It was peer pressure that made a jazz singer out of Gloria West, who’ll be onstage at the Palladium Side Door Friday night.
The bay area’s premiere practitioner of old-school vocals, who stands confidently in front of some of the hottest musicians in town, was more or less a singing-in-the-shower type with a bad case of stage fright. In 2010, however, things began to change.
“I was working at a golf course,” the St. Pete native recollects. “I worked at a lot of different golf courses, doing the beverage cart. I was dating my manager – he and I went out and did karaoke one night, and he was like ‘Why are you working at a golf course? Why aren’t you singing? You need to go do this.’ Basically, he ganged up on me with my sister and brother-in-law, who’d been telling me that for years. The three of us used to go and do karaoke all the time.”
Gloria West loved to sing, and had thought about switching career gears. But music? Well, that was some risky business.
“I remember standing in my sister’s kitchen, and she was saying ‘Just try it. Try it for a year. If nothing comes of it, then nothing comes of it. But what if something happens?’”
What the heck. West replied to a Craigslist ad – a country band, Broken Roads, was looking for a lead singer. In time, that gig gave way to more intimate, acoustic shows, which in turn morphed into a duet act called Jackson West.
“I really, really wanted to do jazz,” West says. “I had no idea that there was a big jazz scene here – I was living in Tampa at the time, so I had no idea what St. Pete had at all. So I started a ‘jazz duo’ – using quotations – with a piano player who didn’t really play jazz, but he was like ‘well, we can do whatever.’ So it was like a variety act.”
Again on the advice (read: persistent nagging) of friends and family, West attended early cattle call auditions for American Idol, America’s Got Talent and The Voice. She got close a couple of times, but nothing ever came from it.
Except … well, her audition song was Hank Williams’ classic lost-love ballad “Cold, Cold Heart.” West performed the Norah Jones version – sultry, sexy and imbued with the blue smoke of New York nightclub jazz.
She killed it, and she knew it. And, to paraphrase another Williams song, she saw the light.
“My mom was a jazz singer in New York, before I was born, before either of my sisters were born,” West explains. “She had an accordion accompanist. She would do jazz songs and show tunes. So I grew up listening to her singing around the house. And my dad loved Louis Armstrong; he would always try and sing ‘What a Wonderful World’ like him.
“So from a young age, that’s what I wanted to do. And I knew that I would be good at it, although I would try to sing and record myself, and then listen to it and think ‘this sounds awful.’”
She got over that, too.
West names Armstrong, Billie Holiday and Mildred Bailey as her favorite jazz singers, those from whom she seeks inspiration.
Certainly, there’s an old-timey jump ‘n’ jive to her renditions of classics such as “It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing,” “St. James Infirmary Blues” and the Broadway chestnut “Whatever Lola Wants.”
The swing’s the thing, too, in the debut album from Gloria West & the Gents, Dem Keys.
Who are these Gents, anyway? Key to the sound is keys player Stephen Dornfield, whose stride piano work sets the pace for every tune in the repertoire. “He’s the reason that I have become good, and comfortable, and been able to grow,” West beams, “because of the way that he plays.”
West met trumpet player James Suggs in 2015, at Ruby’s Elixir, and he not only became a foundational member of the band, he began introducing other players from his extensive jazz orbit.
West’s distinctive “speakeasy” vocal style, in fact, has its genesis in that instrument. “I learned by listening to Louis Armstrong, and hearing the way he verbalized, because he started off as a horn player,” she explains.
“And so a lot of the way that he sings is because he’s a horn player. And Billie Holiday also, she wanted to sing like a horn. So I learned to do it by listening to that – by repetition – and I love the horns. Trumpet’s my favorite.”
For Friday’s Palladium show, the band will include Dornfield, Suggs, Tyler Wertman (trombone), Glenn Stevenson (upright bass) and Paul Gavin (drums).
There are contemporary tunes in a Gents set, too, jazzed-up, from the likes of Bruno Mars, Taylor Swift … and Gloria West herself, who wrote several of the numbers on Dem Keys. They bring in the occasional show tune as well.
It’s all part of a bigger plan. “We want to be able to play the big spaces, and play the big festivals, and play in Europe,” West says.
“Part of my plan and my goal – ‘Jazz for the Masses’ – is jazz that everybody can understand and enjoy, and appreciate. It doesn’t matter your age or your background, or if you have knowledge of jazz or went to school for it. None of those things matter. You can still enjoy what we’re doing. That’s my goal, to spread my love of old jazz throughout the world.”
Tickets and info here.