Exploring boundaries: Stephanie Nakasian reflects on the beauty of jazz life lessons

Veteran jazz vocalist Stephanie Nakasian kicks off a busy fall schedule with a special evening of bebop classics backed by The Richmond Jazz All-Stars. Publicity image. Veteran jazz vocalist Stephanie Nakasian kicks off a busy fall schedule with a special evening of bebop classics backed by The Richmond Jazz All-Stars. Publicity image.

Stephanie Nakasian grew up with the American songbook in her ear. You know the tunes: “Fly Me to the Moon,” “I Get A Kick Out of You,” and so many others. She sang them at home, and in choir, and played them on piano and violin, too.

These melodies and lyrics were in her ear while she studied economics and earned an MBA at Northwestern University, and the songs followed her to a job in New York City.

When she was in her mid-20s and working on Wall Street, she met bebop jazz pianist Hod O’Brien (who would become her husband of 38 years) and heard these songs anew. “When I saw Hod playing piano, [they] just seemed so alive. The same songs I’d heard before, [but in] a fresh sound. I loved the swing feel of it,” she says, sitting at a table in C’ville Coffee, her preferred Charlottesville jazz listening and performance venue.

Nakasian closes her eyes, perhaps to remember the sound of her late husband’s piano. “Fly me to the moon,” she croons with more swing than Sinatra, bobbing her right hand back and forth through the air as she snaps her fingers to the beat. “Let me play among the stars / Let me see what spring is like on / A-Jupiter and Mars.”

She asks if this reporter can hear the difference, the swing, the (be)bop. It’s palpable indeed, and that right there, she says, is why, at 25, she chose to leave her job on Wall Street and give jazz singing a go. Nakasian took a major risk, and it’s paid off. Dubbed the “Renaissance Woman of Jazz” in a 2012 industry profile, she’s released 15 albums; performed with jazz legends like lyricist and singer Jon Hendricks; sings at legendary jazz venues like New York City’s Birdland; and has taught voice at UVA and elsewhere for more than two decades.

That sort of spirit—one of taking chances and following a lead wherever it may go—is what Nakasian intends to convey to her audience at Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church on September 8, when she performs a concert of bebop classics with The Richmond Jazz All-Stars.

The Richmond Jazz All-Stars. Publicity photo

Nakasian calls the group, comprised of pianist Weldon Hill, saxophonist James “Saxsmo” Gates, bassist Michael Hawkins, and drummer Billy Williams Jr., her “dream band.” And not only because they’re accomplished musicians who’ve shared the stage with superstars such as Jon Faddis, Kristin Chenoweth, Art Blakey, and Terence Blanchard, among others. It’s because, for Nakasian, these musicians hit all the right notes. “Jazz is incredibly creative,” she says, “an interesting experiment. And the perfect band is the band that technically and musically fits with you, and then emotionally supports you and inspires you.” It’s important to have that relationship among band members, she says, because jazz makes musicians and singers explore their boundaries and push beyond them with every rehearsal, every performance.

Playing jazz is a way to discover something new about oneself, to grow as a person and an “expressive human being,” Nakasian continues. “Maybe [I] make a mistake. And [I] survive it, and you know what? Then I’m not so scared about making a mistake again. It’s a good life lesson,” to approach through jazz, and the complexity of bebop in particular.

Listen to some of Nakasian’s songs here.

Bebop is a fast-tempo style of modern jazz that, to many ears, may sound like just a lot of notes, says Nakasian. Virtuosic musicianship is a requisite to play bebop’s rapid and frequent key changes, complex harmonies and melodies, and long lines of improvisation that can go on for quite a while before returning to a familiar phrase or refrain. Though it’s deeply rooted in the standards, Nakasian’s been told more than once that bebop can be intimidating for some listeners.

It’s a challenge for Nakasian as a singer, too—imagine singing lyrics, or scatting (using one’s voice almost as a horn), to complex instrumental solos? She demonstrates willingly (though not at full volume) in the coffee shop, singing some of Jon Hendricks’ original lyrics for Miles Davis’ “Four,” snapping her fingers quick to the beat: “Of the wonderful things that you get out of life there are four. / And they may not be many but nobody needs any more.” She can’t help but smile as she sings.

“I’m always giving myself these difficult assignments,” she says, laughing. But bebop is a chance for her to stretch her skill, to tap into a vocalization or a lyric (Hendricks’ are particularly, delightfully, philosophical) in order to feel the color and emotion of the melody and the message.

And with a band of this caliber playing classics from Blakey, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and so many other greats, chances are, Sunday night’s concert will feel pretty darn good, says Nakasian.

“It’s going to be magical,” she says with a wide smile, her eyes twinkling as much as the diamond ring on her finger. “And it’s going to be fun.”

All that jazz

Here’s what Nakasian has lined up, locally, for the fall season:

Sunday, September 8 Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church: Stephanie Nakasian and The Richmond Jazz All-Stars

Saturday, September 14 C’ville Coffee:
September Songs   

Saturday, October 12 C’ville Coffee:
Autumn Serenade

Saturday, November 16 C’ville Coffee: The ’60s
and ’70s, Jazz Style

Saturday, December 14 C’ville Coffee: Holi-daze

Find full details on her website.

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