The blues flows through San Diego. It has for a long time. Sometimes it has been obvious, flowing on the surface, and other times it has tunneled underground from far, far away just to bubble up underneath our feet. But, improbable as it may sound, a continuous stream of one of the greatest branches of American music flows through our city. Sam Chatmon, member of the legendary Mississippi Sheiks and possible author of the blues standard “Sittin’ on Top of the World” spent his summers here in the 1970s playing coffeeshops and folk festivals. Players like Robin Henkel and Tomcat Courtney have gigged constantly here for decades and made themselves into blues institutions. And still younger generations of musicians like Nathan James, Ben Powell, Whitney Shay, and Sarah Rogo have taken up the mantle.
So, when a new blues voice appears in San Diego, it had better stand out. Over the last year, Mara Kaye’s voice has been doing just that. I’ve been watching it happen in real time as I back her up on mandolin and fiddle. When Mara starts singing in bars and dining rooms across the city, folks with their backs turned to the stage turn around. They smile, they applaud, like nice audiences do, but a lot of them become transfixed—like they’re seeing something they can’t believe, or something they didn’t know existed but hoped it did. When she sings, there is a kind of freedom that you can hear and see. And, at some subconscious level, that’s what every audience member wants to see—someone being free.
The blues is a vast tradition, with important and distinctive branches spreading out over more than a century of evolution. Some of us love the old acoustic stuff from the Mississippi Delta; some of us love the later electrified stuff from Chicago. Some of us study it and stay close to the old styles; some of us draw from the old ways to create something new. Mara’s blues are deeply rooted in the old ways but remixed in a way that still feels novel—like some last pocket of the blues that never got explored in the old days, all wrapped up in a ball of 21st-century Brooklyn-bred attitude.
Kaye’s voice shows a deep study of the early 20th-century female blues vocalists, but her choices for musical accompaniment often draw from the boy’s club of early down-home blues. It’s a potent combination. Imagine a classy crooner, a blues queen, who just left the recital hall downtown through the back door and heads to the after-hours party at some majestic dump where the crowd is loud and wild. Over a piercing, dissonant mandolin and a raunchy guitar, a heavenly voice floats in your ear with the sweetest, most loving tone you ever did hear, whispering “I may cut you. I may stab you. Ain’t no telling just what I might do.” And then the room falls apart.
She is a great musician—and a great performer—but perhaps her greatest gift is that of storytelling. She can pick out any sentence, any phrase, any word in the lyrics she sings and find some emotional energy to be transformed into a growl, a coo, a shout, a quiver. Combined with her technical gifts as a vocalist, she is a potent force that few in an audience can ignore.
Kaye certainly stands out in San Diego, but she could stand out anywhere. She certainly did in New York. And, as the saying goes, if you can make it there…
Kaye is a native of Mill Basin, Brooklyn, and she is, first and foremost, a Brooklyn girl—the accent, the fashion, the attitude, the sommelier-like taste in pizza and bagels. Kaye first found self-expression through musical theater in her teenage years and went on to study at the Boston Conservatory. After returning to New York, she entered the world of the arts hustle, which always takes artists to places they never would have imagined. Sometimes the arts hustle takes you to Asia for productions of SpongeBob Square Pants. The hustle certainly took Mara Kaye there. The hustle is also draining, or “soul-sucking” as Kaye puts it. The good thing about the hustle though, is that it shows you where your real talents and your real passions are. And with time, the hustle revealed this to Mara Kaye.
It probably started when Kaye first heard the voice of Victoria Spivey, an early 20th-century blues queen: “I’d never heard someone sing with such ferocity and such honesty and such rawness and such grit until I heard Victoria Spivey. It felt so real to me. It hit me in my gut. I was almost upset because I had never heard that before and it seemed so important. She had this freedom, the freedom to be fearless.” Part of what Kaye sensed in Spivey’s work was a theatricality common to female singers of that era. It was a style now called “classic blues” that evolved in travelling vaudeville shows where spectacle and excess were the key to success. Classic blues singers embodied the emotions and narratives they sang about. They rolled their eyes as they sang. They raised their hands and shouted. They rolled on the floor and then ran through the audience in a craze if that’s what helped tell the story of their song.
The revelation of Spivey’s singing opened the door to a new path, outside of the demands or expectations of the musical theater industry. She started nearly from scratch, hosting a weekly karaoke night, but found her way to the upper echelons of New York’s blues and jazz scene. After singing a Spivey tune at a jam in Manhattan, the pianist spun around and said, “Who are you, and how do you know music like this, and let me buy you a drink.” It was Terry Waldo, legendary pianist and historian of early jazz and ragtime who, among other things, wrote the book on ragtime (This Is Ragtime). The more she sang, the more encounters like this she had, and so she met “the people of my heart, my greatest teachers,” as Kaye puts it: Brian Nalepka, Conal Fowkes, Kevin Dorn, John Gill, Jon-Erik Kellso, and Evan Arnzten to name a few.
