One of the most exceptional concert experiences I have ever had took place in July at the SF Jazz Center, presenting the Tony Award-nominated vocalist and composer Ann Hampton Callaway.
The performance was a tribute to one of Callaway’s greatest inspirations, the iconic jazz singer Sarah Vaughan, and featured music from her aptly named The Sarah Vaughan Project. While sharing her interpretation of Sarah Vaughan’s signature pieces (Misty, I'm Gonna Live 'Till I Die, Someone to Watch Over Me, A Night in Tunisia, I Can't Give You Anything But Love/That's All, Poor Butterfly, and more), Callaway also explained the singer’s history (I learned the story behind Sarah Vaughan’s nickname, Sassy). The rich, smoky timber of Callaway’s voice alone was enough to captivate and draw me into her music from the first note.
What also amazed me that night was the impromptu song which Callaway created on the spot with the aide of the audience. Callaway asked the audience for words to describe San Francisco (Golden Gate Bridge, cable car, Ghirardelli Chocolate, high tech, marijuana, gay...) which she then wrote down on a piece of paper. Her ex-husband happened to be sitting in the 3rd row. She asked him, “Honey, what key do you like?” He said he liked B-flat major.
Taking the collective input of the audience, Callaway began creating a piece with her “magical tune.” After a few minutes of fiddling, she walked to the piano ready to sing a song freshly composed. Just when she was just about to take a seat, Callaway said to her ex, “Honey, I always liked B major,” which was followed by the audience’s hearty laughter. Her timing and presentation were perfect; Callaway is a true entertainer.
Since that night, I had been longing to attend one of Callaway's concerts again. I happened to be in Las Vegas for work in October when I heard that she would be in town, so I grabbed a Lyft car and dashed to the newly opened The Smith Center.
This time, the venue was a cabaret-themed performance hall. I sat at the cabaret floor table #45 and enjoyed taking in the scene with a glass of wine and some hors-d’oeuvres while waiting for Callaway to come on stage.
This Las Vegas performance was also part of The Sarah Vaughan project. It was so thrilling to hear her voice again after my exceptional experience in July. This time, Callaway wanted to compose a love song for Barbara Streisand (Callaway’s songs are featured on seven of Streisand’s recent discs).
Callaway and the audience began weaving a scenario:
Callaway: Name? Audience: Clint! Sarah! Callaway: Where did they meet? Audience: Caesars Palace! Callaway: How they met? Audience: Sarah bought a drink at the bar for Clint!
And the story continued; one of the audience members declared that Clint was a married man. The resulting piece of this collaboration was a beautiful love-of-passion song.
After the performance, I had the opportunity to meet with Callaway in person. I introduced myself and told her how much her music inspired me. She explained to me the theme of her performance, “Music is the bridge between heaven and earth.”
Callaway’s voice is an animated being in itself. It has a character at the same time nostalgic, seductive, longing and joyful. With its smoky, sonorous timber, her voice puts muscle onto the bones of any song. During her performance, the exchange was never one-directional. Her music is fed by her listeners while the listeners are also nourished by her music. Her facility with music gives the impression that it is simply an extension of her person; between herself, the audience, and the music, there is no separation. Callaway has indeed succeeded in embodying her theme, forging the bridge between heaven and earth with the power of her music.