Paula James Chavis: Jazz is her native language

Popular Nashville vocalist Paula James Chavis defies category. In a world where it’s a rite of passage for pop divas to make an attempt at jazz standards, often with uneven results, Paula is a bit of an anomaly: a singer with certifiable pop and R&B credentials who can step up to the mic, count off an Ellington or Basie tune and nail it. How can this be?

As Paula explains, it was her father’s record collection. When she was young the family seldom out went out. Between the ages of 6 and 13 much of her time at home was spent with records of Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Nancy Wilson, and Nat King Cole, her teachers in what was to become her first language. Pop and soul came later, in the form of Tina Turner, Etta James, Luther Vandross (“I learned to breathe from him”) and Aretha Franklin. This musical versatility became the hallmark of her musical career, but jazz was the foundation.

In the 1980’s she teamed up with bassist John Birdsong and started performing jazz in clubs around town. Next came a 24-year stint with Sam Levine, who led an ensemble of top-notch musicians in a successful society band. Along the way her range of projects has included radio and TV commercials, background vocals, stage productions, and even a Super Bowl halftime appearance! In 2014 when Levine stepped down as a bandleader she returned to working with Birdsong and his trio, performing in clubs and concert series, and private events.

Her 2019 appearance in the Jazz Cave was arranged by Birdsong, longtime friend of the Jazz Workshop. (John is also a past recipient of the NJW’s Heritage Award for his contributions to the jazz community and his support and mentoring of up-and-coming musicians.) Joining bassist Birdsong were a pair of outstanding musicians who are members of his working trio, pianist Bryan Harrison and drummer Wendell Henry, along with guitarist Geary Moore, who added extra spice to the mix with his tasteful comping and Wes Montgomery-inflected solos.

The evening was a delight for all concerned. The first set included classics by Ellington (It Don’t Mean a Thing and In a Mellow Tone) and Gershwin (Summertime, Embraceable You) as well as a vocal rendition of Herbie Hancock’s Watermelon Man in which she enlightened the audience on the significance of the title character.

Set 2 opened with the Ray Charles classic One Mint Julep and included the standards Skylark and Autumn Leaves (with its original French lyrics). The set included the Nancy Wilson classic that has become one of Paula’s signature tunes, Guess Who I Saw Today, and closed with the rousing Count Basie/Joe Williams blues, Going To Chicago.

From Paula’s relaxed demeanor onstage and obvious rapport with the audience, one would never guess that this was her first Jazz Cave appearance. From the evening’s results it won’t be her last!

[Editor’s note: Paula appeared in the new Jazz Cave when the Jazz Workshop reopened on Buchanan Street, and performs in an upcoming matinee concert, Saturday, October 14, 2023. Tickets at nashvillejazz.eventbrite.com]


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