Parlor Showcase

The Absolute Authenticity of REBECCA JADE

Rebecca Jade. Photo by Cathryn Beeks.

Photo by Brent Haywood.

My first Rebecca Jade experience came about four years ago, actually at the behest of NYC bassist (and former San Diegan) Danny Weller, who was back in town celebrating the birthday of Ella Fitzgerald with an all-star band featuring Peter Sprague, Mikan Zlatkovich, and Duncan Moore.

I was flabbergasted. Who was this woman with incredible pitch, rock solid time, and masterfully swinging execution? Why hadn’t I heard her before? Immediately after the gig, I grilled Sprague and Weller about her, and discovered that she had been honing her craft in the Anthology house band for several years, mostly performing “contemporary jazz.” That band, which was led by bassist Tony Muhammad, also featured the sublime Kamau Kenyatta, who was instrumental in Jade’s evolution as a performer.

That’s when I had my first Jade revelation. To call this young woman versatile is an understatement of epic proportions. Several months later, I caught the singer fronting her own band at 98 Bottles, playing a mix of neo-soul and “smooth jazz,” and she absolutely killed it in that context. It’s hard to imagine two gigs any further apart than the Ella tribute and Jade’s more radio-friendly ensemble, but I was struck by the unifying authority with which she approached both situations.

That versatility didn’t stop there. Later on, I was astounded to catch Rebecca in a free-jazz context, accompanied by piano firebrand Joshua White. There were no charts or rehearsal–just two musicians trusting each other completely–and she raised the roof at The Loft at UCSD high enough to launch a cruise missile.

In recent weeks, I’ve seen her inhabit the music of Cole Porter in tandem with San Diego guitar master Peter Sprague. Their recent album, Planet Cole Porter (reviewed in this issue), might just be the finest disc to come out of our town in 2017. Jade has flawless intonation, precise and majestic swing, and a delightfully understated delivery that never defaults to empty gymnastics or hollow melisma.

“I’m a huge Rebecca fan. Leonard Patton first introduced us and I was immediately knocked out with her sound. To me, it comes across as a magic blend of jazz and soul, delivered with a relaxed vibe. She’s an educated musician too, and I so appreciate her ability to make sense of some of my wicked charts. Check out her coda on ‘Love For Sale’–that’s flexibility and that’s Rebecca.” [Peter Sprague]

An early gift for mimicry might be the connective force that enables Jade to thrive in such diverse situations, but it also didn’t hurt that her mother is a talented jazz vocalist in her own right–in fact, they both performed together a few months ago singing the national anthem for the San Diego Police Department promotion ceremony.

Somehow she’s able to thrive and be herself in every situation. Lately, I’ve seen her playing pop music with David Owen on keyboards and Bryan Whelan on guitar, performing to a dedicated few at Café 21 downtown, belting out classic tunes by Sade and Tina Turner with absolute authenticity.

To me, that authenticity is a large part of what defines her as a performer.

She’s a true polymath, an actress, an athlete, a model; a diva without the attitude and a genuine “girl next door.” When the opportunity to interview Rebecca for this publication came out of the blue, I knew I had to take it.

Growing Up
Ms. Jade was born in New York City on October 26, 1978. Her childhood memories are mostly fond ones. “From what I recall, it was pretty happy,” says Jade. “I was always a very active kid as far as playing sports in the neighborhood.” Her father moved the family out of NYC to pursue a job opportunity in Puerto Rico when she was three years old, and they stayed there until her parents divorced when she was seven. Rebecca moved with her father to Northern California after he joined the Coast Guard, and they spent about a year there before his orders brought him to San Diego, where she has lived ever since.

Her mom, Leslie Green, meanwhile, was working as a professional singer in Puerto Rico, but being 3,000 miles away from her only daughter proved to be untenable. “So, she sold everything and moved to San Diego and joined us. Eventually, when she got her bearings I moved in with her,” Jade remembers.

