The woman who started the Billie Holiday Vocal Competition 15 years ago prefers to call the event a concert that offers a lifeline to fledgling performers willing to share their talents.
"These performers are not in competition, but in concert with each other," said Ruby Glover, judge at the last 14 events and honoree yesterday. "They are sharing fascinating talent with this audience and hoping to take the next step in their careers."
In front of a packed house at Center Stage yesterday, Mayor Martin O'Malley awarded the first-place $1,500 prize to Sara Jones, an Army staff sergeant who belted out a bossa nova in Portuguese. The 28-year-old Ellicott City musician is a member of the Soldiers' Chorus and sings with the concert band of the U.S. Army Field Band.
"It was nice to sing by myself for a change, even though I love my job," she said.
Before enlisting in the Army, Jones graduated from St. Mary's College in Southern Maryland and the University of Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. First place also means a chance to perform in July at Artscape, the city's arts festival.
"Singing with so many great people is a really great honor," Jones said. "Winning is a real confidence booster as I move forward in my career."
Jones bested the other 14 semifinalists, chosen from among more than 30 entrants who submitted tapes. Each performed two songs, one of which was to be a Holiday signature tune.
Eric Hanson, who took third place last year, chose "If I Only Had a Brain" from The Wizard of Oz, saying he was certain that the Baltimore chanteuse had sung it sometime.
The show's 400 free tickets "sold out" by 11 a.m. yesterday, quite a change from the first concert that drew fewer than 100, Glover said. Though three female vocalists sang "Good Morning, Heartache," each rendition was so distinct that each garnered standing ovations.
"They all did it different," said Judy Garvey, a downtown resident who has attended the competition every year. "Billie Holiday is an idol for jazz singers and those of us who love jazz."
Three judges trimmed the field to five finalists. Eric Kennedy, a graduate of the Baltimore School for the Arts, a drumming instructor and a professor in the jazz department at the Peabody Conservatory, took second place for his soulful renditions that had the crowd applauding long before he lingered on the last note.
He provided a moment of levity when he accepted his $1,000 check and an orange purse, compliments of Procter & Gamble, one of the event sponsors.
Charisse Caldwell of Catonsville, who spurred shouts of "Go, girl" and "Encore," took third.
While awaiting the judges' decision, Doris Dow, the 2003 winner, treated the audience to a reprise of her winning performance, "My Funny Valentine."
"I love performing live," Dow said. "Winning gave me the confidence I needed to pursue a career, and it made several venues, like Artscape, available to me."
Glover, an instructor at Sojourner-Douglass College in Baltimore, offered to answer questions during intermission, but the audience wanted a song. She gave them "Everyone Is Saying Hello Again" a cappella.
The 75-year-old singer took a front-row seat and left the challenges of judging to others. Since the event's start, Glover said she has seen the competition grow stronger and the performances more polished.
"Every one of them looked good," she said. "They are not just coming here from the church choir. They are ready to make the crossover. In the words of Ray Charles, they all sang the blues so bad, they gave them to the neighbors next door."