Classic SF

The Songbird of San Francisco

By Michelle Konstantinovsky

One of the most striking takeaways from a chat with local jazz legend Kim Nalley is the charismatic lilt of her speaking voice — this does not sound like a woman old enough to have followed the Grateful Dead on tour. And yet, that’s exactly how the Connecticut native wound up in San Francisco 30 years ago. “I was underage,” she laughs. “I came up for their New Year’s Eve show. There was a wonderful artistic community here and everyone was like, ‘Stay, just stay!’ So I did.”

The fact that music led Nalley to a new life on the West Coast is entirely fitting; born into a family of jazz musicians, the vocalist exhibited serious passion and skill at an early age. “My great grandma played piano for me and I’d sing when I was around four,” she says. “In kindergarten, the eighth graders came around and sang to everyone, and at some point they realized, ‘She’s really good. We should have her sing with them.’”

But it wasn’t until Nalley relocated to SF that she began to establish herself as a unique talent. The singer struggled to find the right outlet for her three-and-a-half octave range and aptitude for everything from gritty blues to operatic arias. “I couldn’t find anyone to sing with, so I put up an ad in the Haight Ashbury Music Center,” she recalls. “I made a flyer that said, ‘Jazz vocalist seeking jazz pianist’ and someone called and wanted to meet me the next day — it was [local iconic pianist] BJ Papa. He told me, ‘I saw you before you saw me and I could tell from that look you were hungry. You were ready.’ BJ taught me the ropes.”

With an expert guide to help navigate the scene, Nalley worked her way through college singing in small dives to packed audiences. One of the regular faces in the crowd belonged to San Francisco Symphony music director, Michael Tilson Thomas. “I have to admit, I didn’t realize who he was for a long time, which is so embarrassing to say,” she says. “He’s just been a wonderful supporter of my career.”

Once Tilson Thomas and jazz critic Phil Elwood got behind Nalley, her career took off at a quick pace, sometimes resulting in surreal encounters. “I was performing at the Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia,” she says. “I was only supposed to perform for 90 minutes but it ended up being an hour and then two hours — the person after me wouldn’t go onstage because there were no heat lamps. I was so tired and I wanted to get off but I couldn’t; the piazza was filled with about 10,000 people.”

Nalley earned new fans in the seats and backstage. “A club owner asked me to come to his club for a jam session with Roy Hargrove and Eric Reed and all these famous people that I’d seen in magazines. Tony Bennett came and told me how much he adores my music and invited me to dinner the next night! We sat and talked music and he was the sweetest man.”

Back in the Bay Area, Nalley tackled a new challenge in 2003 when she reopened North Beach landmark, Jazz at Pearl’s. “I loved the place long before I owned it,” she says. “There’s something about small clubs. It’s a really important part of raising the next generation.”

While the club closed its doors in 2008, Nalley has recorded several albums on major and indie labels, including She Put A Spell On Me, which was shortlisted for a 2006 Grammy Award, and Million Dollar Secret, which charted in the Jazz Top 40. She’s also won multiple local awards like City Flight Magazine’s title for “Most Influential African American in the Bay Area.” What’s next for Nalley: A two-week run at Feinstein’s at the Nikko in August, earning her Ph.D in history from UC Berkeley, and adding to an ongoing wishlist of dream collaborations.

“I would love to do an album with MTT, and I’d love to work with Michael Morgan of the Oakland Symphony,” she says. “And Billy Higgins — I miss his drumming and wish I could play with him again.”

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