unnamedBy Franklin Abbott

Serge Zobeide writing for Le Monde describes Atlanta jazz singer Audrey Shakir as the heir of Ella Fitzgerald. If you have ever heard Audrey scat you’d know why. Sam Yi, who owns Atlanta jazz club Churchill Grounds puts it succinctly, “Audrey is without doubt one of the best vocalists in the jazz world.”

Audrey was raised in a musical family in Cleveland, Ohio and moved to New York to enter the world of jazz. She was a regular performer at The Village Gate and performed frequently at Town Hall, the Apollo Theater and Tavern on the Green. She has performed with Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, Pharaoh Sanders, Kenny Burrell and Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.

Since moving to Atlanta in the late ’90s, Audrey has performed at several Atlanta Jazz Festivals and at every jazz club in Atlanta. She teaches a weekly jazz clinic at Georgia State University and is highly regarded in the jazz community as a “musician’s musician.” She will be performing two shows at at 595 North Event Center on April 16 with an all star band. We asked Audrey a few questions about her life and work.

You grew up in Cleveland, Ohio in a musical family. What did you learn from your parents and what did you learn from your early experiences in the Black church?
My early musical experiences in Black church – I learned to just get up and do it! When my Mother said go up there and sing something or play something, or recite, it was an order to be implemented. So I, and my brothers and sister, did so. One grows out of being shy quickly!

What inspired you to move from Cleveland to New York? What was it like to be a jazz singer in the world capital of jazz? Who did you meet who inspired you? Who did you get to perform with? How did you hone your craft?
I went to New York, actually, I never thought about it, really. It seemed a good idea at the time. My husband (a bass player) and I were thinking of relocating, and he suggested Detroit. We ended up with New York, and that turned out to be a fabulous idea, because there I was able to meet so many top knotch musicians easily. So many lived there at that time. I arrived in NYC in a pitiful condition, and left with so much to work with – almost homework assignments from Barry Harris, Jon Hendricks, Tommy Turrentine, and I can’t even name them all. Bottom line, one can always improve, and I continue to use the tips and instruction I got in NYC to this day. I moved to Atlanta in 1998, and I’m still trying to grow up musically.

You’ve been described as the best scat singer since Ella Fitzgerald. Can you talk about what scat singing is, how you got into it and where it takes you when you perform it?
The best since Madame Fitzgerald – I don’t claim that. I don’t even think that. How I got into it. I heard folks scat and I was very much attracted to that form of musical expression. I can’t tell you how it moves me when done well, like, well, I better not name anybody because that will be a very long list I think. But I wanted to do that, too. And my major period of growth occurred in the Barry Harris Jazz Workshops in NYC. I attended the horn sessions and used my voice for my instrument. That was a biggie for me. Scatting gives me freedom of expression that I am not able to define with words. It is what a singer does that equals what a horn player does, for me.

Your parents were musicians and you have a son, Walter Blanding, Jr., who is a musician who plays saxophone with Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. You performed with them when they were last in Atlanta and will perform with them later this year in New York. What is it like to perform with your son and what is it like to perform with Wynton Marsalis?
Performing with my son. Ever since he got a few basic things together, he has been one of the most skilled musicians I know personally. That is not a prejudiced statement – it is a statement of fact. He has always been a better reader and writer and hearer than I have been, since he was in high school. I’m just saying. It’s an honor to be able to play with him, and I am blessed that Wynton allows me to sit in with the Lincoln Center Orchestra. That’s not my right or my expectation. I’m always thrilled when I can.

You have an evening of performances coming up in Atlanta on April 16. Can you tell us about the band you will be performing with and give us a taste of what is on the musical menu for the evening?
I intend to do my level best to keep up with the musicians that said yes. That would be Sam Skelton on saxophone , Melvin Jones on trumpet, Kevin Bales on piano, Craig Shaw on bass, Chris Burroughs on drums. A drummer once told me a while back in Cleveland, that one should always hire the best musicians possible. Try to be the least of the bunch skill-wise. That way, you will have to reach and grow. So this gig, I have done exactly that. I will try to hang on. We will be doing tunes that are first-time for me, and I know that the net result will be some kind of wonderful. How could it not be with this group? I’m just asking.

Audrey Shakir will be performing at 595 North Event Center, 595 North Ave., NW, Atlanta 30318 on Thursday evening, April 16, at 8 and 10:30 p.m. For reservations and tickets, (404) 835-2329 or info@595north.com.

Franklin Abbott is an Atlanta psychotherapist and poet. www.franklinabbott.com.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.