Music has always been a part of her life. “I honestly don’t recall a time that I wasn’t singing or involved in music someway. It must be in the genes. There are pictures of me–I think I sang a solo when I was in kindergarten–so I’ve been singing my whole life that I can recall.”

But young Rebecca didn’t think she was doing anything special. “I thought maybe everyone could sing. As a kid I listened to a lot of Whitney Houston but I was also always exposed to a lot of jazz through my mother’s record collection. Billie Holiday was one of my first musical memories and I also tried to emulate Whitney and Mariah Carey. I have fond memories of listening to Stevie Wonder and Patti LaBelle, especially around Christmas time, because they all had Christmas albums, and my mom really loved the holidays. I do, too. I have these wonderful memories of just the two of us and we would be jamming out, listening to music while we cleaned the house.”

Jade’s mother proved to be her first mentor and a lasting influence. “With her being a singer, I was always able to ask her musical questions as well. She would teach me about harmonies, when we were in the car or at church–we would always harmonize and sing together. From a very early age, I really wanted to understand how to do that.”

Other inspirations would follow. “When I was 12 or 13, Billie Holiday had a really strong influence on me. I don’t know why, but I was so drawn to the sound of her voice, her delivery; I loved her phrasing,” says Jade.

As she entered high school, her tastes in music evolved again. “I started checking out new artists like Erykah Badu and getting into the neo soul movement, and I was also digging groups like En Vogue and Boyz II Men. At the same time, I was always involved in the church choirs, because my mom directed the youth choir–plus I was in school plays and musicals.”

She did have dreams of being a professional singer but like most well-rounded kids, she had a lot of other interests. “I also wanted be a veterinarian and I was very involved in sports, so I didn’t really have a long-term plan. I was just trying to figure out what would stick, you know.”

The middle school stage productions helped Rebecca develop as a performer. “I think the main thing was that it gave me confidence with stage presence and being comfortable in front of people without feeling awkward. I got over any feelings of stage fright–now, I am completely comfortable being on stage.”

High School and the Tug of Basketball
“I was in this girl group and trying to figure out what I wanted to do, which direction I wanted to go,” recalls Jade. “At the same time (I was about 15 or so) I was playing a lot of basketball. I played a lot of sports growing up, but I really loved basketball. I went from never having played to starting on my high school team. They brought me up to varsity in my first year. In my senior year I went on a travel team and that really opened my eyes because I had never played outside of El Cajon. I decided I needed to transfer to Scripps Ranch and my mom believed in me so we just packed up and moved. I mean, that’s love for you.” Even though she received scholarship offers, Jade decided to take a year off. During that year, she met the head coach at Mesa College and decided to attend. After two years at Mesa, Rebecca got a scholarship to UC Berkeley.

What should have been the zenith of her young life so far took a dark turn. “Two weeks after I signed my letter of intent I was backed into as a pedestrian by a drunk driver. My legs were pinned between the bumper and a light post. Nothing was broken, but there was a lot of soft-tissue damage,” says Jade.

She felt pressured to perform and wasn’t aware that she could have red-shirted that year and taken time to heal. “I tried my best to play, but I had a horrible year. I’m so grateful that my mom would come up to see me during this really difficult mental period of my life.”

She eventually recovered and got her game back, having a terrific senior year. “I’m proud to say I earned a starting spot and I was playing pretty well and then I had a knee injury that took me out for the rest of the season.” UC Berkeley did right by Rebecca–she was able to finish school and get her degree in theater even though she could no longer play basketball.

Today, Jade remains committed to an active lifestyle, playing in a weekly league at the North Clairemont Recreation Center.

Sports, Music, and Modeling
Even though sports was her main focus in college Jade was never far from the music. “I was always involved in the arts, so there was this duality happening. I was also active in the Gospel Choir at the same time, so there always a struggle to balance everything,” she said.

As far as she is concerned, there is a definite link between music and sports. “Yeah, for me, it’s the drive. As an athlete you have push yourself to trust the people around you, same as music. And in both you learn discipline. If you want to improve your jump shot, you’ve got to practice it. So they do cross over, and when the light clicked on in my head and I decided to do music, I knew that was the right path for me.”

