By Pamela Feinsilber
IF THE FILLMORE were a university, rather than a school of hard knocks, jazz singer Kim Nalley would long ago have been awarded an honorary doctorate. Though she lives with husband Mike Lewis and their new baby girl Lydia in the saddle between Nob Hill and Russian Hill, looking out on the Golden Gate Bridge, the Fillmore considers her one of its own.
And the feeling is mutual.
“The Fillmore is my home away from home,” Nalley says. “I cut my eye teeth in the Fillmore.”
She got her start on Fillmore Street in the early ’90s singing at Harry’s Bar, the Fillmore Grill and the Alta Plaza Bar & Grill. It was during those gigs that she started claiming an ever-widening circle of fans. Since then, she’s performed around the world as a solo artist, with her band — even, for a few years, as the performer-owner of the Jazz at Pearl’s club in North Beach.
Nalley has been appearing regularly at the Fillmore Jazz Festival for a decade. This year she’s the jazz artist in residence, closing both days of the festival on the California Street stage.
“The artist in residence has to do a lot of singing — which means I’m really gonna have to work on my pelvic floor,” says Nalley, who was on bed rest for the last trimester of her pregnancy, had a C-section and has not performed a full-length concert since January. “I sat in on a jam session at the Dogpatch Saloon about a month ago, and afterward my stomach muscles hurt a lot. I thought, okay, I’m gonna have to really work out to be in shape for Fillmore.”
It’s not just because “it’s definitely my favorite festival,” she says. “When you do a festival it requires more heavy singing than a concert or a club, because with the acoustics outdoors, you don’t have the sound waves bouncing back. It’s hard singing — a lot of diaphragm work. And people expect more of you. They really want to have a good time. Something about being outside with a drink in your hand makes you want to woo-woo!”
She adds: “I’ll do a couple of ballads, but it’s different — it’s not a sit on a stool and do a bunch of pretty songs for the pretty people kind of occasion.”
A few days before the festival, she was still thinking about her set list. She wants to pay tribute to the great jazz and blues singer Etta James — who lived in the Fillmore as a teenager and died earlier this year at 73 — even though she hasn’t performed Etta’s songs in the past.
“There’s a kind of etiquette,” she says. “You don’t do a lot of a singer’s signature tunes while the performer is still alive. So I’m learning some of her songs now. It’s something you do out of respect for those who came before.”
But mostly she’ll stick to the kind of material she’s made her own.
“I like to do the tunes that people got hip to me from,” Nalley says. That means jumping songs from the years she sang with the Johnny Nocturne Band, among others. Her fan the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas liked “Route 66” and “all the Gershwin things,” she says. “I always do ‘America the Beautiful.’ We’ll see what else happens. I like to have a list of tunes I’m going to do, then mix and match, depending on what the audience feels like. I like to pick up on the energy of the crowd.”
Meantime, there’s that new baby she’s wanted for so long, who needs to be fed every three hours.
“She’s got nice long fingers,” Nalley says. “I’m thinking she’ll play bass or piano. Those are her options. I prefer piano. Then she can just sit back and wait for the phone to ring.”
Nalley follows the Fillmore Jazz Festival with a two-week run at the Rrazz Room, near Union Square, from July 11 to 22. On the 18th, she’ll be joined by another Fillmore legend, Sugar Pie DeSanto, who grew up with Etta James, for an evening honoring Etta.
Nalley is happy to be performing again, but says she won’t appear as often or as far afield as she once did. She suffered several miscarriages before having Lydia on March 26. “Now that I finally, finally have my baby, I want to spend a lot of time with her,” Nalley says. “She’s too young to drive around, and I’m not going to leave her.”
She’s appearing in New York in December at Jazz at Lincoln Center. “How do you turn down Lincoln Center?” she says. “But I’ll mostly do regional gigs, if they’re not too far away.”
There’s another reason Nalley will stay close to home. She’s getting that doctorate — not from the Fillmore, but from U.C. Berkeley. She’s halfway through a five-year Ph.D. program in American history. In addition to working on her book-length dissertation on American jazz musicians in post-World War II Germany, she will be a student instructor for a class in the fall.
“In America, we think jazz is multicultural and has no color,” she says. “But for everybody else, it has to do with race. Considering how much race was a part of German history, the philosophical arguments about what is jazz become more interesting.”
School starts again on August 16. “Then I play the Kuumbwa in Santa Cruz — I love that venue!” she says. “Go to a class, run to a gig and now I have a baby. I have no idea how I’m going to accomplish everything.”
But we all know she will.
Pamela Feinsilber is a freelance book editor, writing consultant and contributing writer to San Francisco magazine.