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All That Jazz

Recalling the Lessons of a Starry Childhood

August 17, 2001|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Singer Patti Austin grew up in what might best be described as a hallowed entertainment-world environment. Her godmother was Dinah Washington and her godfather was Quincy Jones.

"Sammy Davis Jr. taught me some hoofing," she says, "and Ray Bolger taught me time steps."

Her father, trombonist Gordon Austin, played with, among others, Fletcher Henderson, Lucky Millinder and Billy Eckstine--thus the growing years in which she was constantly surrounded by the shooting-star world of show business. And that experience, she feels, is the reason she has chosen versatility and regularity in her career. It's also why she has worked hard to stay free of the seductive blandishments of stardom.

"I watched the people who passed through our lives function and dysfunction all over the place as I was growing up," she recalls, "and I think I just decided that the payoff for having that kind of notoriety really wasn't worth the price."

Nonetheless, Austin hasn't exactly had an anonymous history in the business. On Sunday night she performs at the Hollywood Bowl in the JVC Jazz Festival's "A Twist of Marley." Along with guitarist Lee Ritenour, saxophonist Gerald Albright and others, she will re-create tunes from the new Verve tribute to the legendary Bob Marley.

But, typically, she will also shift gears into a performance of material from her new album, "On the Way to Love." Those songs will be part of a one-woman show about her life--bearing the same title as the album--that will premiere in Sacramento early next year.

This sort of easy movement from one interest to another has been characteristic. A recording artist in her teens, she then moved into backup singing and studio recording, at one time the unquestioned queen of the advertising jingle business in New York City.

"It was an era that I describe as 'Let's sell a bunch of stuff to people that they don't really need and make them believe that they need it,"' she says. "I'm not cynical, that's just what happens to you after you've worked for 15 years in the ad business singing and writing jingles. You just learn what the real motivation is--money!"

Austin, who has no hesitation about expressing her opinions, is equally sardonic about developments in smooth jazz. The style, she points out, evolved from the late-night, soulful balladry associated with jazz and the blues--with her duos with James Ingram on "Baby Come to Me" and "How Do You Keep the Music Playing" as classic examples.

"But now it has become, for everyone but Sade, an instrumental wasteland," she says. "Because the mentality behind it is that this music serves as underscoring for one's life. And the 'one' is the one who drives the Volvo and the Saab and the Mercedes and gets stock reports from Barron's--a whole demographic that the smooth-jazz business is going for."

But she sees an upside to the process as well.

"The good news is that a live-performance audience has developed out of all this," she says. "And it's an interesting audience, because it's all the discontents from the ages of 35 to 55 and older, who grew up with everybody from Louis Armstrong and Jimi Hendrix to Motown--an amazing array of musical tastes. They're used to seeing people who are really good performers, and they want to hear good music.

"Now if we can just get the radio stations to realize that there's an audience out there that wants to hear music that hasn't been pre-processed through listening committees, we may really be onto something."

Patti Austin performs in "A Twist of Marley" on Sunday at the Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood. 6 p.m. (323) 850-2000.

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Celebrating a Life: Trombonist Thurman Green never received the recognition from the jazz audience that he did from his fellow players. His steady trombone work made significant contributions to bands led by, among others, Benny Carter, Gerald Wilson and Mercer Ellington. He also contributed--until his death in 1997 at the age of 56--to the Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra. But Green, for all his skills as a bop-oriented player, was fully capable of working in more contemporary settings. And his work with Horace Tapscott, Hamiet Bluiett and his own quintet on the stunning "Dance of the Night Creatures" revealed a talent that was continually expanding into new areas of expression.

On Sunday afternoon, for the fifth year in a row, Green's life will be celebrated by many of the artists who knew him best--among them, trombonists Buster Cooper and Phil Ranelin, baritone saxophonist Bluiett, alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe, singer Carmen Bradford and Jerry Rusch & Zing, a string quartet group.

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