Kim Nalley: Masterly singer has focus on jazz’s roots

Nalley has created a scholarship aimed at reversing the lack of young black musicians engaged in the historically African-American art form of jazz

Discussions about race and jazz can get heated pretty quickly, like the recent row over New Orleans trumpeter Nicholas Payton’s campaign to rechristen jazz as Black American Music (BAM). A few years back, the Jazzschool and Yoshi’s became embroiled in a controversy over a perceived dearth of black representation, a conversation that aired concerns much bigger than the two local institutions.

Rather than pointing fingers, vocalist Kim Nalley decided to take it upon herself to address jazz’s shifting demographics with a scholarship aimed at reversing a disconcerting lack of young black musicians engaging with the historically African-American art form. A masterly jazz and blues singer equally authoritative belting salty Bessie Smith tunes, caressing Billie Holiday ballads, or interpreting Nina Simone’s charged anthems, Nalley raises funds for the scholarship Saturday at Berkeley’s Jazzschool with her longtime trio featuring bassist Michael Zisman, drummer Kent Bryson and pianist Tammy Hall.

“Viola Davis said it really well,” Nalley says. “It’s one thing to go into somebody else’s house and criticize, but you need to build your own house. If there’s a problem with black representation—and I didn’t think that was necessarily so in the Jazzschool’s case—we should do something about that.”

In launching a fund for aspiring young black musicians interested in studying at the Jazzschool, Nalley realized the problem was as much getting the word out to potential beneficiaries as raising the money itself.

Jazzschool founder Susan Muscarella says that over the last five years, with the additional support of Oakland painter Arnold White, the scholarship has supported several promising players, including a student from Berkeley Youth Alternatives.

“I put flyers at hair salons and barbershops to let people know it’s available,” says Nalley, who notes that there’s a conspicuously missing generation of black musicians coming up behind her. “It’s a serious problem. I don’t think it’s somebody’s fault. It’s systemic.

Nalley plays Berkeley’s Jazzschool on Saturday

“There are some black singers and saxophone players, but can you name one young black jazz piano player in the Bay Area? There aren’t many bass players either. Basses are extremely expensive to buy and difficult to rent. It costs $100 or more to replace the strings. Learning music not only helps kids stay off the street, it can teach them a livelihood. It would be great if people could come down not just for the concert but to make a donation.”

Few artists have seen as many sides of the business as Nalley. She’s lived the expat life in Europe, performing around the continent from her homebase in Basel, Switzerland. When the beloved North Beach club Jazz at Pearl’s was on the verge of closing in 2003, she and then-husband Steve Sheraton stepped in and kept the doors open for another five years, presenting top shelf Bay Area players as well as nationally touring artists.

A major force on the Bay Area scene since the mid-1990s, she’s fruitfully investigated the lives and legacies of Billie Holiday and Nina Simone on her acclaimed albums “Ballads For Billie” and “She Put A Spell On Me.” A skilled actress, she wrote and starred in a musical play “Ella: The American Dream,” detailing Fitzgerald’s hardscrabble early years. After a successful 2010 run at Sonoma County’s Cinnabar Theater, she incorporated many of the tunes into her club performances.

In December Nalley heads off to New York for a weekend engagement at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall with her working band and special guest James Carter on saxophones, performing her tribute to Nina Simone. But these days she’s mostly focusing on her most treasured production, her six-month-old daughter Lydia, all the while pursuing a PhD in history at UC Berkeley, exploring the globalization of jazz via African-American expats who settled in Germany after World War II.

“When I was living over I met a whole bunch of American black jazz musicians in Switzerland and Germany,” Nalley says. “And my great uncle was a jazz drummer who was in Germany and Denmark after World War II. I started assembling some oral histories, and I got more information than I was expecting. Academics have focused on black musicians in Paris, so Germany is a new field, a good topic for a dissertation.”

Born and raised in New Haven, Nalley’s first musical aspiration was to be an opera singer. She attended a high school for the performing arts associated with Yale University and was deeply involved with musical theater. She caught the jazz bug around the age of 16 and started checking out greats like Duke Ellington and Miles Davis, but she cites Bugs Bunny as her first musical influence.

“I was always really clued into those cartoons,” Nalley says. “Later when I was getting exposed to Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald I was remembering songs from Fred Astaire movies and cartoons. I think I learned ‘I’m In the Mood For Love’ from the Little Rascals. I just snatched things up from anywhere I could. I can hear a song once and go home and write out the changes and bring it to the gig.”

She first came to the Bay Area in the late ‘80s while following the Grateful Dead and soon returned to study history at Cal. She started performing before she graduated, and word quickly spread there was an impessive young talent on the scene. A self-described Dinah Washington devotee, Nalley has also listened closely to Helen Humes, Billie Holiday and Ivie Anderson (the Ellington Orchestra’s greatest female singer).

Nalley first gained a following with her own group The Late Late Show, then joined the jumping Johnny Nocturne Band. She was the first diva hired by Teatro Zinzanni, the gloriously manic European style circus long ensconced at Pier 29, and has also sung Gershwin with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony.

On or off the bandstand, Nalley is always looking for another interesting story, and it’s a safe bet that whatever she finds will eventually surface in her music.

Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley. 

Did you hear Berkeleyside has its own radio station? Listen to bands that are performing locally on Berkeleyside Radio, courtesy of DeliRadio. Read more about it.

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  • bearie

    Squak!

  • The Other Shore

    Kim Nalley is one of the Bay Area’s living treasures.  I don’t intend to open wounds, but some wise kind person with bucks to support music would do well to give Kim a first class nightclub to own and run.