Blues Bodhisattva

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.

As it turned out, however, the opportunities afforded a little black girl by the show were more meager. "As a black artist, it was very difficult," she says. She could see she wasn't given the same level of support and promotion as other artists on the show. The producers eventually came up with a long-term offer, but her parents didn't like the terms, which would have kept her under tight control for ten years. So they turned it down.

When she was 18, Roberson got married and started raising a family, and her singing career was put on the shelf. "I'd sing here and there, but nothing compared to what I had been doing." Later, after her marriage went sour, she realized how much she missed it. "I realized that not singing, I was more or less dying inside."

Becoming a Buddhist, she says, gave her the confidence to get out of a bad marriage and make it on her own. She had been invited by members of Soka Gakkai in 1976 to an introductory meeting, and she joined the first night she attended.

Three years earlier, Soka Gakkai Buddhism had made a cameo in the Jack Nicholson film The Last Detail. In the movie, Randy Quaid stumbles across a room filled with posthippies repeating "nam-myoho-renge-kyo" (look closely and you can see a pre-Saturday Night Live Gilda Radner among the circle of the faithful).

At that time, the sect was catching on with young urbanites drawn to its traditional Eastern philosophies laced with feel-good materialism: Soka Gakkai followers believe chanting their mantra (sometimes for hours at a time) will promote personal enlightenment and world peace, but can also score you a new job or car.

"I was very unhappy and had no hope for the future," Roberson says, until she joined the organization. Through chanting, she says, she gained the confidence to take her dream off the shelf. She was working for the state and moonlighting as a singer, but in 1983 she went back to singing full-time.

In that time, she's built a huge repertoire--and not only in English. She sings in Spanish, Japanese, even Yoruba, an African dialect. The long stint at Timothy's, which began in 1988, helped solidify her local reputation, especially with other musicians. With the help of her family, Roberson recorded her first album, Sherry, in 1991.

But it's the chanting that gets most of the credit for her comeback, Roberson says. She mentions other musical Buddhists: Ernestine Anderson, Herbie Hancock, Tina Turner, Patrick Duffy.

Patrick Duffy?
"You know, from Dallas," she says with a smile, realizing she put the B-grade actor in the same list as renowned musicians.

Soka Gakkai is a relatively small religion in America, with 300,000 members across the country. Roberson estimates about 2,000 of them are in Arizona. But in Japan, it's the largest single religious organization, and the cause of much debate.

Soka Gakkai is the lay organization of Nichiren Shoshu, a 700-year-old version of Buddhism. But in 1992, Soka Gakkai and its priesthood split. The rift had massive repercussions in Japan. Imagine, Roberson says, Catholics splitting away from the priesthood and the pope, and you get some sense of what the divorce meant to Japanese Buddhists.

That left a lot of power in the hands of President Daisaku Ikeda, SGI's lay leader. He's been denounced as a power-hungry despot by critics in Japan; others call him a peace-loving saint. Accusations have also been made that SGI's recruitment tactics in the U.S. have been cultlike.

But Roberson offers a copy of the World Tribune, pointing out that the publication reports fully and openly about the conflicts SGI faces. No unreasonable requests for money are made, she says. And members aren't asked to cut off ties to family and friends--two signs that a religion is slipping into cultdom.

SGI's Buddhist teachings, and chanting, have only made her life better, Roberson says. If at first the combination seems odd--jazz, with its black urban heritage, and Buddhism, which evokes bald guys in flowing saffron robes--in Roberson the two meld like a syncopated groove. When she describes the benefits of chanting--the positive effects on the soul through rhythmic vocalizations--she could be describing what it's like to hear her sing.  

"I have a mission as a jazz singer to bring happiness to other people," she says. "To uplift others. Usually, if you've touched one person, you've touched many."

Sherry Roberson performs every Friday and Saturday at 10 p.m. in the Ritz-Carlton lounge. She is also scheduled to perform with Dave Cook, Charles Lewis and Jesse McGuire on Sunday, June 23, at Kerr Cultural Center in Scottsdale in a benefit concert for the Leukemia Society of America.

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