Houston's Newest Jazz Jam Invites Vocalists to Step Up to the Mike

We're at Costa's Elixir Lounge discussing the bar's Vocal Jazz Jam with Paul Chester, the well-known and highly-regarded Houston musician who co-hosts the new Thursday night event. He and Tianna Hall, the always-busy jazz vocalist and his jam counterpart, are trying to recall a song they performed when the jam debuted a few Thursdays ago.

Chester's the kind of musician who, when he can't recall the name of a song, just starts strumming at the guitar until the title reveals itself. Here, he's trying to remember "It's Alright With Me." Mid-sentence, his conversational language switches from English to strings and frets. He plays mellifluously and Hall comes in, right on time, with a voice strong enough to fill your heart while simultaneously melting it like oleo.

What began as a query is now swing time at Ella Fitzgerald's kitchen table, with Joe Pass there plucking out notes for the First Lady of Jazz. It's that intimate, that good and that fun.

Welcome to the first few moments of the Vocal Jazz Jam, musicians and music-lovers. The new effort began in late March and focuses on singers, both pro and novice, with a decided emphasis on jazz standards from the Great American Songbook.

Hall, who has been performing professionally all over town for nearly a dozen years now, is looking forward to catching up with her peers and meeting those waiting-in-the-wings vocalists who, like her, will play a role in advancing Houston's rich jazz heritage.

"It's a great opportunity for us to all network. I never get to talk and hang out with other singers because we're not on the same gig ever. I'm only ever with the guys that I hire on my bandstands," she said. "It's so nice to be able to interact with people that play the same instrument as me.

"And," she continued, "it's so nice for so many of these young singers who are trying to get their feet wet and maybe aren't necessarily ready to do a gig on their own for three hours straight. They can come and sing with a professional, top-notch accompanist. That alone is worth its weight in gold."

As if scripted, Michelle Cowan arrives, charts bundled in her arms. She's a singer-songwriter, guitarist and pianist, more at home in coffee and teahouses, but ready to step to the mike this night to sing "How Insensitive."

"I feel like a lot of the really good musicians in town do jazz, so it's always nice to go to the jazz things and be around really good musicians as opposed to, you know, mediocre musicians," Cowan said. "I like jazz. I love improv and I love jazz,.."

"You have natural ability in improvisation, it was very evident," Hall interjects. "You were willing to take some risks and that's what it takes."

Cowan's not new to performing, but she wisely takes in Hall's observations. The jam's emcee is a mixture of big personality, natural ability and years of experience. A native Houstonian, she began performing at the age of four, was doing regional theater by age 11 and studied opera and musical theater at the University of Houston.

There's some precedence for a vocal jam in town and Hall was involved in that, as well. She and multi-instrumentalist Erin Wright, who co-hosts the Thursday Jam Session that grew from Costa's former location, once hosted a vocal jam at The Daily Grind, a coffeehouse.

"It was really fun, it was great. I brought the P.A., Erin played the guitar and we opened it up to everyone. And, it worked," she said. "I love the idea and I think this is going to work, too, it's just going to take a matter of time to get the ball rolling."

Cowan and Chester are now into "It's Only a Paper Moon," so Hall introduces us to the venue's namesake, Costa Papanicolaou. He'd begun an instrumental jazz jam when his venue was in smaller quarters on Westheimer. When the lounge packed up and moved to Richmond, its successful jazz jam moved to Dan Electro's, so he called Hall to see if she had interest in starting a vocal jam in the new venue.

"This, to me, is a really exciting concept, I don't know of anyone else that's doing it. We have so many jams going on and they've always been instrumental," said Papanicolaou. "Being able to kickstart this, the vocal jam is just diversifying the music world here in Houston. I can't tell you how excited I am to be a part of it."

Instrumentalists are welcomed at the vocal jam and actually fit in quite nicely, as we see when we return to the room to find Henry Darragh. He's a trombonist and sits in on a few songs, adding depth to "Summertime" and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," both sung by Deborah Dunlap, whose advocacy of jazz in Houston has manifest in many forms over the years, but tonight is simply offered as scotch-soaked, heartfelt vocals. Darragh's wife, Melissa, is a vocalist who offers a delicate rendering of "Bye Bye Blackbird," and Darragh uses the jam as a vocal warm-up for a release show for his latest album, Too Much Monday. He does Chet Bakeresque work on "I Should Care."

"I think it adds balance to the scene because there are quite a number of jazz jams but it's very heavy towards instrumentalists. Singers are really kind of pushed to the side. So, to have a singer-specific jam, I think it's really good for the scene," he said.

"It helps people like me get warmed up," Melissa Darragh added. "He's a professional and he's a multi-instrumentalist. He composes, he arranges, he sings and plays piano. But, me, I only sing - I don't play any instruments, and it's really hard to walk into a room full of musicians and really be able to join right in with them. Something like this, it's far less intimidating. It's a little more intimate. If you screw up, it's okay."

The environment was so accommodating that one fellow who introduced himself as "Ben" asked for a turn at the mike. He had no prepared charts, but he had the sort of rugged good looks that make it hard to say no, and in the spirit of fun, Hall gave him a thumbs up. It was only then he revealed to Chester that he knew only two songs - "Rocky Raccoon" and "Turn the Page."

"The Bob Seger song?" asked Chester, who is a longtime member of the local rock outfit ShapeShifters. He's hardly done with the question before he's playing the opening chords.

Ben closes his eyes and starts crooning. Dressed in a dapper suit and holding a drink, he looks the part, at least, which reminds me to ask Hall how the vocal jam won't devolve into live karaoke. This is a silly question, for a couple of reasons. For one, Ben is having fun and so are we. Secondly, Hall's a pro who plans for these things.

"That's why I'm being very specific about focusing on the Great American Songbook and bringing charts in your key. That kind of weeds those out, people who are wanting to come use it as a glorified karaoke session," she said.

Aside from that, it keeps the focus on jazz, which is important to her. Nothing against Bob Seger or The Beatles, but they're not jazz artists, which is why she's here doing what she's doing.

"For people who have an interest in jazz, this would be a great opportunity for them to come out and dabble in it," she said. "You learn how to count yourself in and prepare a chart in your key. That's how we pass on this tradition of jazz. It takes players like Paul and singers like me to work with these people who are just starting, professionals in the genre to pass on what was accomplished in the genre generations before us. It's important to do stuff like this."

Ben finishes his highly-stylized version of "Rocky Raccoon." Once he's done, Hall asks if he's got another.

"No," he says. "I prefer you to sing."

"All right," she says, "I will."

The Vocal Jazz Jam runs Thursdays, 7p.m. to 10 p.m., at Costa's Elixir Lounge, 2239 Richmond.

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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.