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All That Jazz

Two Will Carry On for Teri Thornton at Ford Benefit

May 26, 2000|BILL KOHLHAASE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Nnenna Freelon was one of the judges at Washington's Smithsonian Institution in 1998 when then-64-year-old vocalist Teri Thornton won the coveted Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition. "She slayed us all," Freelon says of the reaction from her and her fellow judges, Joe Williams, Diana Krall, Dianne Reeves and Dee Dee Bridgewater.

"There were some just wonderful voices in the competition that year," Freelon recalls, "but what Miss Teri brought to the table was a wealth of experience. And her voice was in fine shape. It wasn't like hearing somebody good and saying, 'I'll bet she really sounded great 30 years ago.' The voice was sounding great."

Thornton, whose triumphant return to prominence was cut short May 2 when she died of bladder cancer, was scheduled to headline the Jazz Bakery's "Jazz on a June Night" fund-raiser at the John Anson Ford Theatre on June 3. Freelon and vocalist Carmen Lundy will replace Thornton at the Jazz Bakery event.

"It was a sad thing," Freelon says of Thornton's death. "I've learned so much more about her since she passed on. She really stood as a person I want to emulate."

Lundy, who first met Thornton when the two were seated at the same table during a 1998 Dizzy Gillespie tribute at New York's Blue Note club, shared a dressing room with Thornton at last year's Kennedy Center tribute to Betty Carter. She remembers the first time she heard Thornton sing.

"It was the rehearsal for the Betty Carter tribute and she sang 'I'll Be Seeing You.' It was one of the most moving performances I can recall, even though it was rehearsal. She really read the lyric and told the story. It was heartfelt. It was so real."

Thornton, who was mounting a comeback on the strength of her Monk Competition win, had been signed by Verve, which released her first album in 35 years, "I'll Be Easy to Find," in October. Her death left a quandary for the Jazz Bakery, which was counting on Thornton's newfound celebrity to fill seats at its benefit. Freelon and Lundy have stepped up to try to accomplish the goal.

Freelon, who like Thornton took time from her career to raise a family, says that the experience of motherhood has a strong effect on singers. "Children have a way of interrupting a lot of things," she says with a laugh. "But for me it's been a great interruption, weaving my family life and my career life together. Being a mother has only enhanced what I sing. It was that way with Teri as well."

The Boston-based Freelon is currently in Los Angeles mixing her new album for the Concord label, "Soulcall," scheduled for release later this year. The recording includes "all my buddies," she says, "[saxophonist] Kirk Whalum, the Sounds of Blackness, Take 6."

From here, the singer will be traveling to Rio de Janeiro and Sa~o Paulo, Brazil, in June, then is off to Europe for the summer festival season.

Lundy will spend the next month close to her Los Angeles home, appearing in the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl and opening a weekly series of June engagements at the Cinegrill at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel with pianists Kevin Toney and Billy Childs.

Both singers cite Thornton's story--struck with polio at 5, her career successes in the early '60s, her battle with alcoholism and her all-too-brief reemergence in the '90s--as inspiration.

"Everyone wants to have a long career and continue to shine through all our trials," says Freelon. "Teri had a full life and that life came through brilliantly in her music. That's where the root of what this music is lies, in the life experience. You can't rush that. It's something that only comes with time."

* "Jazz on a June Night," with Nnenna Freelon, Carmen Lundy, Terence Blanchard, Billy Childs Trio, Prime with Tom Ranier, Abraham Laboriel and Peter Donald, at the John Anson Ford Theatre, June 3, 8 p.m. (323) 461-3673.

5th St. Redux: Music has returned to 5th St. Dick's, the Leimert Park coffeehouse founded by the late Richard Fulton, with unscheduled performances on Friday and Saturday nights, beginning at 9:30, and regular shows at 5:30 p.m. Sunday from guitarist Ron Muldrow's quartet with vibist Miller Pertum. $5 cover. Information (evenings only): (323) 296-3970.

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