SFJAZZ.org | QA With Mary Stallings

On The Corner Masthead

A Q&A with VOCALIST Mary Stallings

October 13, 2020 | by Richard Scheinin

Mary Stallings

Over the past five months, staff writer Richard Scheinin has spoken to many of the artists whose performances have streamed on the Fridays at Five concert series, presented by SFJAZZ. Saxophonist Joe Lovano, vocalist Lizz Wright, and bassist Marcus Shelby have been among his interviewees. Now he talks to Mary Stallings, the great San Francisco-reared singer who was a favorite of Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie — and whose 2018 performance with the Bill Charlap trio will stream Oct. 16 on Fridays at Five.

About 20 years ago, on the eve of Mary Stallings’ first weeklong engagement at New York’s Village Vanguard, The New York Times said this about her: “Perhaps the best jazz singer singing today is a woman almost everybody seems to have missed.”

Not quite. Stallings, who is now 81, sang with Dizzy Gillespie when she was 19. Over the course of her career, she has performed with Billy Eckstine, Earl Hines, Sonny Stitt, Cal Tjader and Wes Montgomery. She spent three years as the “girl singer” with Count Basie and his orchestra. She toured Latin America with Gillespie. Her career has moved in phases — she spent years off the road, raising her daughter Adriana and designing clothes as a sideline — but “everybody” has not missed her.

Mary Stallings and Dizzy Gillespie

In San Francisco, where she grew up and still resides, Stallings is musical royalty. In 2017, when she was a Resident Artistic Director with SFJAZZ, she put together a week’s worth of programs with several impeccable bands. Performing one night with a trio led by pianist Bruce Barth, she sang “I Want to Talk About You,” Eckstine’s signature song. The audience was stone silent, captured by Stallings, who seemed to be singing her life. “You do it from your soul and from your heart, and with the hope that you are connecting with somebody,” she explains. “I look at the faces; am I touching them?”

On Oct. 16, on the Fridays at Five series of streaming archived concerts, SFJAZZ will broadcast another of Stallings’ shows — this one from her second year as a Resident Artistic Director, in 2018. It features the superb pianist Bill Charlap with his working trio, which features bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington. There was an immediate connection between Stallings and Charlap — she calls it “telepathic” — as they performed timeless songs like “September in the Rain" and “Darn That Dream.” If you watch the broadcast (sign up here), you will witness the soulful bond between these musicians.

I recently spoke to Stallings about a host of subjects: Charlap and great romantic songs; Gillespie and Thelonious Monk; the pandemic and how all her gigs have vanished — just when her career seemed once again to be on the rise.

Perhaps most significantly, Stallings looked back on her long musical life. Raised in the Western Addition, she lived a block from Johnny Mathis and his family. Her uncle Orlando Stallings — a saxophonist who taught her to sing “Oop Bop Sh’ Bam” — would rehearse his band, some of whose members toured with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra, in her family’s living room. When she was maturing as a singer in the late 1940s and ‘50s, San Francisco’s African-American neighborhoods were jumping with music: “You walk down the street, and there’s music everywhere — music coming out of every house. You’d walk around the corner, and there’d be jazz and blues.”

A product of that world, Stallings has stories to tell.

Q: How are you dealing with the pandemic and this new gig-less reality?

A: I’m hanging in there. Most of us artists — we depend on the audience for the vibe. But suddenly, there’s no audience! And this year was going to be exquisitely wonderful — I was going to have a European tour this summer. In fact, I was finishing a tour in Europe back in January when the pandemic happened. We were in Spain — that’s where my daughter lives — and then we went to Ronnie Scott’s in London. And after that it was on to Milano, three nights at the Blue Note, and it was just packed with people — all sold out, and they even had to add a show. And it didn’t seem anybody was sick yet. But as soon as I left there and got home, that’s when it really hit.

Q: You were having your latest renaissance — and then came the virus.

A: It’s amazing how my life has always been like this! I’ve always had highlights, and then a shutdown. I get to the heights where it’s really blooming and then — darkness. That’s the story of my life, with recordings and everything else. Every time they write about me, it’s like I’m making a return! I’m always coming back.

But really, I’m so blessed, because I didn’t get sick. I’m very cautious. I don’t let anyone in my house, and I’m very careful when I go shopping. If I’m asymptomatic, I don’t want to give it to anyone else. I could complaint, but I won’t. We’re just going to have to get through it.

Q: What have you been thinking about during the lockdown? Has it made you reflective?

A: Absolutely. In some ways, this shutdown has been the best thing. You get a chance to go inside yourself and see yourself in a different way. So I’m taking this time to evaluate myself and my position on this planet. And I believe many people are reflecting on that level — we are all vulnerable, so each day we live is a day of rejoicing. That’s how I try and look at it. You don’t know the positive side of things if you don’t also know some of the adversities.

Q: Are you evaluating your music?

