Between Sets with Jane Stuart... Seeing the Light

Artist Interview by:
Karl Stober

Spring / Summer 2007 - “My mother took me to a Broadway show when I was about seven years old. I remember very vividly the moment I looked at the performance that I could do that! I can and will do it. That was the start.”

From the Moser Starlights stage at age five, to her off Broadway performance of “Curley McDimple,” the stage has been home to Jane Stuart. Jane cherished the theatre, but there was still a vacancy inside, a need that burned daily with desire. Jane knew what the fire was stoked by; it was the heated infatuation to stage her love of jazz!  

“Beginning to See the Light” has allowed Jane’s craving to be somewhat satisfied. This 2007 spin was a multi-year effort that needed to be accomplished in Jane’s mind. In her view, this spin had to be perfect as time was on her side to allow it to be so. With Rave Tesar as a partner, the arrangements and studio work were worth the outcome. “Beginning to See the Light” is an artistic vocal illustration of jazz with a great palette of attitudes.

To this point, Jane’s travels have been filled with interesting side roads and stops. What was central through all the years was her vision of jazz. It was as bright and lighted then as it is now, and was never dimmed by life’s misadventures. You will comprehend why Jane's vision is even brighter today, here between sets.

JazzReview: Jane, your first performance was “Me and My Teddy Bear” which may have been your launching pad. If so how?

Jane Stuart: As a little girl (5-years old), I was part of a dance group. I was on a TV show and I remember the most fun was we got to wear make-up. I did not care aboutthe other stuff for it (singing) came easy to me. That, and getting up on stage and sing with the other kids. It was no big deal for me, I was always performing.

In fact, like in the “Our Gang” comedies, I used to put on little shows in my neighborhood. I gathered all the kids, told them what to do, and what to say. If they could not sing, I would have them lip-synch. I would stand behind them and sing. I would produce the shows and sell tickets. That was in some way my start.

JazzReview: There were certain people later in your life that had an impact on your professional career such as Bernadette Peters, Patty Duke and the late Gregory Hines Talk, if you will, about those times.

Jane Stuart: Well, we were all going to this high school designed for professional kids. It was in New York so if we were in a Broadway show, or we went on the road, they made sure you had a tutor. I was part of this school that does not exist anymore. I don’t know if they had an impact on my career, but it was very good for I was performing and auditioning for stuff with those same professionals. Many of them went on to be famous. What was important is that I was with my peers during this time. It felt very natural. I was Broadway-focused at this time.

JazzReview: So when did that focus change?

Jane Stuart: This was the same time in my life when I starting going to night clubs. I wasn’t old enough to be in the bar, but I had a fake I.D. (laughing) I used to go with my friends, Bernadette (Peters), Michele Conaway (sister of Jeff Conaway of Taxi). The clubs would have these live variety shows in the evening. I used to just get up and sing. I had these jazzy type of arrangements in my head.

One night, I told the piano player how to play, later finding out it was Charlie Smalls, composer of “The Wiz.” We became good friends and starting singing on a regular basis with Kenny Rankin and Baby Jane Dexter at the club. That is when I found out I could sing jazz and loved doing it. I found that jazz camaraderie musically with the jazz crowd, and it was for me! All of a sudden, Broadway was not as important as it once was. I still wanted to be on stage, but jazz appeared to be my life’s focus.

JazzReview: So was this your epiphany?

Jane Stuart: Oh, was that the moment? Not really! I know that it (jazz) was just so much a part of me. Even with my Broadway singing and focus, I always had a jazzy style. Perhaps the real turning point was during high school. I used to listen to a radio show called the “Symphony Sid Show.”  He played all the classic jazz. I spent many times alone then. My father had past away and mom was working. I was trying to make it (life) all work. Hearing that music touched me! I felt as though it was about me!  I didn’t decide that’s what I want to do; I just did it! Jazz touched me where my heart is.

JazzReview: I hear that Thad Jones was, in a way, a force in your career. How so?

Jane Stuart: Thad heard me sing at the Improv and loved the way I sang. Thad was known for “Lovin'” the ladies a lot, too. Thad, however, always treated me as a protégé, not as a (laughter) you know! He was not chasing after me, which was a good thing! Thad was totally charming, loving and kind. He just said one thing to me as he looked me straight in the eye. Thad said, “You are a natural talent, a real talent, and you’re going to live a long time, so plan on it.” He believed in me enough to have me sing in his quintet from that point. No one heard of me. I was not polished, but Thad thought I was good enough to sing with them. Thad believing in me helped me believe in myself. He had that affect on many people. It was his way.

