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The JazzWest Blogs: Kim Nalley
About the Author

Named one of the "Ten Most Influential African Americans in the Bay Area," Kim Nalley is hailed as one of world's best jazz & blues singers. Visit Kim online at kimnalley.com.

Recent Posts

Posted on February 4, 2015:

Singing The Truth for Trayvon Martin and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Posted on January 20, 2015:

In A Digital World, An Old-Fashioned Postcard Can Be A Joy!

Posted on January 12, 2015:

It's Who I Am, Not Just What I Do

Posted on December 25, 2014:

The Ghosts of Corporate Christmas Party Gigs Past

Posted on December 10, 2014:

Mariah & Me: The Art (and the Craft) of Singing Live

  Browse all posts...

Posted on September 2, 2013:

On Singers "Sitting In" and the Importance of Female Mentorship in Jazz

Posted on July 29, 2013:

Florida Goddam... Thoughts on Race, Music and Trayvon Martin

Posted on July 15, 2013:

The Secrets of a Successful Singer: The Art (and Craft) of 'Woodshedding'

Posted on July 1, 2013:

Raising Voices in Support of San Francisco City College

Posted on April 1, 2013:

Music To Birth Babies By... One Mom's List

Posted on February 1, 2013:

The Joys of Singing Gershwin

Posted on November 8, 2012:

Illegal, Immoral, Insensitive... or Just A Matter of Technology?

Posted on May 27, 2012:

"I Can't Get Started"... My Early Days as an Aspiring Singer

Posted on January 23, 2012:

True Confessions of a Pregnant Jazz Singer

Posted on January 3, 2012:

Need to Sharpen Your Vocal Skills? There's an App for That...

Posted on February 28, 2011:

My Last Gig with Jazz Legend Allen Smith

Posted on January 31, 2011:

An Old-Fashioned, Bona Fide Rent Party

Posted on November 1, 2010:

Life is Short and Difficult... Carpe Diem!

Posted on October 11, 2010:

Books, Best Friends, and an Impromptu Café Concert

Posted on August 16, 2010:

25 Things I Wish Somebody Told Me When I Was 18

Posted on July 28, 2010:

Packing 101: Tips from a Time-Tested Traveler

Posted on July 6, 2010:

33 Early Jazz Influences (because 25 is SO FaceBook)

Posted on March 23, 2010:

Music from the Streets

Posted on February 1, 2010:

Chick Webb: The Forgotten Little Giant

Posted on December 28, 2009:

A Christmas Quandary for the Bay Area Jazz Vocalist

Posted on December 4, 2009:

When Is a Friend Not Really a Friend?

Posted on November 6, 2009:

Q&A with Jazz Singer & Ex-Pat Daline Jones

Posted on September 8, 2009:

The Great American Music Hall Saga, Part II

Posted on August 27, 2009:

Tough Times for Jazz Festivals

Posted on August 19, 2009:

Blue Mondays

Posted on July 31, 2009:

Google Alerts, Birthday Wishes and a Few Pulled Strings

Posted on July 13, 2009:

Jazz That Makes You Wanna Get Up & Dance

Posted on July 1, 2009:

Gigantism in Jazz: Is Bigger Always Better?

Posted on June 25, 2009:

The Jazz Pantheon & the Cult of Celebrity

Posted on June 4, 2009:

Getting Recognized in Public: "You Look So Normal..."

Posted on May 27, 2009:

When is a Monitor NOT a Monitor?

Posted on May 14, 2009:

Bittersweet Memories of Mothers Day 2001

Posted on May 12, 2009:

When is a Jazz Singer NOT a Jazz Singer?

Posted on May 5, 2009:

A Mystery Resolved: Why Jazz Singers Do So Many Covers

Posted on April 29, 2009:

True Confessions of a Jazz Singer's Husband

Posted on April 29, 2009:

True Confessions of a Jazz Singer's Husband

Posted on April 10, 2009:

Denise Perrier's Fine Form the "Second Time Around"

Posted on March 23, 2009:

The Blessings of a Struggling Artist

Posted on March 10, 2009:

A Star Is Born, Part II: The Autograph Mafia

Posted on March 8, 2009:

A Star Is Born, Part I: Signing Autographs

Posted on March 2, 2009:

I'm Beginning to See the Light...

Posted on February 25, 2009:

BJ Papa & Friends in the Early 1980s

Posted on February 25, 2009:

BJ Papa (1936-2008): A Musician Remembered

Posted on February 23, 2009:

Valentine's Day for the Working Jazz Singer

Posted on February 16, 2009:

Memorial Services for Publicist Ave Montague

Posted on February 12, 2009:

New Vince Guaraldi Documentaries in the Works

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Wednesday, February 4, 2015 at 12:57 am

Singing the Truth for Trayvon Martin and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I was asked to come to St. Petersburg, Florida this January to sing the song I wrote in 2013 about Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old killed by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Sanford, FL. My song, entitled "Blues for Trayvon Martin (Big Hooded Black Man)," was only one of many songs in a kick-off event for the city's annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. celebrations (in San Francisco we can barely muster one day to honor Dr. King, but in Saint Pete they do it up for a week). The production was titled "Sounds of the Civil Rights Movement: The Power of Song," and it was written and produced by September Penn.

