Fans and critics have identified San Francisco-based Kitty Margolis as one of her generation's finest jazz vocalists. But Margolis herself isn't ready to make a similar claim.
"I'm not even going to try to say that I'm a great jazz singer or that I have anything more special than someone else," she says. "But here's how it is: I'm on this path. Yes, I'm doing okay, gaining lots of recognition. And I'm really trying to stretch the boundaries and be a true jazz singer with all the ingredients--which means taking chances, being musically knowledgeable and really digging in hard to the rhythm and the harmony and at the same time being able to communicate my story. And I'm telling you, I hope I can succeed in doing that, because I would really be mad if I woke up one day at sixty years old and realized that I wasn't any good at what I'd spent my life at."
There's little danger of that. It's too soon to tell if Margolis will eventually be ranked with Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and other great voices in the jazz pantheon. But on her initial trio of recordings (Live at the Jazz Workshop, Evolution and her latest effort, Straight Up With a Twist), Margolis displays good instincts and excellent pipes. And that's a rare combination in any era.
Margolis's love of music bloomed early. "When I was about six I started saving my mother's S & H green stamps," she notes. "And when I'd collected enough of them, she took me down to the redemption center and I got a transistor radio. I still remember it; it was brown leatherette. And that became my world. I was drawn into it." Seeing performers on stage only amplified her passion for sound. "You know, I was lucky to grow up in San Francisco," she points out. "In those days, it was a real epicenter. I was like ten or twelve years old, and I'd go out with my older brother and his friends. We told our mom that we were going to the movies, but instead we'd go to the Fillmore West. There was no age limit. I saw Janis, Aretha, Miles--you name it."
While attending San Francisco State University, Margolis found her interest in jazz becoming a fixation. Soon she was a regular at nearly every jazz club in town. "I saw Blakey, Eddie Jefferson, Freddie Hubbard, all kinds of guys," she notes. "I'd stay awake all night just to listen to these guys play, and then I'd listen to them talk after they played. I met Red Garland, McCoy Tyner, Stan Getz, Bobby Hutcherson--and all those guys gave me quotes for the back of my first album. I've been real lucky to have them as mentors. But that was the thing. I listened and I just absorbed and absorbed and absorbed. I watched these horn players night after night and observed how they led their bands. That's why I sing like a horn player to this day."
She also made some impressive friends. For instance, Evolution, Margolis's sophomore effort, contains a burning appearance by saxophonist Joe Henderson, one of her longtime pals. And Straight Up, co-produced by her husband, saxophonist Dr. Alfonso Montouri, and issued on Mad-Kat, a label she co-owns with fellow Bay Area vocalist Madeline Eastman, benefits from sassy, high-stepping trumpet work courtesy of Roy Hargrove and some atypical singing by bluesman Charles Brown. "The two songs that Charles did with me are so different from his own stuff," she notes. "It was really a creative stretch for him; it wasn't his thing. But lately, my view of having guests is to have them doing something different from what they do on their own albums. That's the whole job of the producer--to bring something different out in the music.
"I'm fairly young as far as jazz singers go," she continues, "and I think our mission is to really move this music along. And Charles is a real traditional guy, so I think he was a little shocked when he first heard what I planned for him to do on 'Wouldn't It Be Loverly' [from My Fair Lady]. But to me, that's a really poignant song about homelessness. I never understood how in the musical they could be dancing around and singing so perky. So we reharmonized it, and now it's just a very sad song--and Charles got up there, and he really did it."
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Brown is equally impressive during "The 'In' Crowd," a cover of the 1965 hit by the Ramsey Lewis Trio that finds Margolis at her wittiest.
"I'm so glad you understand that song is done tongue-in-cheek," she gushes, adding, "I've been obsessed with that song since I was a child, because it was the first jazz I ever heard. I was just a little girl, and I was totally geeky, which is my whole reason for being totally obsessed with it. I was never in with the in crowd. I was so out. I was the big scapegoat of the world. But I have the last laugh. When I do that tune live, I have this whole rap that goes in front of it. I talk about those people who were giving me this merciless amount of shit when I was little and who they are now. I mean, who has the cool life now?"
Clearly, the answer is Margolis. But at the same time, she is under no delusions about her prospects of becoming a mainstream star. "Jazz is never going to be pop music," she says. "You never have to worry about walking down the street and getting recognized. If Sarah Vaughan were alive and she walked down the street, nobody would recognize her, either. So you can't really get a big ego doing this kind of stuff. But for me, I believe that I'm doing the right thing. I'm getting too much good energy thrown back at me from it. People tell me that it made them feel good, and that's the big point of music anyway--to lift people up and to give them some joy in this cold-blooded world."
Kitty Margolis. 8 and 10 p.m. Friday, November 21, and Saturday, November 22, Vartan's Jazz Club and Restaurant, 1800 Glenarm Place, $10 ($24.95 dinner and show package), 399-1111. Jazz vocal clinic with Kitty Margolis. 1:30-4 p.m. Saturday, November 22, Houston Fine Arts Center, 7111 Montview Blvd., $25, 758-0304.