JazzReview: Was there a mentor out of all those you came across from Broadway to jazz that stands out?

Jane Stuart: Not really. There is not one person, however, along the way, there are a few. Thad (Jones), of course. Charlie Smalls was a great influence. Charlie was a terrific composer and good friend. Charlie had a difficult personality--many people were not fond of him. People seeing his name in this print might be saying, "Are you kidding me!"

Charlie was very kind and good to me. When he was writing and composing for “The Wiz,” he used to bring his work over for me to hear. I was his barometer on how good they were or together they (his compositions) were. If they made me cry, he felt they were good! My father, who died when I was thirteen, had a huge influence on me. He believed in my inner talent.

JazzReview: “Beginning to See the Light” is your debut into jazz. Explain the process you went through giving life to this project.

Jane Stuart: I had a rude awakening one day. I heard Kurt Elling on the radio one morning. Never hearing him before, I loved his singing and I starting feeling anxiety, thinking I am just getting nowhere. I have nothing on disk, I thought. I have to do something. That is pretty much the way I operate. I get to a point (where) I can’t take it any more. I just get busy, pick up the boots straps, and go!

I decided to sing some of my favorite songs, go in studio with Rave (Tesar) and my husband (Rick De Kovessey) on drums, and then just get something on disk. I am not getting any younger and I want to have it! However, it did not work out that way. I want things to be good! I just don’t want them to be done! It then became a project. It took me a couple of years, not just to select the tunes, but scheduling can be tricky, as you know. It also was about money. I did not want people to wJazz Photoork for nothing, although many offered. It took time. With time, working at it, making the tune selections, other ideas, it all came together.

Mixing and pacing were very important to me on the project. I knew nothing about production, but I did know that I had to be true to what I wanted. This was mine so I had to speak up and say I wanted. In the past, I would let things slide, but not this time. I am very pleased! I was able to work at it and get it, so it’s good. In fact, working with Rave for all this time drew us as close as a brother and sister. We were in sync on this project.

JazzReview: This being your debut spin, problems arise. On a difficulty scale what was the most trying cut to produce both in performance and arranging?

Jane Stuart: The most difficult arrangement actually was the one most easily executed, which was “Out of This World,” the second cut. The hardest to perform was “Through a Long and Sleepless Night.”  We did three or four arrangements of that, recorded with full instrumentation. It was very difficult to get it right. I am not sure it’s right for me still! That’s one of tunes I heard as a kid on the “Symphony Sid Show.” Gloria Lynn sang it. That moment moved me and I never sang it anywhere. I wanted that tune on this project. I tried to get that "middle of the night insomnia" feel to it. It was very difficult to have the emotion without going into that cabaret style of interpretation, however, I wanted that feeling!

JazzReview: However, you still let it ride and made the disk--even though you stated it still was not right. Why?

Jane Stuart: Well, I think if I were to do it again, I would do it differently. However, the disk is done and it’s good! I do have to tell you though, I can’t listen to the CD anymore. I have listened to it so many times. (Laughing)

JazzReview: That’s okay, the fans are listening to it and that’s what matters.

Jane Stuart: And I love that.

JazzReview: What about life with your studio family?

Jane Stuart: I love my musicians: Keyboards - Rave Tesar, Bass - Kermit Driscoll, Bass - Sue Williams, Drums - Rick De Kovessey, Percussion - Frank Valdez, Guitar - Len Argese, Trumpet - Vinnie Cutro, Tenor Sax - Frank Elmo, Baritone Sax - Dan Nigro, Trombone - Conrad Zulauf. I treasure them for they are incredible talents. I dig them the most! Especially Rave and I, we are very outspoken to one another, however, there is no tension. No need to be uptight, it will go the way it goes. In fact, one night we did a CD release party at “Trumpets,” which is Jersey’s version of Birdland. Everyone was expecting me to be nervous, but I wasn’t. The day before I was.

JazzReview: Like Percy Health once told me about his performances, “All I did was pretend it was a jam, like any other day.”

Jane Stuart: He’s right! Matt King used to be in a band with us. One night I was so afraid to sing a number, he said to me, “What’s to be afraid of? It's music, it's just music.”

