Denise Perrier’s theme song could be “Travelin’ Light,” as the supremely stylish San Francisco jazz singer continues to follow her wanderlust to the wide corners of the world. Since she first lit out to tour Australia some five decades ago, Perrier has performed in more than two dozen countries, a tireless itinerary that means she’s often introducing herself to new generations of Bay Area jazz fans when she gets back home. You can catch her Saturday at the California Jazz Conservatory with Swing Fever, but then she’s off for San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, followed by her first trip to Cuba in December.
Like so many of her previous foreign connections, Perrier got the chance to fulfill her longtime desire to sing in Cuba by being in the right place at the right time. A few months ago she was performing at Bird & Beckett, the invaluable San Francisco bookstore and venue in Glen Park, where she met the great Cuban poet, translator and essayist Nancy Morejón and “we ended up at the Sheba Lounge singing in Spanish together,” Perrier says. “She talked with the minister of culture and got me this invite.”
Perrier knows how to make a lasting impression. With her velvety contralto and unerring sense of swing, she’s equally at adept at interpreting American Songbook standards with a piano trio in an intimate cabaret as she is belting out blues backed by the Junius Courtney Big Band (though she’ll be in Havana for the JCBB’s next gig at Yoshi’s on Dec. 15, so the estimable Rhonda Benin is stepping in).
She’s been working with Swing Fever since the turn of the century, regularly performing with the group on first and third Tuesdays at the Panama Hotel in San Rafael (as well as Pier 23 and Sausalito Seahorse). Founded and led by trombonist Bryan Gould, the combo has long served as a smart showcase for the best singers in a region known for producing exceptional vocalists, starting with the great Mary Stallings. Before Perrier took over the vocal spot Swing Fever boasted singular singers Paula West, Kim Nalley, Brenda Boykin and Jackie Ryan. For Saturday’s gig, the band features tenor sax great Noel Jewkes, guitarist Jeff Massanari, drummer Tony Johnson, and bassist Dean Riley, a Bay Area jazz mainstay since 1945 (!).
Part of what makes Perrier such a beguiling singer is the way her dry sense of humor and supple phrasing reveal layers of irony in familiar standards. “She does the blues great, but I really think she’s a standards singer,” Gould says. “With Swing Fever the blues make up about a fourth of her repertoire and the rest is mostly Gershwin and Arlen. I really believe in songs, and we pay a lot of attention to the lyrics. It’s straight out of Ella and Billie and Sarah.”
Born in Louisiana, Perrier moved with her family to the East Bay at the end of World War II and ended up on the Albany side of the creek in Codornices Village (where UC Village now stands). She grew up in a house suffused with music. Her brother, Paul Jackson, is the highly regarded bassist best known as a founding member of Herbie Hancock’s pioneering fusion band Head Hunters, and her sister Joyce Jackson is an accomplished flutist and songwriter.
Perrier credits her education in Albany with preparing her for a life in the arts. At Albany High she took history with a young teacher named Phil Elwood, who went on to cover jazz and pop music for the San Francisco Examiner (and later Chronicle) for four decades. A longtime Berkeley resident and KPFA disc jockey, Elwood was known for animating his lessons with classic American music, particularly early jazz and blues.
“Years later some of those records he used to let us hear would be very instrumental in my being able to do a production about the life of Bessie Smith at the Lorraine Hansberry Theater,” says Perrier, who has also performed her one-woman show Bessie, Dinah and Me at top San Francisco cabarets. “A lot of my earlier formation was right there in Albany, with great drama and dance classes. We had our own home ec class taught in an actual house on the campus. We planted the flowers outside and set the table. Girls were taking shop. It was very progressive, and such a small school, with a lot of really personal attention.”
Before she started working as a singer Perrier joined teenage dance troupes led by choreographers Zack Thompson and Ruth Beckford. But her big break came with Intervals, a Platter-esque vocal ensemble that performed at Oakland nightspots like Esther’s Orbit Room and Slim Jenkins. When Louis Armstrong heard the group at an NAACP event at the Fairmont Hotel in 1959 he took them under his wing and arranged a six-week run in Las Vegas. It gave Perrier a chance to mingle with jazz greats like Dinah Washington and Ella Fitzgerald, but she also had to deal with Vegas’s notoriously hostile racial climate.
“Black artists were working in the main rooms, but weren’t allowed to live in the hotels,” Perrier recalls. “Ella once cooked me some black-eyed peas on a hotplate in one of these trailers where musicians lived. We think that stuff ancient history, but it wasn’t that long ago really.”
It was during a 1965 gig at Esther’s Orbit Room that Perrier was first offered work abroad, which led to an extended stay in Australia. She parlayed her gig down under into years of performing in Asia, as she moved from Singapore to Thailand, the Phillipines and South Vietnam, where she spent two years during the height of the US military involvement. It wasn’t merely a desire to explore new countries and the opportunity to work steadily before appreciative audiences that drew Perrier overseas. It was the quality of the work she was being offered.
“As a relatively unknown artist, I was getting the experience of working with big bands, I was on television, there was an excitement and a certain kind of grooming that was invaluable to me, though I didn’t think of it then,” Perrier says. “There was a lot of work in settings that I couldn’t have gotten into so quickly in the US. And there was a sense of adventure.”
When Perrier moved back to the States in the early 1970s she settled in New York City, and after five years she returned to the Bay Area. She gained considerable attention with a series of shows, including revues exploring the music of Duke Ellington and George Gershwin, and an acclaimed tribute to Dinah Washington. But Perrier never lost her wanderlust. Performing frequently in Europe and Japan, where her brother Paul Jackson Jr. lives, she’s maintained a busy travel schedule. She forged particularly deep ties in Russia, traveling there 28 times since her 1997 debut when she was invited to perform at a celebration marking the nation’s 850th anniversary.
“When I got back home the first thing I knew was invited back again,” Perrier says. “I mostly play in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Chelyabinsk, but I’ve literally crisscrossed the country.”
She featured Russian musicians on half the tracks of her album East Meets West on her Chez Perrier label, just a teasing introduction to the tremendous range of musical talent she’s found there. With the end of communism and state-supported ensembles “a lot of the classical musicians have eased over to jazz,” Perrier says. “They have a great appreciation for the music, so I get a chance to do a lot of television, things I don’t get to do here. I just wish we could develop a greater appreciation here for what we have given the world.”
See Denise Perrier and Swing Fever on Saturday, Oct. 24, at the California Jazz Conservatory, 2087 Addison St. in Berkeley, for $15 (plus fees). Doors open at 7:30 p.m. and the show starts at 8. Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. He also reports for the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.
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