Now she seeks a different kind of balance. “Because music is such a big part of my life,” says Jade,“I need to do everything in moderation. I can’t be so consumed by music that I forget everything else. I am so grateful that I can still play basketball, because I can get so gung ho with music that I need the basketball for a release.”

Jade has been modeling on and off since her college days, and ever since she hooked up with Janet Walsh at Temptress Fashion in Ocean Beach, she’s returned. “Janet’s thing is ‘vintage pinup-inspired clothing’ and because you don’t need to be a stick figure, I’ve been able to revisit this modeling thing, which is a lot of fun. It’s funny because I’ve kind of taken on so much of my mother’s history. You know, she used to be a model. She was actually one of the top models in Boston before I was born. So that was her main thing–modeling and singing–and for me to fall into that realm is a beautiful thing, man. She never forced anything; she wasn’t like a ‘stage mom’ or anything. She always told me I should do what I love.”

And singing is obviously what Rebecca loves most about her life at the moment. I wanted to know how she navigates so many different genres with such ease. “I was always good at being a copycat. My dad Eric really influenced me in that way. He would play around with all of these different voices and accents, and I would do my best to keep up. So I learned to imitate a lot of different singers–I tried just listening to a lot of different styles until I could make them my own.”

That gift for mimicry and the love of all styles of music probably explains Jade’s recent success with her band, Rebecca Jade and the Cold Fact, the group she formed with Alfred Howard, which earned her “Best Live Performer” at the 2017 San Diego Music Awards. “I’m so grateful for the recognition. This was all Alfred’s idea, this vintage soul project, and it’s really taken off. So I’m really grateful to him because he’s really helped to open me up and expose me to the indie circuit. I mean, it’s wonderful to even be nominated and this is actually the third award that we’ve won. So seeing all the work translate into us getting love from our community makes me feel like we’re on the right track.”

A Star is Born
Lately, the sky seems to be the limit for the talented Ms. Jade. In addition to the SDMA recognition, she’s over the moon about her latest collaboration, Planet Cole Porter, with guitar wizard Peter Sprague, multi-instrumentalist Tripp Sprague, bassist Gunnar Biggs, and drummer Duncan Moore, with special guest appearances by percussionist Tommy Aros and trombonist Scott Kyle. Working with Sprague was a musical highlight for her. “It’s surreal, because he’s so talented, yet so down to earth that you don’t feel intimidated by his greatness–he’s so chill–he makes you feel welcome and comfortable and he’s got great energy and a ‘vibe’ about him,” she recalls. “And I must say that I love the fact that all of those cats have been playing together for so long! There’s something special about that. They’re on this whole other level of camaraderie and vibe–totally in synch with each other–and I’m digging that experience to the utmost.”

Monster piano man Joshua White is another believer in the Jade expression. He drafted her into his groundbreaking CODES ensemble, a bold mashup of free-jazz, poetry and spirituals for an electric performance at The Loft.

“She’s such a wonderfully talented musician. She has the rare ability to extract soul, feeling, and depth from practically any lyric or melody. It’s always a pleasure to collaborate with her on any project.” [Joshua White]

Aside from her mother, Jade credits the two-time Grammy Award-winning producer and multi-instrumentalist Kamau Kenyatta for much of her success as a musician. “We just hit it off, and his demeanor, too, is like so commanding. I have the utmost respect for him and yet he was so gentle with me–nothing was forced. His whole thing is so organic, he was like ‘hey, let’s learn this song.’ He was very cool and complimentary and then he would ask me to learn some more. I’d come back the next week and he worked me in very slowly. I joined this band he had called King Kelley with Richard Sellers on drums and Nathan Brown on bass. It was the first time I’d really worked with a band.”