JazzReview: During the studio work and in your performances you talk about that “groove,” or as I call it “feel"--that point when an artist knows they have hit that climax of excellence. How do you know?

Jane Stuart: Well, sometimes you just know it. There is no real explanation for it. It feels right. At times it’s that slight change of energy. I think it all boils down to energy when it comes to performance. When it comes to mixing and making selections, it takes a lot of listening. I was not sure I had the stamina. That is where I counted on Rave.

JazzReview: Often, a performer’s high level changes from studio work to live performances. How do you explain these two venues in your world and the change, if any, that takes place?

Jane Stuart: To come from the hip…No changes in performances. However, I find what is happening with my live performing is that I am taking more risks. I am doing more stuff and singing better. I never used to skat. I am taking more risks--not much, for it’s an incredible talent that not many of us have, but I do a little. In fact, I don’t get nervous now. I get excited performing jazz.

JazzReview: Back to the disk. "Getting to Know You” is pretty simply, an extremely enjoyable interpretation. What methods did you inject into your process to make it you?

Jane Stuart: (laughter) It came from the same mindset from when I was a little girl. It’s known as a cabaret type song in its regular form--not jazzy at all, but if the lyrics move you, try it with a different feel. I have been singing that song like that for awhile. That is how I approach older tunes. If it works, great! Sometimes that style (jazzy) does not. 

JazzReview: Now we take an about face with “Moanin'” where the sultry side of Jane appears. Was there an outside influence in performing this piece?

Jane Stuart: Well, there is a lot you don’t know about me! (Laughter) I have a lot of blues in me. This (“Moanin'”) is just the tip of the iceberg! I actually, at one time, was compared to Aretha Franklin because I sang a lot of R&B, and with a big voice coated in soul. I don’t sing much like that anymore. “Moanin'” has that sexy bluesy thing like “Centerpiece” does. I don’t sing that “Stormy Monday” kind of stuff. I leave that to the real blues singers. I have always been attracted to the blues feel though. This music, to this day, speaks to me.

JazzReview: What other side of Jane do we need to know about?

Jane Stuart: I can tap dance! However I won’t be putting out a CD anytime soon. (Laughter) I did do it Off Broadway.

JazzReview: You must have gotten that from Gregory Hines

Jane Stuart: Yes! How I miss Gregory. What a great guy he was and incredible dancer. You might remember Christopher Walkin. We took dance lessons together. He is still a very good tap dancer.

JazzReview: Now for some fun. There is a time in everyone's life where we tried something and wished we hadn't. Was there such a time for you?

Jane Stuart: Awww! What! What! I will have to flip through the files for that. Actually, there was a short period in time when I stopped singing. I was working with a producer who put together a girl's group, and I was teaching them how to sing. This group was of big interest to Neil Bogart. Neil was a big deal with Donna Summers at that time. This group was to be the female version of the Village People, but with only hot, sexy chicks. It was not an embarrassing moment, but a dry, dead period for me. I just wish I had not stopped singing.

I don’t consider anything embarrassing. I have done things one might consider such. Growing up as a show biz kid, you learn to take what comes along. My husband and I worked with Barney the Dinosaur, for example.

JazzReview: So you go from backup singer to Barney the Dinosaur, to the Villagettes!

Jane Stuart: Hey, when you decide to go in the music business, you take whatever comes along… (Laughing)

JazzReview: Can you give us look into your future?

Jane Stuart: Oh my Lord, you tell me? I’m in! I am in the game so being in the game, all things are possible. I am hoping to play in multiple jazz festivals this year and considering what the next CD will be. I will probably do much the same with a little more R&B feel to it. I would like to use more original material. I don’t have much now, but working on that. No hurry here. I would, at some point, like to do something with inspirational music.

JazzReview: Now for the tough question. If your life was put on film, what would the title be? Who would play you and what would the title track be? Now, you can’t use one of your own songs.

Jane Stuart: This is tough, but I am going to use an existing title, which is “Somebody Up There Likes Me” or maybe, “We Are Not like Other People” (Laughter).

As for an actress, I could not just come up with one because it starts as me being a little girl. As a child, Darla Hood (Our Gang) would be a good one. As a teenager--Marissa Tomei, and today--Diane Keaton. However, as I get older, a mix between Anne Bancroft and Ruth Gordon.

The song is “God Bless the Child,” for I feel very blessed.

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