Vocalist Mary Stallings, considered by many one of the great jazz singers, has also been called one of the best-kept secrets in vocal jazz. She had a very successful career in the 1960s, then a long mid-career hiatus. She stays close to her San Francisco roots and consequently is not a household name.
“Jazz was my second family,” said Stallings. “This is the only art form that has that family feeling. To have had the opportunity to come together with all these guys and hear the stories they passed down to me — the beauty and depth of what they’ve been through, the pain and the joy that’s the core of jazz.”
She remembers, as a young singer in her 20s, being gently encouraged by Dizzy Gillespie to find out who she was as an artist. “I always had a thirst for knowing about my music,” she said. “He made me dig in my own soul to find what I had. He knew I had a lot of feeling down inside that needed to get out. Even when he was being funny he was always picking your brain.”
Stallings is modest when telling her own story, a story of a remarkable personal and musical evolution. Called by the New York Times, “Perhaps the best jazz singer singing today,” Stallings has sung with and learned from many of the greatest names in jazz. Yet she has remained firmly anchored in her roots of city, family, and personal authenticity.
“Jazz is not a music of yourself,” she said. “It is inclusive of all who are part of this shared family. Everybody comes with their own ingredients. It’s very individual. The music is you, yet there is respect in this family for the individuality in all of us.” Stallings said she feels that each jazz artist is an ambassador of the art form. “It’s our music, the music of our country,” she said. “We set the precedents on how this music is perceived. My responsibility as an adult is to tell that story, especially to young people and developing artists, and be upright and honest and true.”
Stallings started very young in the music business. While still in high school she joined blues, jazz and boogie-woogie bandleader Louis Jordan’s Tympany Five. In the early 60s she sang with Dizzy Gillespie, including the 1965 Monterey Jazz Festival. She finished out the decade with the Count Basie Orchestra. “I met all the heroes of music and then got a chance to work with them,” she said. These greats of jazz, and many others, were her teachers.
With the birth of her daughter in 1972, she decided to concentrate on raising her. In the early 90’s local musicians pulled her back onstage and in 1992 she returned to the recording studio. Her 1994 debut album on the Concord label, “I Waited for You,” put her back on the jazz map.
According to critics and fans who rediscovered Stallings in this second installment of her career, she is at her peak in interpreting a lyric and telling the emotional stories in the songs she chooses. She appears on Saturday, Aug. 25 at Jazz in the Pines with pianist arranger Eric Reed. “The first time I heard him I knew I loved this guy,” said Stallings. There was this instant connection.”
Reed returned the compliment, “Rarely does one encounter a singer who is so genuinely musical, so soundly in the moment. If you want to talk about jazz, the subtleties and the intricacies, the storytelling and the harmonies, there isn’t a woman alive who sings better.”