Since Texas-born singer Nicki Mathis rode into town unheralded three decades ago, the regal jazz diva has become Hartford's avatar of soulful expression, a hometown version of Lena Horne, Billie Holiday and Abbey Lincoln wrapped in one.
In the last 22 years, Mathis, a master at connecting with audiences in intimate club-like settings, has become best known as the founder, producer and industrious director of her free, acclaimed concert series, "The Many Colors of a Woman." A mega-production with a huge cast, the series celebrates is the vibrant but under-recognized role that women of all colors have played in jazz, both as instrumentalists and composers.
Mathis typically sings one song or two in the big, somewhat loose ensemble settings, which has been playing to standing-room-only audiences across town.
In her role as impresario and moving force for the series, the modest singer/songwriter spotlights the talented, mostly women aggregation that packs the stage, using bebop, blues and ballads to strike a feminist blow against sexism and racism.
For Mathis purists who crave more of Mathis' suave, sultry style, two upcoming concerts focus on her swinging sound, rooted in the classical traditions of her Texas girlhood idols, ranging from Sarah Vaughan to Chris Connor.
Backed by her trio, Mathis performs a tribute to Sarah Vaughan Friday at 8 p.m. at The Studio@Billings Forge and Nov.18 at 5:30 p.m. at the Pond House Cafe at Elizabeth Park, West Hartford, supported by just guitar and bass.
When Mathis first arrived in Hartford in the late '70s to take up a new non-musical day job, her singing career had been on a long hiatus after performances that took her from New England to Mexico and Japan.
In a purely unexpected twist of fate, however, her career got back on track one night in Hartford in the early '80s when, after taking an African dance class at the Artists Collective, she went out on the town with a couple friends to Mad Murphy's, then a red-hot jazz spot on Union Place.
Pianist Emery Smith, one of the towering figures in Hartford's long jazz history, was leading a band there that featured saxophonist Thomas Chapin, a future star of the jazz avant-garde, who grew up in Manchester.
"I told my friends from dance class, 'I used to sing all these standards they're playing.' So they said to me, 'Well, go on up there and sing,' " Mathis recalls from her West End home.
"'I'm not one to ask to sit in,' I told them. 'That's not in my nature.' But they insisted, and I finally did go up and ask and got to sing with Emery's band," she says.
Smith was delighted with this quite savvy surprise guest, a singer who seemed to come from out of nowhere to make her unplanned Hartford debut right then and there that night.
A few days later, the well-known Hartford jazz maestro called Mathis and asked her to work regularly with his band.
With Smith's stamp of approval on public display night after night in venues across town, Mathis was on her way to making her indelible mark on Hartford and the region.
From her invaluable stint with Smith, she went on to a happy association with another fine local band led by yet another Hartford notable, baritone saxophonist/arranger Norman Gage.
After the fortunate connection with Smith, Mathis, in another piece of good karma, hooked up with Gage through Gage's wife, Marlis. After hearing Mathis sing one night, Marlis was so impressed that she recommended this new voice in town should replace the singer who had just recently left her husband Norman's band.
In Mathis' next bold step, she formed her own Afrikan Amerikan Jazz Band, and her svelte stylings became even more the talk of the town.
Being back in the groove once again made that long hiatus a distant memory for Mathis, a divorced and longtime single parent of two now-grown-up sons, Donald and Willie.
Just as in every city, whether it's Hartford or New York, local networking is often a key to getting gigs.
For Mathis, the Texan who had already lived in Buffalo and Greenwich Village in New York City, networking in Hartford led to playing and finding enthusiastic acceptance in the variety of jazz spots flourishing in the area nearly 30 years ago.
And as with so many Hartford-area musicians in that vigorous period for jazz, Mathis later connected with the legendary Paul Brown.
A noted bassist, concert producer and well-liked figure with a wealth of contacts in the jazz world, Brown was the master connector, a one-man career booster who seemed to know everybody.
His famously thick contact book of musicians proved valuable for Mathis when she was scouting for players for her ambitious "Many Colors of a Woman Series" project, which has since become a cultural institution in Hartford.
What has made Mathis so successful as a singer is that her delivery always comes across as totally natural, never strained, never over the top.