At one point early in her career, she found herself unexpectedly sharing a cab with one of her favorite vocalists, Madeleine Peyroux, who released a string of huge records in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Never mind how it happened. It was New York where these things happen. Though their meeting was serendipitous, their mutual love for the old blues and jazz artists was so specific and rare, they had to find a dive bar to have a drink and talk about the craft, the tradition, and surviving in the arts. It was a precious moment to hear the wisdom and advice of a musical hero. One piece of advice has stuck with Kaye to this day. “We were talking about singing all of these old tunes, and she said to me, you can love a lot of songs, but you don’t need to sing every song you love. The songs that you choose to sing are the ones you connect to. You can sound good singing a song but that’s not always the point.”
This encouragement toward conviction, integrity, and sincerity has remained a guiding principle for Kaye ever since. It certainly helped guide her through the musical world of New York. As her musicianship deepened, and the gigs picked up, she eventually made her debut at the prestigious Lincoln Center singing a new blues composition written by some of the city’s finest players, with her in mind. “It didn’t really hit me at first, but I had always had that dream to sing there. Once I made it on stage and started singing, I had to remind myself to stay grounded because I felt like I was floating. The backdrop of the stage was floor-to-ceiling windows with Central Park outside, and everyone was dancing. It was a major moment for me.”
Her reputation already established in New York, Kaye began travelling more. She taught and performed at the Port Townsend Acoustic Blues Festival in Washington, where she met me while leading the G Burns Jug Band, thus planting the seed for our future collaborations in San Diego. She toured the Deep South with New York’s “Papa” Ernie Vega, making pilgrimages to the places that shaped the blues. She met with Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, the last of the older generation bluesmen from Bentonia, Mississippi. She sang at the grave of Robert Johnson and in the hotel room where Bessie Smith died. She found the decomposing piano of John Hurt’s juke joint. The blues started leading her farther and farther away from New York. She toured the West Coast, she toured Russia, she travelled down to Virginia to record with boogie woogie piano legend Carl “Sonny” Leyland at Bigtone Records, one of the premier recording studios for vintage American sounds.
It was San Diego that pulled at Kaye the hardest. “I had realized so many dreams in New York. California was this new horizon. I had to honor this spiritual vibration I felt.” Every time she visited, more gigs were lining up, and her stays were getting longer and longer. She was soon playing packed rooms at Panama 66, the Lafayette Hotel, and the Black Cat Bar, backed by folks like Robin Henkel, Ben Powell, Tim McNalley, and—ahem—me.
Here’s a little gem: Mara with Tim McNalley and Clinton Davis.
Then, during one of her runs of gigs in San Diego, the Covid-19 pandemic began, and everything stopped. Restaurants stopped. Bars stopped. Dances stopped. Gigs stopped. Meanwhile, her home in Brooklyn was fast becoming one of the biggest hot spots of the early pandemic days. Though perhaps destiny was already tempting her to the West Coast, the pandemic further compelled her to take up an unplanned and continuing residency here.
Though the pandemic put on hold the performing careers of all musicians, artists like Kaye just can’t sit still, so she has been hard at work developing other parts of her musical life and recording new material. A recent collaboration with Al Howard is notable both in terms of Kaye’s creative development and her growing connection with San Diego. For those unaware, Al Howard is one of most prolific members of San Diego’s music community. If you enjoy any local bands, there is a high likelihood that Howard wrote the lyrics you heard. As the leader of the Redwoods independent record label, he regularly pens lyrics for bands like the Midnight Pine, Heavy Guilt, Birdy Bardot, Rebecca Jade, Cardinal Moon, and Dani Bell and the Tarantist.
Howard reached out to Kaye about collaborating as part of a new project inspired by, and responding to, our current pandemic moment. The opportunity spoke to Kaye. Just as she had hoped, coming to a new place offered new creative opportunities. In this case, she found the opportunity to use her talents as a musical storyteller in a moment badly in need of one. Kaye sent Howard some references of older blues that in turn inspired the imagery and metaphorical tone of “Dystopian Blues”:
I don’t trust the preacher
When he’s lying to the choir
That the flames I see aren’t fire
The result is a stirring example of what good art should do. The expressive and historical depth of Kaye’s voice, the blues vernacular of Howard’s lyrics and the vintage production and arrangement of Tim McNalley all work together to contextualize a moment that seems at times to have no context. It tethers the collective anxieties of the day to something that feels familiar, deep, hopeful, and timeless:
I’m living through
I’m living through dystopian blues.
I want to cure them
I want to cure them loving you.
When she first began working on the tune, she was convinced that “all of the things that Victoria Spivey taught me, I wanted to bring to this collaboration.” And, just like that first time she heard Spivey’s voice, in “Dystopian Blues” you can hear that striving for a freedom to be fearless.
Kaye is currently continuing her collaboration with Howard on other tunes that are being shared online as they are completed. You can purchase “Dystopian Blues” through Al Howard’s bandcamp page and stream it through Spotify. She is currently preparing to release an album recorded with former members of San Diego’s G Burns Jug Band before the quarantine. Like many performers, Kaye has relied on virtual teaching during to support herself while venues remain closed. Anyone interested in vocal lessons can contact her via her website.
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