Patti Austin to bring her passion for great American songs to BSO pops program

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
She made it to Baltimore on a flight with "all the other cows." Now Patti Austin is ready to sing.

Patti Austin may be the only person in town delighted with the weather. The Grammy-winning vocal artist, who will salute Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington in this weekend’s Baltimore Symphony Orchestra pops program, couldn’t sound more upbeat.

"I'm enjoying your winter blast," Austin says. "It's refreshing after 30 days of the perfect weather I had at home in Los Angeles. I know I shouldn't complain about that. Must be the New Yorker in me. I can't help it."

The singer, who grew up on Long Island, has a few other complaints. The inevitable nuisances of present-day travel, for example. At 64, Austin maintains a busy national and international concert schedule, which means a lot of airport lines and delays.

"I heard a line by Tony Bennett — 'We're not paid to sing; we're paid to travel' — and I like to repeat that," she says. "But he gets in a lot of private planes. I got here on Southwest with all the rest of the cows. But I love to fly Southwest. It's a chance to talk with real people. There always seems to be a very social kind of vibe."

Austin's own vibes have enlivened the music world for decades. Her duets with James Ingram — "Baby Come to Me" and "How Do You Keep the Music Playing?" — were among the most potent ballads of the 1980s and still hold up well.

Her interpretations of American standards, which have earned her widespread admiration, can be especially savored on recordings made with Germany's WDR Big Band, including "For Ella" in 2002 and "Avant Gershwin," which won the 2007 Grammy for best jazz vocal album.

For years, orchestral engagements have been a regular part of Austin's schedule, most recently a concert with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. "And I've been doing a lot of gig with choirs lately," she says. "The one I did with Kansas City Chorale [in October] was the most fun I've had with my clothes on."

Austin has been having fun with music since she was a kid, a very young kid. She didn't care so much about the late-night movies aired on a New York TV show, but the musical introduction.

"My grandmother told me that I would pull myself to the top of my crib and bob my head in time to the theme music, 'Syncopated Clock,' by Leroy Anderson," Austin says. "I later found out he was my godfather's favorite composer."

That would be celebrated producer and arranger Quincy Jones. Austin's godmother: Eminent jazz singer Dinah Washington. Given that Austin's father was noted jazz trombonist Gordon Austin, Patti Austin couldn't likely avoid a musical path herself.

"It was manifest destiny," she says. "I would wake up hearing my dad practice every day. You'd go from Stravinsky's 'Firebird' to Big Mama Thornton to Tito Puente and Patsy Cline. My dad loved everything. That was the underscoring of my life."

Another valuable influence came from the family's regular Sunday matinee visits to the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem.

"I grew up seeing Duke Ellington and Sarah Vaughan from the fifth row," Austin says.

When her father bought a collection of Broadway show albums from a neighbor, his daughter discovered another important influence.

"My first paying gig as a child of 5 was performing in [Kurt Weill's] 'Lost in [the] Stars' at City Center in New York," Austin says. "I was off to the races. I'm having my 60th anniversary in show biz this year."

Right out of high school, she was part of an opening act for comedian Phyllis Diller ("along with Flying Wallendas and June Taylor Dancers," Austin says). She soon joined Harry Belafonte on an extensive tour, and her career kept advancing. In the 1970s, Austin became a fixture in recording studios, providing backup for the likes of Diana Ross and Paul Simon.

For a good many years now, Austin has focused on the Great American Songbook.

"The material is so rich and brilliant, all we have to do is show up," she says. "I love when a singer takes something defined by another artist and tries to make it their own."

That's what Austin has done repeatedly, as when she found a fresh take on Fitzgerald's legacy, even in the novelty song "A-Tisket, A-Tasket."

"It was not my intention to imitate Ella, but to honor her in my way," Austin says. "I just finished recording a Cole Porter tribute with WDR. Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and every freaking musical icon defined those songs. How do I make them now and me? I liken it to going through someone else's closet and pulling out clothes, then having a tailor fit them for you."

Austin has an almost evangelical feeling about classic songs.

"There's some cool stuff today, some Katy Perry moments, but it scares me that a way of being onstage and performing, an old American tradition of entertainment is being lost," she says. "It's a tradition passed down from some magnificent people. All I know to do is to pass it on, to share it. I have to think giving something back is what we're here for, not just get wrinkled up and die."

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