Keeping the history of jazz alive


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August 18, 2006|By JANET GILBERT

When Columbia jazz singer Lavenia Nesmith is working on a new song, she doesn't just go over the notes.

"I analyze it," Nesmith said. "What does it mean? I think about it, and what it means to me. Afterwards, I can do it."

As an example, Nesmith recites the lyrics to Abbey Lincoln's "Throw it Away" with the sensibility of a poet: "Throw it away/Give of your love and your life/Each and every day/And keep your hand wide open/Let the sun shine through/'Cause you can never lose a thing/If it belongs to you."

"To me, it means you can't be selfish," she said, "it's the ultimate act of love and faith to be open, vulnerable."

If it sounds melodic and meaningful when Nesmith speaks it -- just wait until you hear her sing it.

Nesmith will be performing this and other selections from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday at The Other Barn in Columbia.

Ben Hunter, Oakland Mills community organizer, proposed the Evening of Jazz with the Lavenia Nesmith Quintet, to Nesmith, who had been volunteering on the Oakland Mills Revitalization's Music and Arts Committee. He knew Nesmith, a 30-year Oakland Mills resident, often performed in the District of Columbia.

"Here we have this jazz artist right in our neighborhood," he said. "And she's not a `diva' that they talk about in the music business. She's a lady."

Nesmith will be performing with Paul Carr on saxophone, Lenny Robinson on drums, Wes Biles on bass and Chris Grasso on piano.

"I work with the best musicians in the world," she said.

Nesmith met Grasso through the bass player, Biles. "There was a time when I wasn't getting what I wanted and needed from other musicians. I was ready to give it up, and went to Wes for advice."

Biles led Nesmith to Grasso, and they began working together. "He's been my mentor," Nesmith said.

Nesmith's early musical influences were in the gospel world. She remembers being 12 years old and hearing Mahalia Jackson sing, and thinking: One day, I'm going to sing Mahalia Jackson's songs.

"I was discouraged [from pursuing a music career]," she said. "My family wanted me to go to college, get an education. There was no money in music."

Nesmith says she always found a way to be involved with music and singing; playing the clarinet through high school, and singing in a band with 12 neighborhood boys. She sneaked out one night to perform with the band in a local radio contest, and the band won the contest. She remembers bringing home the prize and getting punished.

Nesmith attended what was then Federal City College, now University of the District of Columbia, as a music major. She married and had two children, one of whom had a serious health problem. Nesmith continued to sing in choirs and at weddings, but focused on keeping her son healthy.

In 1999, at an open-mike night in a club in Washington, Nesmith started her pursuit of what she calls "my life, my dream, my passion." She stood up and sang Jackson's "Come Sunday." She began performing regularly and developed a Tribute to Mahalia Jackson with scriptwriter Bebe Ross Coker. It is a program she continues to bring to schools and churches across the nation. Nesmith performed a Jackson song in 2003 at the Kennedy Center's celebration of the 40th anniversary of the March on Washington.

"A lot of our children don't know their history," said Nesmith. "They don't know of Mahalia or Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughn."

Nesmith keeps the history of jazz alive in her shows, which intentionally feature lesser-known numbers. "I try to do songs that most vocalists don't do," she said. Horace Silver's "Permit Me to Introduce You to Yourself," and David Frishberg's "Peel Me a Grape" are apt examples -- one playfully mocking a person who needs to "get real," the other a plea for a particularly entertaining and invigorating evening.

"You're really telling a story, having a conversation," Nesmith said about performing. "I like to take the audience on an emotional journey that leaves them feeling good." she said. "I think the music [jazz] is ageless."

"There are songs I will not sing," she said. "I don't feel them, I may even be offended by them. I don't do a lot of blues for that reason. The `woe is me/I'm in a bad place' message," she said. "I was working on a song with a lyric, `Every day I have the blues' -- well, no, I don't!"

This is not to say that her music is all milk and honey -- no dash of vinegar, no hot sauce. There is an unmistakable edge of pain or longing in many songs. Her versatile voice, rich and resonant, can be powerful and poignant, sultry or sweet.

Nesmith leaves the rehearsal to continue our conversation over a chili dog from "Ben's Chili Bowl" on U Street in Washington. Nesmith says her children are grown now, and I tell her my oldest is leaving for college soon. She says that once when her children were in the audience, tears were streaming down her face while she performed a song by Hirsch/Sharron/Miller called "If I Could."

She leans over the table and softly sings: "If I could/I would try to shield your innocence from time/But the part of life I gave you isn't mine/I've watched you grow, so I could let you go/If I could ..."

It's a good thing Ben's chili dogs come with extra napkins.

The Evening of Jazz with the Lavenia Nesmith Quintet is 5 p.m to 7 p.m. Sunday at The Other Barn, 5851 Robert Oliver Place, Columbia Tickets are $10 and may be purchased at the door or by calling 410-730-4610.


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