Stephanie Crawford: Making herself a masterpiece

Stephanie Crawford will perform Sunday afternoon at the California Jazz Conservatory in Berkeley
Stephanie Crawford will perform Thursday afternoon at the Cheese Board and Sunday afternoon at the California Jazz Conservatory in downtown Berkeley. Photo: CJC

Stephanie Crawford has performed at top jazz clubs in New York City and Paris, but since settling in the East Bay about 15 years ago she’s been one of the region’s best kept jazz secrets. In recent months lucky Cheese Board patrons have been privy to her vocal artistry (she’s there Thursday afternoon with pianist Joe Warner), but Crawford’s mainstay is the California Jazz Conservatory, where she returns 4:30 pm Sunday for a performance with Warner, ace bassist Ron Belcher, and versatile drummer Greg German.

It’s telling that the North Oakland resident has found a welcome embrace in venues run by vocalists. She was a regular at Anna de Leon’s lamented downtown spot Anna’s Jazz Island. And Laurie Antonioli, the supremely creative singer who runs the CJC’s jazz vocal program, has long championed Crawford, hiring her for gigs as a performer and teacher, where she contributes significant depth to the program.

“Stephanie is a hidden treasure here in the Bay Area,” says Antonioli. “Her singing is spontaneous, her phrasing is beautiful, and her choice of material unexpected. We’ve had her teach at the CJC numerous times and she’ll be back this summer. Her knowledge of the Great American Songbook is encyclopedic.”

It was her command of lyrics that sparked Crawford’s epiphany that music was indeed her calling. She grew up in Detroit surrounded by jazz when the city’s scene still ranked as one of the nation’s most vital, soaking up sounds from Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Betty Carter. But she trained as a visual artist, and had just earned a scholarship to the Pratt Institute in New York City when she found herself at a neighborhood dive bar she frequented on Sundays with a gone-to-seed pianist/singer who often stumbled over a song’s words.


“It was this hideous grungy bar,” Crawford recalls. “This lady kept forgetting lyrics and I would call them out. After a while she said why don’t you get your ass up here. Well, I knew all the lyrics, so I did and I caught the bug. I ended up going back every Sunday to sing.”

She was 36 at the time, and though Crawford loved music from her soul, she couldn’t envision a life in the business. But once she landed in New York her MFA studies at Pratt quickly took a backseat to her bandstand education as she haunted the city’s numerous clubs and jam sessions. Crawford found invaluable mentors in saxophonist/composer Frank Foster and Detroit-reared pianist Barry Harris, a brilliant Charlie Parker acolyte beloved for the generosity he’s extended to generations of aspiring musicians.

“I didn’t get to the legitimate stage until I was long in the tooth,” Crawford says. “But after I enrolled in the Pratt Institute things moved fast. New York was jumping in the early 1980s. I met Barry Harris and he was a wonderful teacher. At some point I realized that I don’t want to paint a masterpiece. I want to be one.”

With some French fluency and an understanding that jazz still commanded a strong audience in Paris she lit out for the City of Lights. Crawford ended up spending almost a decade there, earning an avid following and critical plaudits. She made several records and won a prestigious Django d’Or award for Best International Jazz Vocalist in 1993. While she worked steadily, “teaching was how I was able to survive,” she says. “It was great, one of the most intensely creative periods in my life.”

By the mid-1990s she was back in the States. After a brief stint in New York she tried out Chicago, and then moved to the Bay Area when she landed a day job as a wine steward, a position she now holds with Safeway. As an epicurean she’s right at home in the East Bay, and she still has a passion for teaching.


“I try to teach people to really listen,” she says. “You cannot sing without listening. I work with them to repeat exactly what they hear, before they know scales, progressions or even notes. Then I get them into repertoire. I do some techniques on breathing, pitch, projection, and interpretation, how a song can become an extension of your personality and life experience. A lot of it is really what Barry taught me years ago in New York City.”

Turning standards into riveting personal tales is the essence of Crawford’s artistry. In her early 70s, she’s still a work in progress, a vital creative force dedicated to making herself a masterpiece.

“The music never dies inside for me,” Crawford says. “It’s alive as it ever was. My voice has changed, but I’m a better musician now. I say ‘musician’ not ‘singer’ because the great singers I listened to—Sarah, Ella, and Betty—were all exceptional musicians. I do some painting and drawing in my spare time, but music is the all-consuming passion.”

Recommended gigs: Esprit de Django et Stephane Festival / Darol Anger

Django2014PosterFreight & Salvage’s Esprit de Django et Stephane Festival, a two-day event that runs Saturday and Sunday, finds Gypsy jazz in unexpected places. Saturday’s program includes a 6:40 pm show by the wondrous chamber ensemble Tin Hat (featuring Berkeley clarinetist Ben Goldberg), a quartet that recently announced that this brief California tour will be the group’s final performances. The band’s two founding members, violinist Carla Kihlstedt and guitarist Mark Orton (a rising film composer whose score for Alexander Payne’s Nebraska earned international acclaim), no longer live in the Bay Area, and between family responsibilities and other creative commitments touring is no longer feasible.

On Sunday, fiddler extraordinaire Darol Anger presents his latest band Mr. Sun at 6:45 p.m. From Dave Grisman’s dawg music to the fiery chamber jazz of Turtle Island String Quartet, he’s been on the vanguard of string players finding new ways to combine jazz, bluegrass, European classical music and other traditions. In a recent email Anger wrote to brag on his Mr. Sun bandmates: “Joe K. Walsh is one of the foremost contemporary mandolinists, with four award-winning years in the Gibson Brothers, two solo recordings, and a Berklee professorship. Grant Gordy is a standout in the crowded field of acoustic guitar demigods. Grant’s work was quickly recognized for its kaleidoscopic excellence and startling emotion, fusing jazz and bluegrass concepts to an unprecedented degree. The group recently added the spectacular young bassist Ethan Jodziewicz, who currently studies at Curtis Institute with Edgar Meyer. Ethan is one of the most virtuosic and versatile bassists anywhere, and is now helping to revolutionize the bass’ role in American string band music.”

Andrew Gilbert writes for Berkeleyside, the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.


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