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Whitney Shay: A Passion for the Stage

Whitney Shay

Back in 1786 Daniel Shay and a few other ne’er do wells in central Massachusetts caused a ruckus. Shay, along with many of his countrymen, had fought or been conscripted to fight in the Revolutionary War, only to find themselves, after the war, saddled with debt and sometimes thrown into debtors’ prison.

Grabbing their muskets, these men created an uprising that has since become known as Shay’s Rebellion. After the rebellion had been quashed, the powers that be, realizing that they had no way of adequately dealing with uprisings such as this, drafted the Constitution of the United States to grant the federal government greater power. Though he was not a politician or statesman, Shay indirectly gave us We the People, the Bill of Rights, Founding Fathers, and the whole United States of America.

Today in San Diego a new constitution may not be on the horizon, but the Shay of our day is causing a ruckus. Whitney Shay is a young singer who, with her blues band or jazz ensemble, is raising the rafters on many a San Diego nightspot. She is currently gigging at Humphrey’s Backstage, the Speakeasy in the Gaslamp District, the lounge at the U.S. Grant Hotel, Patrick’s II, as well as other nightclubs and music showcases.

Shay has an original approach to her music, and it is a bit difficult to describe the way she sings. Perhaps fitting with the whole red, white, and blue theme of her namesake, she is an all-American singer — not in a Doris Day kind of way, but in a manner updated for the new millennium. Her voice has a great deal of presence and projection, and there is an honesty in her approach. With most tunes that she sings I’m reminded of the way I felt when I was a kid and heard those Dinah Washington records on the radio, or when I heard Nancy Wilson covering the pop tunes of the sixties, or even the first time I heard Tom Jones swing his way through “It’s Not Unusual.” Shay is a singer with a big voice who isn’t trying to show it off but isn’t afraid to use it either.

At a recent performance at the Gaslamp’s Speakeasy, a small bar between the Golden West Hotel and Hennessey’s on Fourth Avenue, Shay sang with one of her trio configurations. With a mop of very blond hair, Ed Kornhauser sat behind the keyboards and Marley Waak played the drums. Kornhauser recently completed a degree as a jazz studies major at San Diego State and performs with a few other ensembles around town. Waiting for the gig to start, Waak told me a bit about his life and his music. Originally from Wisconsin, he has played all over, touring through the Midwest and gigging through the Vegas-Reno-Tahoe circuit. When he got to the subject of Shay, he said, “She’s really got it. Whitney’s the real deal.”

Shay chooses from the Great American Songbook for her jazz band’s repertoire. One of the evening’s first selections was Lerner and Loewe’s “Almost Like Being in Love.” The first set also included a soulful rendition of “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.” Shay smiled frequently; even on a couple of the sadder tunes a grin made its way across her face from time to time. The crowd started to flow in during first set. A couple, one that you might guess are on first name basis with Arthur Murray, cut a rug while Shay and the band performed the tune “Sway.”

Whitney Shay is pretty, pretty the way Hollywood likes its actresses. If Disney were casting for a remake of Snow White she would be a shoo in for the role. Shay stands about 5′ 7″ in high heels and wears LBDs (Little Black Dresses. Well, actually they are little dresses but they come in a variety of colors besides black.). Her black hair, which she wears in a stylish bob, and her large dark brown eyes contrast with her fair complexion.

Since the time she was three and a half years old and cast in a production of Annie Shay has been performing on stage. “My line in Annie that I was supposed to say was ‘I love you.’ But I wouldn’t say it. They had to bribe me with a candy bar!” she recalls. Shay says that her mother was not a stage mom, that it was she, even at a very early age, who let her family know that she had the calling for the stage. “When I was three I took a trip with my mom and my grandmother to Europe. We went to a Royal Shakespeare production of The Wizard of Oz. Afterward when my mom asked me how I liked the play. I said, ‘Well I liked it, but I thought I was going to be onstage!’” Shay’s mother was understandably perplexed, but decided to go with her daughter’s intuition and found a theatre company that would accept Whitney as soon as they got back from vacation.

Growing up in San Diego, Shay performed in a great deal of youth theatre and went to Flying Hills, a fine arts magnate school in El Cajon. She sang in the local Future Farmers of America choir and was chosen to perform with the FFA National Choir. She attended Grossmont College and SDSU, earning her degree at State in performing arts with an emphasis on theatre. Shay performed in some student and independent films while she was in college, a few of which were shown at film festivals in Salt Lake City, Denver, Las Vegas, and Miami. Though right now her emphasis is music, film and theatre remain part of her performing life. “I just wrapped a student short last month, and I’m currently in production on an action web series, I plan to do more film work as opportunities arise,” she says.

After a brief time living in Colorado, where she had done some film work, Shay found herself back here in her hometown. She decided to give it a go as a singer. A big fan of swing dancing, she tested the waters at a few of the dances she attended, sitting in with the bands from time to time. For a spell she sang with Indigo Novo, a band that performed jazz standards and covers. They played primarily in North County, where a number of the band members lived.

Through Craigslist she hooked up with keyboardist Irv Goldstein, the two clicked and started playing gigs around town. A little over a year ago, and once again making the connection through Craigslist, Shay and Goldstein secured an audition at the Speakeasy. The management was impressed with the duo and originally asked them to play four nights a week. Sensing that the workload would be too taxing, Shay and Goldstein agreed to three.

The performances at the Speakeasy led to the gig at the US Grant. “It started about six months ago,” Shay recalls. “We were playing here at the Speakeasy, when the hotel manager of the Grant was walking home and heard us. He really liked us. We play there now either on Thursdays or Saturdays, usually two or three times a month. It’s just a beautiful room, and it’s a ball playing there because my swing friends show up and dance.”

With her five piece, Shay sings the blues at the blues Mecca of San Diego, Patrick’s II, as well as other blues venues around town. Known as Whitney Shay and the Shakedowns, the formula for the band is pretty simple. Shay takes what serves as the core of her trio and adds a guitarist and voila, a blues band! In addition to Kornhauser and Waat, the Shakedowns include bassist Jodie Hill and guitarist Jaz Jaszewski. A graduate of the Berklee School of Music in Boston, Hill was a session player in New York for several years before making her home in San Diego. She has lived here for the last five years and plays both upright and electric bass. Jaszewski grew up in a musical family. Although he is a versatile guitarist, he is most at home playing the blues and can be found playing with a number of local blues bands.

Though she has been singing a great deal over the last year or so, Shay has yet to make a studio recording. “Before I do a recording, a CD, what I’m trying to do is establish a sound, have something distinctive that I can give people,” she says. “When I think about people around town that I admire — Nathan James, Robin Henkel, Carl Sonny Leyland — they have a sound, something that identifies them. That’s what I want for myself.” She has also recently started lessons on the guitar and the upright bass. “Lately, I’ve been writing some original material, and as I want to continue writing more, I’m trying to learn more guitar, bass, and piano to help with that. I want to learn as much as I can about music,” Shay says. “I don’t want to just be the chick singer.”

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