Featured Musician - December 2011  

Karla Harris

Name: Karla Harris

Instrument: voice

Early years/Education: I was born and bred in St. Louis, Missouri. There were no musicians in my family, I had no real life experience of anybody who did music (professionally), beyond my teachers. Growing up, I always loved singing. As kids we’d make up shows and transcribe lyrics. There was always music around, and my Dad liked to sing in the house. My first gig was when I got paid to sing at a wedding at age 13. In high school, I was in bands and choir and played the piano well enough to accompany myself. I also had a love of English and words. It seemed more practical to major in communications than get a degree in music. I didn’t want to be a music teacher. I went to the University of Missouri at St. Louis and have a degree in Speech Communications. Over the years, I have used my degree. I’ve worked at a PR firm, been a free-lance writer, and do corporate writing for Edward Jones Financial Services.

In college, I started singing professionally with the St Louis Jazz Quartet alongside traditional vocalist Jeanne Trevor. That got me into the clubs and started my jazz career. I was singing a lot of pop and rock also. It gave me a dynamic range, being able to sing with a big voice as well as a small voice. It was great training -- high energy, and [it] made you stretch vocally. In 2004, I got a call from bassist Tom Kennedy, who is from St. Louis and was getting off the road with drummer Dave Weckl. He wanted to form his own group. A few months after I joined his band, my husband was asked to relocate to Portland. So I dragged my feet for nine months, and eventually moved here with our two boys.

Portland: I had no idea what was out here musically. [Now] I think of Portland as a constant jazz party. You get to work with a variety of musicians all the time; in St. Louis, you work with one group and that’s it. There’s a lot more jazz here. Also, singers didn’t get the gigs there. The band leader would get the call, and they’d hire the singers. After I arrived in Portland, I got introduced to Mitzi Zilka, went to Ron Steen’s jams, and met Bobby Torres (who also worked for UPS like my husband). Started working with Bobby who got me a spot at the Cathedral Park Jazz Festival. Looked around for places to sing and started gigging at the Old Mill Cafe in Happy Valley with Mark Simon, etc.

 I have a band I work with pretty regularly now (Mike Horsfall, Dave Captein and Todd Strait), but I also work with six or eight different people. I work with everybody, like everybody does. I like working with a lot of different musicians, to learn new things. It’s great, though, to have a regular band so we can really sink into our arrangements, too. I’m a late bloomer; being here has given me the opportunity to figure out what I really love to do. I like to sing songs that I love. In every genre there are songs that appeal to me. My book has songs from Cole Porter to Hall and Oates.

Musical Influences: My parents’ LP collection included artists like Nancy Wilson, Billy Holiday, Barbara Streisand, Dione Warwick, Sara Vaughan, Aretha Franklin, etc. Loved “Heart” with Ann Wilson. Love the way she sang, the visual aspect and energy of it. And Stevie Nicks; these are very strong, empowered women. I’m influenced by all the artists on my favorites list. Also, Tom Kennedy has had a big influence on me, along with Betty Carter and Annie Ross.

Most Satisfying Experience: The 2008 Cathedral Park Jazz Festival with Randy Porter on piano, Tom Kennedy on bass and Todd Strait on drums. It was musical bliss! It was a really wonderful concert, the music was great, the day was beautiful, the voice was doing whatever I wanted it to do, and the sound was good. It was very satisfying. I have had many moments like this.

Favorite Recordings: Nancy Wilson and Cannonball Adderley - “Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley”; Shirley Horn - ”Here’s to Life”; Lambert, Hendricks, & Ross – “The Hottest New Group in Jazz”; Chic Corea and Return to Forever – “Light as a Feather”; Astrud Gilberto – “Finest Hour”; Earth Wind and Fire – “The Best of ...”; Heart – “Dreamboat Annie”; Antonio Pinto – “Love in the Time of Cholera” soundtrack; Carmen McRae – “Carmen Sings Monk”; Bill Charlap Trio – “All Across the City”; and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra with Leonard Slatkin, conducting – “Gymnopedie No 1.”

Discography: “Twice As Nice,” Karla Harris and Tom Kennedy, 2007 Bent Oak Records. Karla Harris, vocals; Tom Kennedy, acoustic and electric bass; Ray Kennedy, piano; Kara Baldus, piano; Miles Vandiver, drums; Jason Swagler, saxophone; Gery Meek, saxophone.

Gigs: Thursday, 12/1 - Wilf’s w/special guest Pete Swan, drums, Mike Horsfall, piano, and Dave Captein, bass; Friday, 12/2 - The Allison in Newberg w/Randy Porter, piano, and Dave Captein; Saturday, 12/3 - Jimmy Maks w/Bobby Torres Ensemble; Thursdays 12/8, 12/15, and 12/22 at the Ivories Lounge w/Jim Templeton, piano; Friday, 12/9 - Benson Hotel w/Steve Christofferson, piano; Saturday, 12/10 - The Allison w/Mark Simon, piano, and Kevin Deitz, bass; Sunday, 12/11 and Saturday 12/17 - Holiday Concert with The Big Horn Brass, Vancouver, Washington; Friday, 12/16 - The Heathman Hotel w/Mike Horsfall and Dave Captein; and Friday, 12/23 - The Benson Hotel w/Joe Milward, piano.

Future Plans: I have a special show I’d like to continue presenting called “Wine, Woman & Song.” The first set is the theme, which is based on research that shows what you hear affects what you taste. We match the kind of wine that you’re drinking to a particular style of music, to enhance the flavor of the wine; then, we play something that clashes with it and the audience can taste the difference. The wine maker is there and talks about the wine, I talk about the tunes, and we all have a great time. Another future plan is to record again. I’d like to document where I am now.

Other: Right now, I’m enjoying doing some of the arranging. I want to keep working with the best people possible ... it stretches you.

-- by Rita Rega