Kim (center) with September Penn (left) and Aleta Hayes

I had met September through Dr. Clayborne Carson, who was entrusted with Dr. King's papers by Coretta Scott King, and is the head of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University in Palo Alto. In 2013, Dr. Carson had asked me to put together the music for the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the 1963 "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom." He had only one request, which came in at the last minute: to add September to the artist roster. Because she was flying in from Florida, I didn't get a chance to meet her until the day of the performance. But she, vocalist and bassist Bryan Dyer, Stanford Professor of Dance and Performance Aleta Hayes and I vocally gelled together instantly.

September and Aleta were members of the Passages Singers, a group of singers who went to Palestine with Dr. Carson to perform an original play about Martin Luther King, Jr. The lead actors who played Dr. King and Malcolm X were Palestinian. The script had the two men engaged in debate on the politics of non-violence. The play was in Arabic, but the music was gospel/Civil Rights music, sung by both African American singers and Palestinians. Surprisingly, the Palestinians did not know much about Dr. King, but the results of the performance were transformative. The owner of the theater was murdered during the run (sadly, on the night of the 43rd anniversary of Dr. King's own murder), and it later sparked a non-violent bus protest based on the Freedom Riders of the American South during the Civil Rights struggle.

(There is a documentary film by award-winning producer Connie Fields, "Al Helm: Martin Luther King in Palestine," that recounts this historic trip. Here's a trailer and a review of the film. Ed.)

I felt very honored that September invited me to be a part of her event, since we barely knew each other beyond our brief performance together in 2013. And I was even more honored that she asked me to sing not just my song, but also to be part of the Passages Singers and sing a program of Civil Rights and gospel music. This was the first time the entire group had all gotten together since the play, and so it was reunion for them. It can be awkward being the kid who comes to summer camp on the last week, but the other Passages members — Chelsi Alabi, Ken Alston, Re Phillips, P Michael Williams, Aleta, September and Steve Wilson — all made me feel like part of their family. We also had a rehearsal the same day we all arrived in Florida, and there is something about raising voices with a group of people that is immediately bonding.

I didn't know the words or the melody or what my part would be on some of the songs we were set to perform. There was no sheet music. I started to sing alto and quickly realized that my tone was too thick and there was only one soprano, September, out of the five women. I decided to switch to soprano and sat next to September. We started singing "Precious Lord," in an arrangement by the late Nathan Carter, the director of the Morgan State University Choir, one of the premier choirs in the country. Ken is a counter-tenor and was one of Mr. Carter's protégés. As he started singing out parts, I found myself challenged in a way I had not been in years: singing that high, and being pushed to hold that "high head voice" continuously in the gossamer light piano that the arrangement called for. My final note was Bb5!

I honestly didn't know I still had it in me. September squeezed my hand whenever I faltered, giving me strength and reassurance. We sang for hours before going to bed, then woke up the next morning and rehearsed again after breakfast. Next came lights, blocking and sound check at the theater, which lasted through the evening.

The production traced the music of the Civil Rights movement from slavery to the present day. There was several choirs, dance troupes and youth organizations in addition to the soloists. Most of the singers had that incomparable COGIC (Church Of God In Christ) Pentecostal sound that is simply soul-shaking. Sharon Scott, who performed as the legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, was awe-inspiring. The man who sang Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" brought the house down. And just when you thought it couldn't get any better, things kicked up another notch when a local teenage saxophonist, Kenneth Goolsby, Jr., played a jazz rendition of "Precious Lord" as the play's timeline morphed from the traditional to the modern. Four little girls danced one at a time until their elegant arabesques collapsed one by one into a huddle as their names were solemnly called: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair. I cried.

I felt inadequate, stark and plain next to the vocal ornamentive richness and power all around me. I sang "Blues for Trayvon Martin (Big Hooded Black Man)" with simplicity. I don't know what it looked like. I know the lyrics were displayed in back of me. I know that to either side of me and out in the audience, dim spot-follows illuminated hooded teenagers who seem shrouded and shadowed by Death itself.

I was told my song was the highlight of the program, and I could not believe it. I was very nervous because some of Trayvon's relatives were present. What if I took undue liberties? "No," everyone assured me. "You sang the truth. You didn't need to do anything because you sang the truth."

The whole experience was life-changing. The conversations we had in between singing were heady with reflections on race, God, gender, forgiveness, non-violence and freedom. P Michael's sweet giving nature, Chelsi's humor, Ken's openness, September's warmth, Re's communication, Aleta's rooted spirituality, Ivan's uncomplaining gentleness, Steve's humility and everyone's probity. It was an embarrassment of riches. I was happy to go home to my family, but at the same time reluctant to leave that special sacred place that we all inhabiteded in the time we were together in Florida. So blessed to be giving this opportunity!

And the audience was like no other. People often say Europeans appreciate jazz more, but no one appreciates Black music like an African-American audience. During our performance, the St. Petersburg audience fed us like an electrical current plugged directly into the band, into our voices and into our feet.

