The distance between the coat check and the stage at the Blue Note may have been only a few dozen yards, but to Claudia Acuña, in the mid-1990s, it sometimes seemed miles way.
Acuña took the coat-check job at the world famous Manhattan jazz club after moving from the security of her home in Chile to the uncertainty of New York City. She made the journey in pursuit of her dream of becoming a jazz singer. And after washing dishes and babysitting, checking coats at least had the fringe benefit of a free ticket to top-notch jazz shows. But there was work to be done before she got to the stage.
Acuña sat in at countless late-night jam sessions and got to know a who's who of New York musicians. Now, less than a decade later, she is widely considered one of the world's top jazz singers. You can decide for yourself when Acuña performs with a variety of ensembles at Penfield High School's 34th Annual Jazz Fundraiser Concerts.
But those who packed her shows at last year's Rochester International Jazz Festival and at several club appearances here don't need convincing. Acuña is a superb singer, combining jazz with her Chilean roots in a style that is as sexy as it is sublime.
Growing up in Chile, Acuña found herself attracted to a certain kind of music she heard on the radio and in movies. It wasn't until she was a teenager that she found out it was called jazz. At the ages of 16 and 17 she went as often as possible to hear visiting musicians in Santiago jazz clubs.
She was able to meet Wynton Marsalis, Joe Lovano, French pianist Michel Petrucciani, Panamanian pianist Danilo Perez, and others. Acuña sat in, singing with some of them and meeting with positive reactions. Several musicians encouraged her to call them if she ever got to New York, but they also warned her about how hard it was to make it in music. Acuña was not easily discouraged.
"I just thought how much I wanted to be a singer and it was so difficult for me to make it possible," Acuña says. "For a minute I thought I would never do it. My only dream was to be in New York and to walk on the streets where Miles used to walk, and Monk. I'd go to a club at three in the morning and there would be a pack of musicians and smoke. And when I did that, it was not a movie, it was not a dream, it was reality. And then, when things started to happen and doors started to open to me, wow! It was amazing because so many people told me in Chile that I was crazy trying to come here and sing jazz for people here. Because, also, they have a lot of stereotype things in their minds about jazz."
Acuña didn't even speak English when she arrived in the US. She didn't know how to read music and still doesn't. This obviously hasn't been an obstacle, but it still causes her some anxiety.
"It was a surprise for me that they wanted me [to work with Penfield students] when they know that I don't have formal music education. I don't read music, I don't play any instruments, I don't write music. I was surprised that they want me to share with them what I know. I used to be very concerned about that and very shy. A musician friend said to me, 'Claudia, what are you worried about? Some of the greatest musicians in jazz have never read a note and never had any formal training.' That made me feel a little better."
What she lacks in formal training, Acuña more than makes up for in passion. Listen to her sing a standard like "Nature Boy" or a Chilean ballad like "Ay Mariposa" on her Rhythm of Life album and you will hear an extraordinarily rich alto voice and a powerfully emotional delivery. Twelve songs from that CD and her first, Wind From the South, will be showcased in new arrangements commissioned just for the Penfield events.
Acuña's influences come from over the musical map, ranging from Celia Cruz to Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald to Michael Jackson.
"As a singer how could you not be influenced by any good singer that you can come across on records or personally?"
The decision to sing a particular song is a very personal one to Acuña; she knows what she's looking for.
"The story, the melody, what the lyric says. Somehow the lyrics connect with something that I have experienced or something that I would like to say. I'm very shy and I keep a lot of things to myself. Music for me has become a way of expressing a lot of things that sometimes I can't find words, but somebody else says it for me."
She wrote only one song on her last album. Although she has a lot of ideas for songs, she says she doesn't finish many of them. And if she does, she doesn't show her songs to others.
"It's been a slow process for me to become confident of my compositions. There's not any rush so, for the moment, I'm just taking it the way it's coming."
Of course, I tell her sympathetically, writing jazz tunes seems to be a lot more intimidating than writing pop songs. You can't just fill an album with half-written songs when you're competing with the great standards of the past.
"Don't even say that," Acuña says, laughing. "I'm never going to write anything in my life again! I would never even think of competing with a pop artist. Look at Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell or Stevie Wonder. Whoh!"
The Penfield experience will be the first time Acuña will work extensively with young students. She loves the fact that Penfield brings in artists for four-day residencies.
"In a lot of places in this country they've been cutting the music programs in high school. What [Penfield does] is so beautiful because you encourage kids to do something that has to do with creativity even though some of them might become doctors or whatever. When you encourage young people to do art you keep them out of trouble because their minds are working too fast. They have not enough activity."
Acuña is especially excited about her new album, Luna, coming out March 16 on the MAXJAZZ label. Her first two albums were on the major Verve label, but the trend for many major labels has been to cut back on jazz, which has a smaller percentage of listeners than pop music. Acuña downplays any problems she may have had with the label, but she is not pleased with the lack of respect shown to jazz elders.
"Major labels have let go people that belong to the history of this music, and that I find hard to understand. But nobody can take the music away from musicians."
As for her own ambitions:
"Like any other artist I just want to be able to do what I do. You want to be able to do it and share with people and be able to keep making a living and keep being creative. I'm happy that I have the opportunity to document another page of my musical journey."
Claudia Acuña performs at Penfield High School's 34th Annual Jazz Fundraiser Concert, Friday and Saturday, February 6 and 7, at 7:30 p.m., in the Penfield High School Auditorium, 25 High School Drive. Tix: $10 ($6 students). 249-6700