The audience applauds. The band jumps into a song, and then Mary Stallings effortlessly joins in. "I love the east, I love the west," she sings in a voice that's as warm and true as a convertible ride through the heart of spring. "I love the north and south, they're the best, only go there as a guest, cause I love being here with you."
More than just the opening of Stallings' latest CD "Live at the Village Vanguard," it's a fitting declaration from a critically acclaimed singer, who's been part of the jazz scene for decades, and whose musical journey continues.
Early in her career, Stallings shared a stage with Dizzy Gillespie, Billy Eckstine and the Count Basie Orchestra to name a few. She then took some time off in the 1970s to raise a family and seek new experiences. The story goes that when she later went to see her old friend Dizzy perform, he spotted her in the crowd and called on her to sing. He was blown away by what he heard. "He approached me and told me I had grown," remembered Stallings. "I really hadn't sung in a while. I had not realized my growth." Not long after that, the San Francisco native returned to performing and recording full time.
Her latest CD brings everything together and shows how good Mary Stallings is. She recently spoke to JazzReview.com about the recording, her career and what she does when she is not working.
JazzReview.com: Your new album is earning great reviews and creating quite a buzz. What made you decide to do a live recording instead of a studio album?
Mary Stallings: I went with a new label, MAXJAZZ, and we set out to make a new album. I thought it would be a great project since I had never recorded live before. I had an engagement at the Village Vanguard; a prestigious establishment where so many great jazz musicians have performed. It just all came together.
JazzReview.com: There are songs by Cole Porter, Peggy Lee, Henry Mancini and others on the album. How did you go about selecting the material?
Mary Stallings: I go about choosing something I can relate to. Lyrically, the songs caught my attention. Melodically, they are beautiful so I went for it.
JazzReview.com: What was it like on the nights you were recording the album?
Mary Stallings: Electric, very electric! I had some of the finest musicians there. They were electrifying. The interplay with the audience was wonderful and it was a fine, spirited week.
JazzReview.com: What makes a great jazz performance?
Mary Stallings: Truly being honest and not worrying about yourself giving a great performance, but being part of the band working as a unit. You need to be real about it. Audiences are smart. They are not going to come out to see you twice unless you are honest.
JazzReview.com: You took some time off from your career to raise a family. Did that time away help you musically?
Mary Stallings: Even when I decided not to work for a time, I would work on occasion. I had mixed emotions. I wanted to be with my family. I did take a length of time off, but I did come back at one time it definitely was a growth experience. You've got to step back and then take a look to understand what you've been through.
JazzReview.com: Going back to the beginning of your career, it wasn't long after high school that you joined Dizzy Gillespie.
Mary Stallings: I worked with Diz in and out. I don't want to misrepresent it. I did work with him at the Monterey Jazz Festival and later did a tour.
JazzReview.com: What did you learn in those early days that you still call upon today?
Mary Stallings: Everything. I'll tell you. A lot of people go to college or jazz camps. They get to study there. My studying was on the bandstand with great musicians. I learned from the people I performed with each performer, each venue, and each club date. That was my schooling.
JazzReview.com: You worked with some of the greats--Dizzy Gillespie, Billy Eckstine, the Count Basie Orchestra. Who did you learn the most from?
Mary Stallings: I learned from all of them. The closest working relationship I had was with Billy Eckstine. He had a wonderful way of delivering a song and a real stage presence. He was a master, very graceful. He knew how to capture an audience.
JazzReview.com: How does the jazz scene today compare to when you started out?
Mary Stallings: Night and day. I heard all the great ones. As a teen-ager, I would go the Blackhawk (San Francisco) to be with the giants of jazz. Young kids don't get that today. There are few clubs for them to go to and see people and ask for an autograph. It's big concert halls.
JazzReview.com: What do you do when you are not working?
Mary Stallings: I love gardening. I have a beautiful rose garden. I spend time in my yard. I love being close to the earth.
JazzReview.com: What's next for you?
Mary Stallings: I just finished a performance at Lincoln Center. I'm getting ready to work at the Village Vanguard again in September. After that, I'm going to Las Vegas to the university for a performance. Then in November, I'm at the San Francisco Jazz Festival, and, on and on. It's going to be very fine and I'm looking forward to a beautiful next year.
JazzReview.com: Is there anything that we didn't ask that you would like to talk about?
Mary Stallings: For the aspiring, young people getting into the business, I would tell them to study. Study on the bandstand. Get out and do it. Be serious. Learn your material. Learn it well.
JazzReview.com: We would like to thank you for taking the time to let our readers get to know you.