been able to sustain a level of balance in her life , making her the incredibly captivating performer and person that she is today.
Remember the little girl who listened to Nancy Wilson on the radio before going to school each day? In 2000, Hart received the opportunity of a lifetime: performing with Wilson at a Women in Jazz concert, one of Hart’s all-time favorite performing moments.
“She’s the one who tells the story best,” Hart says of Wilson’s singing.
And that’s what jazz is all about. It’s about the story and how it’s told. That’s why Hart fell in love with it. And that’s why you will undoubtedly fall in love with Hart and Women in Jazz.