Grammy Award-winning vocalist Patti Austin has clearly reached the pinnacle of a star-studded career that includes 17 solo albums, performances at the Oscars and on other legendary stages around the world, easily tackling a myriad of musical genres that include jazz, gospel, pop and even opera.
Austin, backed up by the Howard University Jazz Ensemble, headlined one of the District’s most popular fundraisers on Monday, Nov. 9 – the Annual Trustee Gala, presented by the DC Jazz Festival [DCJF]. Proceeds from the Gala support the DCJF Roberta Flack Education Program that advances musical education and appreciation for jazz, reaching over 5,000 students, teachers and their families each year.
And while the native New Yorker has been singing since the tender age of four when she made her debut on the stage of the Apollo Theater, has hobnobbed with kings and queens, and is the goddaughter to two jazz legends, Quincy Jones and Dinah Washington, in a recent conversation on the campus of Howard University she showed why she remains one of America’s greatest living treasures – because she loves people, particularly youth who dream about becoming stars in their own right.
Austin led a master class on Friday, Nov. 6 and then sat down with DC Jazz Festival Artistic Director Willard Jenkins along with a group of Howard University music majors for a candid conversation about how she has mastered her craft and the lessons she’s learned along the way.
“I took a group of young, very talented musicians, mostly from Berklee College of Music, on the road with me one summer for a tour, including a bassist and vocalist who has since made it really big, Esperanza [Spalding], because I wanted them to learn one of the most important lessons in any artist’s life – the need for discipline,” Austin said.
“As a child, my parents didn’t give me a curfew. They let life teach me. When you’re on the road, you have to quickly learn how to avoid letting the exhilaration that you experience after a successful performance drag you down and get the best of you. There’s nothing like having 20,000 people scream your name or applaud after you’re done. But when the crowd is gone, there’s this deafening silence. Some people don’t know how to make good use of that silence.”
“There’s so much that goes on before the performance. It’s called show business because after the show you have to take care of business. You need an ego the size of the Grand Canyon and you need to love and believe in yourself. And you have to be willing to work very hard.”
On the topic of success, Austin said it shouldn’t be based on record sales or where one ranks on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.
“Success comes from that greater, inner place – being a star has nothing to do with whether or not you ever reach ‘star’ status,” she said. “You are a success if you’re manifesting your gift.”
She then spoke to the young vocalists by seguing into a brief music history lesson.
“You have to remember that in my generation, jazz was the popular music of the day,” she said. “It was to us what hip-hop is to you. As a vocalist you wanted to sound like an instrument and so we studied the masters, vocalists and musicians, like Betty Carter, Carmen McRae, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Dizzy Gillespie and Charles Mingus. The goal was to master a particular style – one that felt comfortable – one that you could eventually claim as your own.”
“When you take that onto the stage and share your gift with your audience, you’re connecting with people that you may never see again. What’s special about it, however, is that you get the opportunity to touch the hearts of hundreds and thousands of eager listeners – that is, when you’re willing to reveal your soul.”
“I don’t profess to be an expert at this. I can only say this is what one very wacky woman has learned on what has truly been a crazy, magical journey,” she said.