A: Since the shutdown, I’ve gone back and listened to some things, old recordings, and thought, “My God, how I’ve grown.” Because some of the things I listened to were very good, in terms of the mechanics. As you get older, you lose some of your chops. But your storytelling takes over, because you’re speaking of your life’s experiences. It deepens. And that’s what it’s supposed to be about — telling stories in your music. And if you have a great voice, mechanically, that makes it even better. But as a singer, I’m all about telling the story.

The Bill Charlap Trio (L-R: Kenny Washington, Bill Charlap, Peter Washington) (photo by Phillipe Levy-Stab)

Q: I know you choose the songs you sing very carefully — they have to speak to you in a personal way. I thought we might talk about a few of the songs you sang with Bill Charlap.

A: Okay. I can’t say I remember what songs we did that night! That’s a couple of years ago.

Q: Well, I looked it up. But let’s start by talking about Bill Charlap. He comes from such an interesting musical background. His father was a Broadway composer. His mom is a singer.

A: Bill comes from that long musical line and he’s just an exquisitely gifted artist. He’s very much in tune with songs and their lyrics. And the way he plays them, it’s so melodic and it’s so beautiful. It’s hypnotic. Even in rehearsal, there’s a level of such elevated spirit that comes from him. And I know sometimes he catches me off guard, because I’m listening to him so carefully, and he’s listening to me. I have a thing with certain piano players. They feel me so closely; I’m telepathically sending a signal out there, and it’s coming right back. It’s a telepathic connection. And it’s like that with Bill. We’re sending each other messages, back and forth, and it translates to a very transcendent kind of music. Eric Reed is another piano player who’s like that.

Q: People who tune in to Fridays at Five will hear you perform some great ballads, like “But Beautiful,” the Jimmy Van Heusen tune. Tell me about that one.

A: “But Beautiful” is one of these ballads that is very appealing to people who have experienced the fullness of love, understanding that even in the bad times it can still be beautiful. It’s better to have felt it than to have never had the experience of it.

Q: And you sing “Body and Soul.” You do it as a duet with Peter Washington, the bassist in Bill’s trio.

A: I’m a romantic. All the old cats used to say, “Mary Stallings is nothing but a sentimentalist.” When I was 16 years old, I learned “The Man I Love.” In junior high school, I would sing “Stormy Weather” and songs like that, and the kids would go crazy. I’ve always had that side to me — gravitating to the romantic kind of songs that speak to all of us about our little loveships. And “Body and Soul” is a great song to remember the things we’ve all been through.

Q: You once told me that you go “inside out” when you’re singing a ballad. “You do it from your soul and from your heart,” you said.

A: My music reflects who I truly am, and I’m glad of that — because I like me! I think I’m a good person.

As for doing “Body and Soul” as a duet — I like the intimacy of a smaller group, and duo especially. When you’re working with accompanists who are very sensitive to connecting with you and helping to support the story that you’re telling — there’s nothing more beautiful. It’s like a conversation. And when it’s silence, you hear the vibrations in the air and you hear the notes, how the colors change.

But there’s freedom in every format. When I sing with a big band, and I feel all that sound wrapping around me — I like that, too. And I’m looking forward to doing more projects — with trios, big bands. It’s going to be interesting, once this pandemic ends. I may choose to sing some of the same songs, but they’ll be coming out a different way. My story’s even stronger, because of the things I’ve lived.

Mary Stallings

Q: Let’s talk about your childhood. You had 10 brothers and sisters. What were your parents’ names and what did they do?

A: Gladys and William. My daddy was a longshoreman. There were only a few African-Americans on the waterfront, because it was kind of closed off, as I understand it. And he made a substantial living to take care of his children, and we were well taken care of. And my mother, she was at home with us, with all the children. She was a housewife. And we lived at 2327 Post Street, between Divisadero and Broderick. I used to love to sit on the front porch and see all the musicians walk by.

Q: Johnny Mathis lived in your neighborhood. You knew him?

A: Oh my God, yeah! We’re all family. They lived a block up from us.

Q: When we spoke a year or two ago, you told me about the night you heard a visiting choir sing at your family’s church — the First African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church — on Geary Street. That was the night you decided you would become a singer.

A: That’s right.

Q: Here’s what you told me: “The singers came from Chicago. And I remember I was upstairs at that concert, 6 o’clock in the evening. And I remember sitting upstairs listening to the music and looking down and something hit me. You can’t separate the music from the religious aspect, the spiritual aspect. This music is a spiritual thing. I was a little girl of seven years old, and I was touched. And when I came home, I told my mother, “Mama, I want to be singer. I want to sing! I want to sing!”

So what happened next? You’ve said that your Uncle Orlando Stallings, the saxophonist, gave you your first gig.

