Making a living as a jazz singer can be a long, hard road. Smoky nightclubs take a toll on the vocal cords. Bookings for shows can be erratic and tough to come by.
And if you live and work in the suburbs, things are harder still.
After a few years of trying to get her footing on the local jazz scene, singer Rae Bernard decided to do things her way.
This year, Bernard founded Harmony of the Sol Inc., a Howard County-based nonprofit that brings jazz and local jazz musicians to the community.
Harmony of the Sol was "really a way to get musicians out here" to Howard, said Bernard, who works for the Harford County Department of Social Services. "This really gives them an opportunity to perform in a different environment."
That environment is the 100-seat "black box theatre," a community-style theater in the Howard County Center for the Arts in Ellicott City.
On Saturday, Bernard and three other female jazz singers will present a century of jazz with "Women of Song: A Salute to Women in Jazz."
Elaine Foster, the 1999 winner of the Billie Holiday Vocal Competition, an annual jazz vocalist contest in Baltimore, will sing the songs of Dinah Washington. Sandra Spears, the 1996 winner of the same competition, brings her interpretation of Holiday's legendary tunes to the stage.
Each singer, dressed in period costume and accompanied by a four-piece acoustic band, will perform in character and give the audience a history lesson about the artist's life and career.
Bernard, who will "play" jazz pioneer Bessie Smith during the concert, calls the "black box theatre" the perfect place for this sort of event.
"The acoustics are great and people really get a chance to see and hear the music in an intimate setting," she said.
Vocalist Terries Lewis will sing many of Nancy Wilson's greatest hits during Saturday night's show.
In the year since it was opened, the "black box theatre" has established itself as an affordable space for local actors, poets and musicians.
Since most small arts groups cannot afford to rent larger theaters such as Smith Theater at Howard Community College and Jim Rouse Theatre for the Performing Arts at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia, the "black box's" low rental fee ($100 per event) and cozy atmosphere fill a much-needed artistic void.
Jazz performances like the "Women of Song" series are "one of those art forms that you have to build an audience," said Debbie Meyer, deputy director of the Howard County Arts Council. "We've been working with Rae to insure that that will happen over time."
In addition to the "Women of Song" series, Harmony of Sol is looking to find other nontraditional performance spaces throughout the county. Bernard said public libraries, museums and art galleries, and open retail spaces such as The Mall in Columbia are all possibilities.
"We're trying to get families involved in coming out to concerts," she said. "When you think about jazz, you think about a club. It doesn't have to be like that. We want as many people as possible to know about these performers."
"Women of Song: A Salute to Women in Jazz" is Saturday at the "black box theatre," 8510 High Ridge Road, Ellicott City. A reception begins at 7: 15 p.m. with the show time at 8 p.m. Tickets are $12 for general admission, $8 for students and are available at the door. Information: 410-750-5838. Information about the "black box theatre": Howard County Center for the Arts at 410-313-2787.
Pub Date: 9/23/99