So, a woman by the name of Kim Nalley was performing at the my job last week. As soon as I walked in we exchanged warm smiles and nods of acknowledgement. You see, Kim is a thick, tall, light skin fellow mulatto with big curly hair who is in love with Billie Holiday (she was doing a tribute to her) as much as I am. I was immediately warm all over. In addition to Kim, Dezron Douglas (bass) was on the band stand. Now Dez and I go back a couple of years. I consider him the homie at this point. He’s always supported me and even reads the blog. He also played on the demo I just recently recorded (which I’ll share with you all soon).
After, I finished wiping down tables, setting up the room and doing my side work, Kim walked to me with the friendliest of ‘down home’ smiles and said, “Now, you know everyone is gonna think I’m you’re big sister right?” I laughed and said, “That’s EXACTLY what I thought as soon as I punched in and saw you”. We shook hands and sparked up a conversation.
Now, you have to realize. Most musicians, not all, but most, disregard the waitstaff until they need or want something. Especially, singers. We are the help. They are too busy worried about the tags, correct keys, story lines and song forms to even look up and notice us. But Kim came right over. She spoke of Trayvon Martin, Billie Holiday and briefly about the dynamic within her own mixed race family. She was just cool. Then Dezron came out and mentioned to her that I sang. Her smile grew brighter. “Oh, what music do you sing?” I told her that I had actually just recorded a couple of Billie Holiday’s songs and was venturing into the jazz world and just like that she said, “Oh great. Well, I’ll have to call you up.” My body froze. Sing in front of my co-workers and friends and some ex’s (long story/don’t sh*t where you eat). My only response was, “TODAY?!”. She smiled and said, “You let me know”.
Now, let me help you understand. Dizzy’s (where I work) is a no joke jazz club. You can’t go up there playing around. Folks are paying 40-45 dollars to get in and then spending more money on food and drinks. It’s Wynton Marsalis’s club. It’s a part of Lincoln Center. There is no room for mediocracy. Kim was also playing with Eric Reed who is a genius and legend on the piano and notorious for demanding excellence. So, I was shook. I knew it was a huge opportunity but singing there would be like telling all my secrets. I hear what the staff says about folks who aren’t up to par and if I went up there is screwed up that would be it. I would be dismissed and stamped as ‘another one of those girls trying to sing’. I didn’t want to do it. I also had fell into the ‘hired help’ mentality. I felt like I didn’t deserve to be up there.I look up at the stage every night and long to be up there in-between taking orders. It’s torture really. Yes, I’m a working singer but nonetheless there, I felt like a mouse among giants. After, so many years of servitude, in that environment I felt small.
But, to make a long story short, a couple of my friends who overheard her ask me to sit in on her set kept pushing and pushing, so I decided to come into work warm and ready to go for the remainder of the week. During the intermission of before her last show, Kim came to me and said, “Why don’t you sit in on Lover Man”. I was nervous but agreed. I asked her what key she did it in and what verse she wanted me to take. She looked at me for a moment and said, “No. You do the song.” UNREAL. NO ONE DOES THAT! No female singer gives another female singer (who they haven’t even heard sing yet) a full song on their set. No one. Doesn’t happen.It just doesn’t. I thanked her and immediately ran went to the bathroom to rehearse it.
Only a handful of the staff knew that I was going to go up. I wanted it that way. I was secretly hoping they would all be in the back hallway or something and miss it. Less pressure… Anyway, in the middle of Kim’s set she started to talk about the importance of jazz artists mentoring other artists and her own struggles with being invited on stage early in her career and I knew it was time. I remember whens he announced me I said out loud, “Aw shit”. Lol. I know I perform every week. It shouldn’t have been a big deal but it felt so different there. Not only did it feel like I was coming out it felt like my worth and freedom were riding on what I did on that stage.
I walked on stage, looked at Eric Reed first, gave him my instructions and turned to the audience. I saw the guy that I’ve been crushing on in the back of the room by the bar, standing next to my ex who was camera phone ready. I saw the power player guy at table 32 who had just tipped me a 1,000 dollars two nights prior. And I saw all the customers who didn’t even bother to look up at me when I greeted them before barking their orders. I saw everyone in that brief moment. I also saw my fellow server Maribel who wants to be singer as well and probably works harder than I do. She was smiling, eager and invested in me. In solidarity, I smiled back and proudly held up my apron. The crowded roared. In that moment, I relaxed and I just wanted to do my best for all the under dogs, dreamers and folks who had given up on their dreams in the room… the porters, security guards, bussers, hosts, bartenders, servers, and assistant managers… who at some point in their lives felt small…
Below is a camera phone video of the thing. It’s okay. I’ve sang this song a million times better but that’s not the point. The victory in all of this was that I no longer feel small. I’ve come to realize there is a small amount of shame that I carry around as server. I look down on it and as a result look down on myself. No more. There is a lot to take from this story. Hopefully, the next time you’re in a position to help someone you do. Hopefully, the next time an opportunity comes your way you take it. And hopefully, you remember that the little people aren’t always so little.
Enjoy Lover Man