A: When I was 10, he would come and rehearse in my family’s home, and all the local cats were in his band. Some of the guys were already seasoned musicians, traveling with Lionel Hampton and the other great bands. And I started singing along with them, and I could improvise. I was a kid; I probably wasn’t that good. But I could actually sing the changes. So when I was 11, my uncle gave me my first gig. He used to do casuals, and he invited me. My aunt belonged to a very prestigious African-American social club, and Uncle had the gig at the YMCA all the way down in the Golden Gate. I remember it was a barn dance, and all the ladies were dressed in their cowgirl outfits and the guys were in their cowboy getups. At the time, I loved Dinah Washington, and Kay Starr was doing all of Dinah’s songs, and I did “Wheel of Fortune.” Uncle cracked up when I did that; he never let me forget it.

Q: Who else inspired you?

A: There was Mrs. Hannah, my music teacher in junior high. Some of the other girls — my gosh, they could sing! But Mrs. Hannah centered on me. I remember thinking, “She’s really pushing me. She really likes me. She thinks I can sing.” I was 13, 14, and I was good at imitating; I could imitate anybody. I liked Eartha Kitt, and we had a program at school, and I used some of Eartha’s little phrases… Well, after the program, Mrs. Hannah pulled my coat. She said, “Mary Stallings, I know what you’re doing, and don’t do it anymore! You have your own way of singing. You have your own heart. Don’t ever try to take anything from anyone else.” And that stuck with me.

Q: What happened next?

A: I don’t even know how it happened. But at 15, I started meeting all these people. I started getting all these jobs from people like Eddie Alley, the drummer. It seemed like a whirlwind. Local musicians just dug me, and they would tell other people, including some international people. And then when I was 16, I started going down to the Black Hawk and sitting in. Oh my God, so many people helped me when I was a youngster — Dizzy Gillespie and Barney Kessel and Sonny Stitt. I think about all the people that touched my life. I used to imitate Billy Eckstine — and I ended up singing with him and doing duets with him!

There’s a large history of music in this city. During the ‘50s, early ‘60s, that was a scene. The music was sweet and wonderful, just groovy.

The Black Hawk, Turk and Hyde Streets, San Francisco, 1961. (photo: San Francisco Public Library)

Q: So much of what you’re describing is gone.

A: At the time, there were so many clubs. I’d come on before all the stars: Don Rickles, Della Reese. I took Della’s place when her father passed. And I opened for Lenny Bruce. In fact, Lenny wanted me to go on the road with him. He was a nice man. It’s too bad, the problems he had. But he was a sensitive man. I’d call him a righteous man — a true human being.

All these people were my teachers, my nurturers. I worked opposite Ella (Fitzgerald) and Sarah (Vaughan), and they loved me. And I learned one thing: What gets you through life is to have some humility — and, like my mother taught me, don’t talk too much!

Q: Why did they love you?

A: Because I was too stupid to look at them as great stars — as the innovators of this great music. So they dug me. People like that, they want to be treated as human beings. They liked being around me, because I was different. I wasn’t coming with any affectations or a lot of impressions.

So many names, so many names — all this richness around me. One time I was working in North Beach at the El Matador. The band came in early, 6 or 7 o’clock. And after the rehearsal, the cats went their way, and I went mine. And I liked hanging out at the Jazz Workshop. So I went over there, and there was the bartender, and up at the piano was Thelonious Monk. He had come in early and was just working out some things. So I sat down there, and just sat quietly.

Q: How long were you there?

A: Oh, 20, 25 minutes. Monk just sat there playing; never turned around. And it just took me somewhere else.

Q: Where did it take you?

A: It was like being elevated to another dimension; music does that to me. When it’s good, it knocks me out. It takes you to another place. I felt that. At that moment, it was just me and the bartender and Monk. I sat there in amazement and awe. I thought, “Man, is this real?”

Q: You’re touching on a lot of deep things.

A: It’s all in the music; all these things are in the music. I’ve been in this business a long time, and I can tell you that this music is spiritual. It’s a gift from God — I believe God gave me this gift to be an inspiration to others.

You give from your soul. It is a spiritual thing and every once in a while you just hit that thing — and you’re speechless. The spirit just gets into you. In African religion, people feel the spirit. And jazz music — it’s a religion. And you can’t take that out of the music. If you take that out, you ain’t got nothing. You’re talking about life. This music is the richest thing.

Fridays at Five presents Mary Stallings and the Bill Charlap Trio on Oct. 16 at 5 p.m. PT. In the coming weeks, Fridays at Five will feature Taj Mahal (Oct. 23), Lila Downs (Oct. 30), Jose James, singing the music of Bill Withers (Nov. 6), Sons of Kemet (Nov. 13), Anat Cohen and her Tentet (Nov. 20) and Gregory Porter (Nov. 27). Subscribe to the series ($5 monthly or $60 annually) here.

A staff writer at SFJAZZ, Richard Scheinin is a lifelong journalist. He was the San Jose Mercury News' classical music and jazz critic for more than a decade and has profiled scores of public figures, from Ike Turner to Tony La Russa and the Dalai Lama.