Last Sunday at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, with its large influx of loyal members and tourists, the spirited moment of truth came from the pulpit and the microphone of Adrienne West during her interpretation of Duke Ellington’s composition “Come Sunday.”
West, a native New Yorker, noted, “I love Ellington and aspects of his spirituals and references to God.” She began singing at an early age in the choir of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Brooklyn before her family eventually relocated to Hollis, Queens.
She grew up with Mozart and began classical voice lessons at age 9. “At home, there was always spiritual hymns, classical, jazz and my mother took me to the theater,” said West. “I loved the jazz vocals of Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, but I never considered it as a career.”
West, who has been living in Europe for the past 20 years, earning international fame as a jazz vocalist, stated, “I was never a real gospel singer, and jazz is the last genre in my life.”
West and her husband, David Cameron, are briefly in New York visiting family and to promote her latest CD, “With Love to Ella and Joe” on Dot Time Records. The album is available on Amazon.com.
The couple produced this 10-track CD, which was four years in the making. West teams up with Italian guitarist Alessio Menconi to pay tribute to Fitzgerald and the guitarist Joe Pass. “The renowned duo of Ella and Joe Pass is one of the most important musical landmarks representing the beautiful relationship between the human voice and the guitar,” explained West.
For this vocal-guitar outing, West and Menconi reflect a fresh, intuitive duo. Her voice is sometimes smoky, as on “Green Dolphin Street.” She raises the ante on “A Foggy Day” with a more jaunting swing. She brings a serene soulful flow to “Rain,” and on “Love for Sale,” she shows sassy twists on this mid-tempo interpretation.
West and Menconi totally represent the popular repertoire of jazz standards from the incredible musical journey of “Ella and Joe.” West’s voice flows like a soft breeze as Menconi’s guitar notes swing like a fluttering butterfly playfully rollicking between, over and under her enchanting vocals. Welcome another worthy duo with stunning interpretations to the jazz scene.
While she didn’t arrive in the city with a publicist, her older brother Ron West became her unofficial publicist. As one of the organizers of Abyssinian Baptist Jazz Vesper Series, he was instrumental in getting her debut at the church and live interviews on WBGO jazz radio and WHCR-90.3 FM (Diaaya Lomax’s show “Gardens of Tranquility and Contemplation”).
“I knew from my classical days I would live in Europe,” said West. “I loved it and always told my mom it would happen.” As a high school senior, West became disenchanted with singing classical music. She noted, “I wasn’t having enough fun, I wanted to laugh more.”
While attending her first year at Morris Brown College in Atlanta, she won an audition to sing the national anthem at the final playoffs of the Braves versus Mets series in Atlanta (1969). Still not sure about her music career, she returned to New York City and worked for the MTA for four years.
Finally, an open call for the world touring company of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” peaked her interest. She recalls, “It was like a 1,000 Jennifer Holidays auditioned, but I was hired.” She was hired for the Paris tour and lived there for 11 months as a singer and actress.
The band included jazz legends Benny Powell, Jerome Richardson and Marshall Royal, and Hank Jones acted as the assistant to arranger Luther Henderson. “This was the greatest thing that ever came my way,” said West. “The company included Andre De Shields, Charlene Woodard and Nell Carter.”
She returned to New York City and worked in the Broadway show, where, during rehearsals, she met her future husband. She then returned to the world touring company in Germany. After that show closed, she said she “wanted to take a chance on me and stay in Europe to perform.” She used the credibility of the show, billing herself as “Adrienne West of ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’.’”
West says the tenor saxophonist Buddy Tate, a longtime member of Count Basie’s Big Band, was very influential in advancing her singing career.
West has performed with some of the most popular big bands in Europe, such as the WDR Radio Big Band in Germany and the Millenium Big Band in Holland. She has also performed with Johnny Griffin, Billy Cobham, Clark Terry and Dado Moroni.
The singer tours Europe, Africa and Asia on a regular basis, and she teaches jazz voice, performance and diction at the in Artez Conservatones Zwolle and Eachede in Holland. She has also conducted master classes at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.
Like her predecessors Josephine Baker, Ada “Bricktop” Smith (the singer-dancer who owned the nightclub Chez Bricktop) and the cornet and saxophone player Sidney Bechet, West is succeeding in flying above average.
“I wanted to be known in Europe as a jazz cat and come back to New York and be recognized,” said West. “Living in Europe has given me this opportunity.” She lives in the other Haarlem in the Netherlands.