That relaxed quality, she says, derives from her childhood, first in her native town of Marlin, near the border with Mexico, and later in El Paso.
Good, steady influences abounded, she says, both at home in her big working-class family — she was one of eight kids — and at the nearby Baptist church where she not only worshiped but also learned a lot about the art of the vocal.
"My Mom, whose name was Jewel, always sang around the house. So I always just accepted music and singing as much like when you first start to learn to walk and talk. It was just a natural kind of thing," Mathis says.
"My sister Josephine and I sang in the church choir and took piano lessons from the minister's wife at Second Baptist Church. We developed a taste for jazz very early on. We'd listen on the radio to Billy Eckstine and Sarah Vaughan and began buying records at 13.
"I fell in love with Billie Holiday's 'Gloomy Sunday' and would play it over and over again upstairs in my room. There was something in Billie's voice that haunted me," she recalls.
Working as a waitress in an El Paso club, she began singing with the house trio.
Her big break came with the Jerry Sandifer Modern Jazz Trio in 1959, when they opened for the first star-studded Pass of the North Jazz Festival in El Paso.
The dream team lineup featured the Dave Brubeck Quartet, Chico Hamilton with Eric Dolphy, Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, Chris Connor and Maynard Ferguson with Annie Marie Ross. It was emceed by the jazz critic Leonard Feather.
In a prophetic review and Mathis' first rave review ever, the jazz critic for the El Paso Herald Post hailed the then unknown young local singer as "the coolest of them all" among the festival's big-name stars.
"I thought the newspaper was crazy. After all, El Paso was quite a bigoted place back then, with an all-black school, an all-black community. I couldn't believe they were going for the home girl," Mathis says.
Besides singing, the multi-talented Mathis has also been a dancer (her childhood passion), actor, educator, freelance writer, bandleader and a composer and lyricist.
Her songs, which have an emotional edge, have often been inspired by relationships, good and bad, and especially by the people and landscapes she has encountered on journeys to such places as Dacca, Senegal, Nairobi, South Africa and Brazil.
Although she dropped out of high school in her teens, the intellectually curious singer not only earned her GED in 1971 but also later went to Harvard, where she wanted to learn as much as she could about everything.
In Cambridge, the high school dropout turned diligent Ivy League student received her master's degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 1980.
While working towards her masters, she also took a dizzying array of classes at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard's School of Public Health, the Community Fellows Program at MIT and French and Kiswahili (or Swahili) at Harvard College.
"I took all that other stuff just because I wanted to. I was always the oldest student in the class, and it was cold walking across campus in the winter. I was so busy studying and writing all the time that I even took my typewriter to bed with me at the end of the day," she jokes.
More recently, Mathis' beaming, aristocratic portrait has appeared on Hartford streets and even on the side of a building as part of photographer Joe Standart's "Portrait of America," a public arts project that decorated citywide sites with the faces of community and cultural figures.
And in celebration of her Hartford years, Mathis has just issued a new album, "Nicki Mathis's Afrikan Music: 1986-2003," on her Olijewel label, an anthology culled from her three earlier recordings.
Mathis purists can take delight in the two upcoming performances in intimate settings and with spare backup, focusing on her deeply felt, exquisite art of the vocal:
Nicki Mathis and the Afrikan American Jazz Band present a tribute to Sarah Vaughan Friday at 8 p.m. at the Studio@Billings Forge, 563 Broad St., Hartford. She's accompanied by pianist Paul Arslanian, bassist Jason Schwartz and drummer Billy Arnold. Admission: $5 at the door. Information: http://www.billingsforgeworks.org or 860-548-9877.
Mathis leads her Afrikan Amerikan Jazz Band with guitarist Norman Johnson and bassist James Daggs Nov. 18 at 5:30 p.m. at Women End the Course of AIDS Now (WE CAN) annual fun-raising event at the Pond House Café, Elizabeth Park, 1555 Asylum Ave., West Hartford. General admission is $45, which includes a buffet dinner, hors d'oeuvres and complimentary wine bar courtesy of Barefoo. A 5 p.m. VIP reception costs $75 and includes champagne and cheese with writer/keynote speaker Sarah Schuman and general admission. Information: 860-761-6699 ext. 313 or http://www.ctaidscoalition.org.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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