“Kamau believed in me so much, he would hire me when I only knew a few songs and pay me out of his pocket to show up at certain gigs and sing like a half-hour set just so I could get comfortable. And I got better and more comfortable and all of a sudden, this is starting to click for me. But he was so patient and gentle. He really groomed me. I was a part of his band for a few years, and through him I got the gig for the Anthology house band, which played every week for four or five years.”

“He made me feel confident,” she remembers. “At one point I started getting calls from other bandleaders, who would hire me without an audition because I was playing with Kamau, as they had that much respect for him. Getting a foundation like that from a musician of his caliber is priceless. You know he really helped me to shape the kind of singer that I am today in terms of understanding how to work in a band and have that kind of stage presence. I distinctly remember him saying that it was okay to be the nicest-dressed person in the room because I was the performer.”

Even to this day, Jade feels a measure of gratitude for those career-shaping lessons. “I really feel I owe him everything. I really do. I want him to be proud of me. It kind of goes back to sports. He was like my coach, and I wanted to please my coach. I wanted him to be happy he took me under his wing.”

That admiration for her mentor has come full circle.

“She is a remarkable talent: a front person who gracefully and effortlessly makes the musicians around her better and the audiences who hear her happier. Her charisma is real–maybe even more formidable away from the stage. She’s also a sincere, empathetic, and consistent friend.” [Kamau Kenyatta]

Being around such great musicians made Rebecca somewhat self-conscious about her own lack of formal training, an insecurity she solved in forthright fashion by going back to school to earn a degree in music at Grossmont College.

“I wanted to be able to speak the language of musicians. I came to notice that singers couldn’t always deal on that level. I was working with a lot of different bands at that point and I saw that singers tended to have a different point of view. I didn’t want to be separate. I wanted the band(s) to see me as a fellow musician and in order to do that, you need to speak their language, you know, so I went back to school and got another degree in jazz theory. I went to Grossmont because my bandmate from the Anthology house band days, Derek Cannon (trumpet) was the chair of the Jazz Department.”

What’s Ahead
I caught up with Ms. Jade right before she was about to leave the country for two weeks to join the Dave Koz Cruise in Italy; it’s the second year in a row that she’s been blessed with that opportunity. “That’s been so much fun,” Jade confides. “It’s like a two-week party and you get to meet so many people. I had a blast last year, and I can’t wait to get out there again.”

When she gets back in town, Rebecca is looking forward to rejoining Sprague and company for a reprise of the Planet Cole Porter experience at the Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad on June 16. “That’s going to be a super fun gig. The band is really tight now and that venue is sweet. I have a feeling that is going to sell out, so you might want to warn people to get their tickets soon. Peter’s gigs have a tendency to fill up quickly so I’m just sayin’.”

In terms of local gigs, Jade can be found downtown, in the Gaslamp on a weekly basis. “Every Tuesday, I’m at Café 21 (in the Old Croce’s location) with David Owen on keyboards and Michael Kennedy on bass. They have music seven nights a week, and we specialize in pop and R&B–lots of Stevie Wonder and Chaka Khan. We’ll also do more contemporary artists like Adele.”

Taking her music on the road is something Jade is especially excited about. “I would honestly love to be on tour, doing a serious tour. If I could ask for anything it would be to have that opportunity. That’s what’s on my mind right now.”

And her dreams don’t stop there. “I would love to be a household name some day. Regardless of the genre–I’m still trying to figure that out–it might be jazz or R&B. Or the Cold Fact might be the avenue that blows up! I would love to know that people would pay a couple hundred dollars to come see me in concert! I dream about being able to sell out arenas. I definitely feel that acceptance here in San Diego, but I want to reach out to music communities around the world.”

What if that opportunity required a move out of San Diego? “I would consider it,” Jade responded. “I would need to know all the details, you know, be aware of all the facts. It would depend on the offer, and who made the offer. If it was just about a record deal–I’d have to think about that, because record deals don’t really mean what they used to–record deals aren’t really the way to go anymore. So, I would really have to have some trust in whoever was making that offer. But no matter what, San Diego is always going to be my home. Always.”

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