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Evelyn Wright: Telling Stories in Song From A Rich Musical Life

Listening to Evelyn Wright sing, it doesn’t take long to hear a complete immersion in music. Yet while her mastery of the jazz idiom might suggest otherwise, she hasn’t always been a jazz singer. She has however, always been a singer, period.

“This is all I’ve ever done,” she said at over coffee at a University Circle café earlier this fall. “I’ve never worked a day job.”

In today’s difficult jazz economy, that’s an eye-opening statement, but when Wright appears Nov. 16 with the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra Little Big Band at the Happy Days Lodge in Peninsula, she will bring a repertoire and an expertise that hearkens back to a balmier music climate, one that she was fortunate to experience before it disappeared.

Wright is a woman of immense warmth and generosity. A contemporary of this writer’s, she recounts memories of her era-spanning career with wit and a wistful affection for a world that seems inconceivable now.

She started singing in clubs on the now-vanished Euclid Avenue strip while she was attending Tri-C as an elementary education major. After graduation she went on the road with different bands for five years beginning in 1977. “They were all-occasion bands, so you had to do the cocktail lounge thing, weddings and hotels. I traveled all over, and back then you could perform six nights a week,” she said.

That’s a great way to hone your craft on the bandstand and learn a lot of material, though not all of it was jazz. “I loved doing the jazz set, but I did a lot of R&B and I did disco,” Wright said.

Those three genres were less clearly demarcated then than they are now, but even then, all required a fundamental skill that marks Wright’s style to this day: a mastery of rhythm.

“It took me a long time to learn, but you have to know where not to sing,” she said. “Am I more rhythm-centered? I would say, Oh yeah. Absolutely.”

Female jazz singers are often evaluated by a litmus test that places them in one of two lineages: Sarah Vaughn’s or Ella Fitzgerald’s. With her deep amber tone and rhythmically pliant delivery, Wright would seem to be firmly in the Sarah camp, but she rejects the binary.

“Listen, I’m a Nancy [Wilson] singer and Carmen [McRae] does it for me, too,” she said, planting her flag. “I’ve always been known for singing ‘Guess Who I Saw Today,’” a hit for the Columbus-born Wilson in the 1960s. It’s a story song, a coy ballad that’s sung in character.

Ballads are a favorite corner of Wright’s repertoire, songs where the emotion can’t be faked. “I love ‘It Never Entered My Mind.’ Dave Morgan wrote an arrangement of that one for we with strings. You should have heard it. It was a moment Then there’s ‘My One And Only Love,’ ‘But Beautiful’ . . . Song selection is very important. I can hear somebody younger sing and it’s like, you don’t need to sing that. It just doesn’t fit. You know what I mean?”

Wright’s material fits because she brings to it a rich and poignant wisdom that illuminates the song from the inside. “I try to tell the story,” she said. “There’s a story in every song that you do. There’s a conversation. There’s a story to be told. It’s hard for me to explain it unless you hear me perform.”

And then it all makes perfect, beautiful sense.

Evelyn Wright with the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra Little Big Band and violinist Reed Simon, Wednesday, Nov. 16, 7 p.m., at Happy Days Lodge,?500 West Streetsboro St., Peninsula in Cuyahoga Valley National Park. $25, $20 for Conservancy members available here.


Trading Fours

Four musical events in the coming week that you might want to check out.

Cleveland Jazz Orchestra with Ken Peplowski
Friday, November 11, 8 p.m
Blu Jazz+, 47 E. Market St., Akron (tickets)

Saturday, November 12, 7:30 p.m
Maltz Center, 1855 Ansel Rd., Cleveland (tickets)

The CJO’s billing for this concert is “Get Out Of Town,” but setting aside the Cole Porter reference, this is a homecoming for Ken Peplowski. The  clarinet master also blows a mean tenor saxophone and here’s hoping that local audiences will hear both horns on this visit, which also includes a stop at the Maltz Center on Saturday night.

Ava Preston and Her Trio
Friday, November 11, 8 p.m
Jimmy’s Place Upstairs, 8154 Columbia Rd., Olmsted Falls (free)

One of the singers Evelyn Wright recommended that I check out was Ava Preston, who subverts the jazz convention of performing in smoky basement boîtes with a date at a second-story venue in Cleveland’s western suburbs. Don’t worry about the extra gas you’ll have to buy to get there. This price is right.

Sam Blakeslee & Wistful Thinking
Saturday, November 12, 8 p.m
Blu Jazz+, 47 E. Market St., Akron (tickets)

What a week for homecomings! If you missed his CD release show last week at Bop Stop, Sam Blakeslee will offer you a second chance when he and his Wistful Thinking band return to the city where the trombonist was once a graduate student. As if to mark the passing of time, his saxophonist and former classmate Chris Coles is now on the faculty of the University Akron. Talk about wistful . . .

Information for this section came from Jim Szabo’s essential, weekly Northeast Ohio jazz calendar , NEO’s most complete list of jazz and jazz-adjacent events.


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