Mar 17, 2013 - Kansas City Jazz Diva Millie Edwards Makes Tulsa Debut
For the past quarter-century or so, vocalist Millie Edwards has been a fixture on the Kansas City jazz and blues scene. She’s been a featured performer on Jazz Cruises. She’s a member of the famed Wild Women of Kansas City vocal ensemble. She’s played festivals. And in her earlier life with a touring band, she sang in clubs and hotels throughout the middle part of the country for several years.
Sunday’s show, however, will mark her first-ever appearance in Tulsa.
“I have some very good friends there, and I know that you have an incredible jazz scene,” Millie Edwards says. “Your scene is alive and active and I’m excited and happy to finally be doing it.”
“Millie Edwards’ voice is as rich and far ranging as the jazz legacy of her native Kansas City," says Jason McIntosh, CEO of the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame. "We are thankful to Joe and JoAnne Wilkinson, two of our most steadfast patrons, who made it their mission to introduce Oklahoma jazz fans to Millie Edwards.”
“I know I’m working with some of the best musicians there are in Oklahoma,” Edwards adds. “When I mention Scott McQuade’s name to musicians here, they say, ‘Oh, my gosh. You’re going to have a great time.’ They say wonderful things about him.”
Tulsa-based pianist McQuade will lead the lineup of Tulsa players that’ll be backing Edwards on Sunday’s show. Together, says Edwards, they’ll offer patrons “an entertaining, very comfortable, evening.”
“I try to mix up my performances so they’re diverse and inclusive. So they’ll hear a variety of standards, maybe some show tunes, maybe some blues, and if someone requests a gospel tune, and the band knows it, I’ll do it, because it’s all about the audience enjoying the experience.”
Edwards learned about pleasing audiences during her college years. Growing up in a home where she heard jazz and blues as well as classical music, she studied classical piano at Ottawa College in Kansas.
“I was going to be a piano teacher and performer,” she recalls. “But once I was in college, I needed extra money. My parents said, ‘We’ve given you a budget. You need extra money, you figure it out.’
“Well, coffeehouses were big then, so I went out and purchased every songbook I could find. I bought Carole King, James Taylor, Richie Havens, and I started singing and accompanying myself on piano, performing in that coffeehouse-folk vein.”
Then, she says, “I heard Elton John. He was classically trained, but he combined rock and the classics and developed a unique sound, which caught my ear. I was amazed at what the man could do. And that’s what told me, `I can do this.’ So I graduated with a degree in education, and as soon as I’d graduated, I went on the road and started singing – which didn’t make my folks happy,” she adds with a laugh.
She describes the groups she toured with, Moment’s Notice and Chaos, as “lounge-lizard bands – Top 40 tunes, tuxedos, gowns, 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., five or six nights a week, which is kind of unheard-of now. These days, it’s one-nighters, for the most part, and it’s usually not even a band, but a single or duo.”
But even as she traveled the lounge circuit, through Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri, she was listening to music by performers like Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Eckstine, Sarah Vaughn, and Frank Sinatra and practicing her jazz vocals. Then, in the late 1980s, she began playing the jazz and blues clubs in her hometown, quickly developing a following.
“My first big gig was warming up for [tenor saxophonist] Houston Person,” she remembers. “We had a place here in Kansas City called Bobby’s, and he and [his longtime musical partner] Etta James were going to be performing there. I was in awe of them, but I was in heaven.
“After that, I started doing jazz cruises for the late Charles Earland, and I began working with [organist and Kansas City music icon] Everette DeVan. I have a group here called the Wild Women of Kansas City. Myra Taylor, who was a member of that group, passed away last year, but we’ve continued on.
“So I’ve had some incredible opportunities,” she concludes. “But I always remember what my parents always said: It’s not about you. It’s about the music, and doing honor to the music.”
The Millie Edwards concert is set to begin at 5:00 p.m. Sunday, March 24, at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, located in downtown Tulsa’s Jazz Depot, 111 E. First Street. Tickets can be purchased at the depot or by calling Bettie Downing at 918-281-8609 General admission is $15, reserved table seating $20. Seniors and Jazz Hall members are admitted for $10, and high school and junior high students for $5. Edwards’ performance is a part of the Jazz Hall’s Spring Concert Series.
The Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame is a 501(c)(3) non-profit cultural and educational organization, with a mission to inspire creativity and improve the quality of life for all Oklahomans through preservation, education, and performance of jazz, our uniquely American art form.