Blues Bodhisattva

Valley jazz singer and devout Buddhist Sherry Roberson answers the question "What's the sound of one woman scatting?"

The lounge at the Ritz-Carlton on a Friday night in May looks like a Phoenix version of a Jazz Age speakeasy. There's the maitre d' who looks you over with a scowl like he's waiting for a password, an opulent interior with overstuffed divans, overpriced drinks, even hostesses wearing narrow dresses to the midcalf.

And when the kitchen shuts down at 10 p.m., Prohibition lifts on the latest bourgeois fad: satisfied-looking boomers--men and women--sucking on 12-dollar cigars like they've been doing it all their lives.

It's all so, well, ritzy.
And delusory as well. Like Jazz Age icon Jay Gatsby using his bootlegger money to masquerade as one of the upper crust, the show of affluence here is calculated and only surface deep. Everything is done for effect: The women puffing on stogies seem to be experiencing the same self-conscious thrill that Fitzgerald-era flappers must have felt when they bobbed their hair.

Even the musical act fits the fantasy: a tuxedoed jazz trio accompanied by a singer in a rich, ruby-colored dress, her hair finger-waved across her forehead, '20s-style. But when Sherry Roberson starts to sing, she spoils the effect of sham opulence. Roberson's as real as it gets.

Phoenix is certainly no jazz capital, but there's good local jazz to be had--even in unusual settings such as the posh lounge of the Ritz-Carlton, where Roberson, a longtime local, frequently flexes her remarkable voice to the piano of Ron Simpson and the rhythms of drummer Paul Stubblefield and bassist Steve Milhouse.

Formerly a regular at Timothy's, the Valley's jazz-club mainstay, Roberson is a favorite with local musicians, who laud her technical skill. She's noted for a warm, mellow tone, but what amazes even the cigar-smoking philistines at the Ritz-Carlton is Roberson's ability to transform jazz classics into works of her own.

At the start of her second set, Roberson is syncopating tightly against a rapid tempo laid down by her combo. Suddenly, the awareness ripples through the audience that she's singing the words to "Fly Me to the Moon." But this is nothing like the tune sung by a crooning Sinatra. Under Roberson's control, the song is swinging hard through complex layers of rhythm and phrasing. Then, as if the lyrics can no longer contain her, Roberson riffs into scat.

Which is more difficult than it sounds. Even talented singers can sound ridiculous when they scat, like they're in the throes of a born-again conversion, speaking in tongues.

But Roberson scats effortlessly, as if her voice were simply another instrument in the band, reacting to the fluid dynamics of good jazz.

"She's a quality vocalist. She knows a pile of music," says Jesse McGuire, a talented local trumpet player who has toured with Wynton Marsalis. "She's very mellow. There's not a lot of screaming and yelling when she sings. It gives me a chance to relax," he says. "Sherry can do a very soulful representation of a song and then turn around and do the same song in a totally different way."

And to the Ritz crowd's delight, she's doing just that, turning a Morgon Ames song into her signature piece--"Sherry's Blues"--and moving fast. A few people even decide to dance, but no one seems to know the Charleston.

"Her voice is full of money," Gatsby said of his socialite obsession Daisy Buchanan. For Sherry Roberson, however, a wealth of talent hasn't translated into a wealth of cash.

"You're not going to get rich," she says, and the word makes her laugh involuntarily, "singing jazz in Phoenix," and this produces another paroxysm. "But I enjoy what I'm doing."

Roberson is sitting in the living room of a modest apartment, surrounded by simple possessions. Although she performs for an upscale set, conspicuous consumption is something she can do without.

The room is sparsely decorated with posters of places she's been, like the time she performed on a "jazz cruise" to the Bahamas and met Dizzy Gillespie. There are also a few copies of World Tribune lying around--the national newspaper of Soka Gakkai International, a Buddhist sect based in Santa Monica, California.

Roberson's a Buddhist. Has been for 20 years, and she credits Soka Gakkai International with getting her through some tough times.

Born in Michigan, the 45-year-old mother of three moved to Phoenix in 1959. Even then, at the age of 8, she'd already made an impression with her singing. "Little Mahalia" they called her in church, after her gospel idol, Mahalia Jackson.

In grade school, Roberson sang in the glee club until a teacher, Evangeline Braxton, happened to hear her. Braxton, who at the time was married to jazz drummer Dave Cook, realized the 12-year-old had unusual talent. Braxton took Roberson to pianist Charles Lewis, a friend of Cook's, for formal training.

Roberson started performing all over the Valley in her mid-teens--mostly big-band music--and in 1966 she became a featured singer on a local children's TV show: The Lew King Ranger Show.

It was heady stuff for a 15-year-old from a poor family. Roberson says the money and local recognition were a kick. And future prospects seemed good--she'd replaced another featured singer in the show whose career was taking off, a Native American kid named Wayne Newton.

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