Growing up in a rough Washington DC neighborhood in the 1970s, Roberta Donnay had to come to terms with some harsh truths. A sensitive and creative child with parents uninterested in stoking her passion for art and music, she identified closely with the legendary jazz singers she heard on the radio, particularly Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong.
“I was very disappointed to find out I was a white girl,” she says. “I thought of these people as my ancestors. I felt like they knew who I was.”
It took decades before she accepted that her voice wasn’t suited for high velocity scatting or low down blues. Instead she emerged as a deft interpreter of pre-modern jazz, honing a playful but unsentimental approach to the American Songbook’s early pages. Donnay celebrates the release of her album, My Heart Belongs to Satchmo (Blujazz Records) Friday at the Back Room.
She’s joined by a distilled version of her Prohibition Mob Band featuring estimable pianist John R. Burr, bassist Simon Planting, Jazz Mafia trumpeter/cornetist Rich Armstrong, Berkeley trombonist Mike Rinta, and drummer Alan Hall (who marks the release of his second Ratatet album Heroes, Saints and Clowns April 13 at the California Jazz Conservatory).
Donnay also celebrates International Women’s Day on Thursday March 8 at Throckmorton Theatre on a brimming bill with fellow Marin jazz singer Deborah Winters, indie rocker Stefanie Keys, world-jazz vocalist Kay Kostopoulos & Black Olive Jazz, and singer/songwriter Willow van den Hoek. She returns to Throckmorton on Saturday, March 10 with her Prohibition Mob Band on a double bill with jazz vocalist and Blujazz labelmate Michelle Coltrane, daughter of John and Alice Coltrane. Both Throckmorton events are fundraisers for W.O.M.A.N. Inc., a San Francisco-based service provider for women fleeing domestic abuse.
As the title suggests, Donnay’s new album is a tribute to Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong (1901-1971), whose influence on American popular music is impossible to overstate. While his cornet (and later trumpet) playing transformed jazz from its New Orleans roots as an ensemble art form into a forum for virtuosic soloists, on vocals his rhythmically flexible phrasing, wry humor, and improvisational panache immediately made the pop singers that came before him sound old-fashioned.
Donnay interprets tunes long embedded in Armstrong’s repertoire, like “Up A Lazy River,” “Basin Street Blues” and “A Kiss to Build a Dream On.” But she also uncovers obscure gems like “I’m In the Market For You,” “Ol’ Man Mose,” and a version of “Pennies From Heaven” featuring previously unrecorded lyrics by Dan Hicks, with whom Donnay toured and recorded for a decade. “Dan turned me on to so much music,” Donnay says. “He was really into early jazz. The Hot Licks didn’t have a drummer, so Daria and I played percussion and sang, and we wrote our own parts.”
Hicks is just one outpost on Donnay’s wild and circuitous musical journey. She landed in the Bay Area in the early 1980s and before long started singing with Dick Oxtot’s Golden Age Jazz Band. A banjo player and vocalist, Oxtot was a central player in the Bay Area’s popular trad jazz movement, which harkened back to 1920s New Orleans.
Shy and firmly unconvinced of her own vocal prowess, she ended up fleeing her on-stage audition with Oxtot at The Point in Pt. Richmond. “Dick ran after me, saying ‘You got the gig, you got the gig!’” she recalls. “I learned a ton of songs with him. All the players were over 60.”
She’s toured nationally as a singer/songwriter, and spent many years performing her first husband, pianist Bob Mocarsky, who worked widely with the supremely inventive jazz singers Mark Murphy and Bobby McFerrin. In the 1990s she set up shop as a composer for hire, and spent years concentrating more on songwriting than performing.
She credits a close friendship with the great jazz producer Orrin Keepnews with ushering her back into jazz singing. After meeting as governors of the Recording Academy (the organization that awards the Grammys), they bonded when she questioned him in detail about his prolific relationship with legendary pianist/composer Thelonious Monk. Keepnews ended up producing her 2006 album What’s Your Story for her Rainforest label (though it was reissued two years later by Pacific Jazz).
Featuring Berkeley High alum Dave Ellis on tenor saxophone and insouciantly swinging pianist Eric Reed, the project earned strong reviews. She followed up with two albums for the powerhouse indie label Motéma, 2012’s A Little Sugar, which introduced her Prohibition Mob Band, and 2015’s Bathtub Gin.
In many ways she found her way back to her first musical love because she always felt welcomed by jazz musicians. “They really encourage me over and over again,” Donnay says. “Oftentimes musicians don’t like singers that much, but even when I doubted myself musicians would say, why don’t you come do this gig with us? Or, why don’t we play your tune? It’s so great to be singing this music I love with these great players.”
Recommended gigs: Guitars; saxophones; ‘Lady Bird;’ Tammy Hall
There’s a whole lotta guitar happening at the Monkey House on Saturday, when Teja Gerken and Pete Madsen, who’ve been collaborating for nearly two decades, team up with Janet Noguera, a rising force in the fingerstyle world. She has won Lowden Guitars’ “Young Guitarist of the Year” in 2014 and was featured in Acoustic Guitar magazine’s “30 Great Guitarists under 30” story.
If three acoustic guitars don’t fit the bill, there are four mighty saxophones at the Back Room, where ROVA Saxophone Quartet holds forth on Saturday. After some four decades, Berkeley’s Larry Ochs, Bruce Ackley, Jon Raskin, and Steve Adams have lost none of their exploratory spirit. The intimate confines of the Back Room offer an ideal setting for a sonic adventure.
If the soundtrack for the movie Lady Bird happened to catch your ear, it may have been the songs of Monica da Silva, who makes her Bay Area debut Sunday afternoon at Maybeck Studio for the Performing Arts. The Brazilian-American singer/songwriter is performing with guitarist Chad Alger, her musical partner for the past decade, focusing on their original compositions in English, Portuguese, and Spanish.
And finally, Tammy Hall, Tammy Hall, Tammy Hall. I probably type the pianist’s name four or five times a week, because she’s everywhere, playing with great singers (Kim Nalley, Denise Perrier, Barbara Dane, Pamela Rose, etc). She brings her own trio with bassist Ruth Davies and drummer Ruth Price to the California Jazz Conservatory’s new Rendon Hall on Wednesday March 14, in a show presented by Jazz in the Neighborhood. A superlative accompanist, Hall is just as much fun swinging without a singer.