The energy, love and awareness of Dr. King's message we helped nurture in Florida has returned with me to San Francisco. I am currently in conversation with Dr. Carson about reviving his play, with me involved. There is something very special about doing socially conscious art. Black American music, and in particular the music of the Civil Rights movement (which began the moment an African foot touched the deck of a slave ship, and not, as history would try and tell us, in the 1960s). This music pulls on my umbilical cord in a profound, insistent way. I am happy to keep this music alive and, more importantly, I am happy I am making music about today's freedom struggle. There will be more to come.

P.S.: "Blues for Trayvon Martin (Big Hooded Black Man)" was written and recorded at the spur of the moment in angry response to something someone said to me when the Zimmerman not guilty verdict was delivered on July 13, 2013. You can watch the video of this song I made and posted on my You Tube channel.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015 at 1:10 pm

In A Digital World, An Old-Fashioned Postcard Can Be A Joy!

I am still mailing out holiday cards, and it is already past the middle of January! At least they are getting out.

This is the first year since my daughter was born that I have mailed holiday cards. I had photo cards made with the best of intentions but between the duties of being a new parent, at least a solid week's worth of shows between Christmas and New Year's Day plus a stack of finals to grade, my holiday cards — and my best intentions — fell to the wayside.

As I finally started addressing and stamping my holiday cards I suddenly had a flashback to when I did this every month for my mailing list. Back before the World Wide Web and before America Online discs cluttered mailboxes, I started my mailing list. During set breaks I would dutifully go around the crowd with a little book and ask people if they wanted to be on my mailing list. I would hand them book and they would write down their snail-mail address: sometimes illegibly, sometimes with rude sexual comments, sometimes with doodles, and sometimes with praise. I would then hand-transfer them to mailing labels, photocopy them, stick the labels on my postcards, stamp them, and then mail them out every month.

Every time the Feds raised the rate of stamps I had heart palpitations. Many of my gigs were in the $40-$75 range and the stamps alone cost $100 a month. In the early days of desktop publishing I could find someone to design them for $35, then I had to get a halftone of a photo which cost $25-$40 and then I would take the whole thing down to Kinko's to be copied and cut. Some people thought I was crazy spending so much money on "throw-aways," but in those days there was no other alternative for building a mailing list.

I would add the names to the mailing labels by hand in the order they were received, so I still remember the first people on my mailing list: Lynn Goodman and Jeff Hirano. They were regulars at the Club Deluxe in San Francisco's Haight district, and that was one of my first regular gigs. I played there every Friday night with guitarist Mimi Fox until the Rodney King riots caused the owner to cancel the music and darken the doors for a few days. My next serious gig was at the Café Du Nord on Market Street. The owner of the club, John Varnadoe, used to work at the Deluxe and I got my first taste of politics when I was not allowed to leave my flyers out because both clubs were advertised on them!

Early on, I made a bunch of silly greenhorn mistakes such as putting my phone number on my flyers. I got a bunch of sexually harassing phone calls and then had to change my phone number. I also became wary of handing out my business card for the same reason. I was just starting out so I didn't have a booking agent, and I can't say how many gigs I missed out on because people didn't have my phone number. That is just one of the many hidden costs of gender discrimination.

Gradually, email addresses started cropping up in my mailing list book and eventually, the price of sending postcards became so unwieldy that I switched to email only. Email was quick, easy and a lot less time-consuming. But eventually, as everything went digital, I discovered that people really wanted something tangible. There is nothing like a postcard to hand people when they want to know where you are playing. It is almost as if I am not a real singer unless I have a flyer or postcard with me to hand out any time I am in public.

I started offering postcards as a mailing-list option again and I must say it is wonderful. People's in-boxes are so cluttered with email these days that getting a simple printed postcard in the mail is a joy. They can give it to a friend. Or the compliment of all compliments: they put it on their refrigerator.

There is nothing on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram that compares. Some people tell me that they have flyers of me from wa-a-a-y back that are still on the refrigerator to this day. Sometimes my flyer is still on the fridge because it was particularly beautiful or sometimes because it was a great show or a show that ended up becoming an anniversary for somebody, somewhere (I have been told that a Kim Nalley concert is a great first date). In a digital world, an old-fashioned, snail-mailed postcard is worth 100 emailed newsletters. The people who opt for postcards are the people who come to my shows most often.

I no longer send the postcards by hand. Most of the time I end up physically touching the postcard for the first time at the same time as everyone else. So addressing and stamping a stack of cards really brings me back to the olden days when I first started my mailing list. It also reminded me that I used to be more grateful for my musical career.

I used to send Christmas cards to all the clubs that hired me. Of course I was not as busy back then and in general I had more space to reflect on the year and recall the faces and names of the people who helped me along the way that year. In many ways, for me, holiday cards have been more of a combined Thanksgiving card and a New Year's card than a Christmas card. I could send an electronic card — and I have in the past — but somehow it isn't the same. There is something about knowing someone's hand touched a piece of paper, wrote it, licked a stamp, carefully placed it on the back of the card and then ran it down to a mailbox.

I must make time to keep sending out cards. Maybe they wont get out till January (the typical slow period for musicians), but at least they will get there.


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