When Paula West steps onto a stage, it’s as if she’s sneaking up on the spotlight. Inside the SFJazz Center’s Miner Auditorium, West was the last of three vocalists performing one night this spring. Patiently weaving her way around pianist Tammy Hall and stepping past a seated Angela Davis, the petite singer finally settled at the microphone. West doesn’t do grand entrances, but you feel her presence.
The sold-out event was part of a four-night residency put together by bassist-composer Marcus Shelby. This evening was a tribute to Davis, the legendary writer and political activist, with a program centered on her book Blues Legacies and Black Feminism. In it, Davis argues that early blues songs of genre giants Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Billie Holiday represented an emerging “black feminist consciousness.” Onstage, Davis referred to a section of the book in which she examines explicit imagery in Rainey’s “Prove It on Me Blues” that “flaunts” a subversive reality of sexual independence. Vocalist Kim Nalley then sang Rainey’s lyrics, backed by an onstage quartet. Besides Shelby, all were black women.
West, however, took a different path. Her first songs that night weren’t associated with the icons Davis names in her book. Instead, West began with Irving Berlin’s tragic ballad “Suppertime,” which was originally sung by pioneering black singer and actress Ethel Waters in the 1933 Broadway revue As Thousands Cheer.
Before launching into it, West unfolded the song’s backstory for the audience. “Suppertime” portrays a woman reacting to the news of her husband’s lynching while setting the dinner table for a meal he’ll never come home to. As West began, Davis looked up from her notes and over at the slight singer, a tight, knowing smile creasing her famous face. As West’s interpretations often do, the song built steadily to a searing climax.
West has a burnished contralto that naturally sounds more melancholic than romantic. It has surprising power, and she employs it judiciously, spotlighting the emotions she finds in her material. “You’ve got to get the lyrics across—that is the most important thing,” West says. “You’ve got to tell the story.”
Though she has been in the upper echelons of jazz singers for more than 20 years, in a career that has included residencies at top coastal jazz and cabaret venues and many other prestige gigs, West has recorded only four albums, the most recent in 2012. And she has performed infrequently since then. Yet that night at SFJazz, she sounded as vital as ever.
West says she would like to work more, record more, be more of an artistic presence. She can’t articulate why it hasn’t happened.
COOL IS HOT
Shelby had asked West to join the Davis celebration because she projects something “totally different,” he says, than the other two vocalists on the bill. Nalley and Tiffany Austin, both smart and talented, had come to entertain as well as sing. West was simply about the song.
“She thinks about music in a deep kind of way,” SFJazz artistic director Randall Kline tells me. Kline has been hiring West since the early stages of her career, and his support spurred the growth of her faithful Bay Area audience. “She understands the songwriting tradition, she respects it, and she expresses it beautifully,” he says.
West has made studying the Great American Songbook her avocation, becoming known for her interpretations of both chestnuts and lesser-known gems. At SFJazz, she followed “Suppertime” with “Harlem on My Mind,” another Berlin song from As Thousands Cheer. She finished her set with the rowdy “Gimme a Pigfoot (and a Bottle of Beer).”
“In a day and age where the most popular new vocalists sing in the hot style, Paula is cool,” Nalley says. “There are still some racial stereotypes in the jazz community, and black singers are ‘expected’ to sing with a black ‘aesthetic.’ Paula bucks that expectation and remains true to herself.”
Each time West gets onstage, Shelby says, he witnesses something special. “Every time I’ve performed with her, I’ve walked away thinking, Man, she is articulate, her phrasing is magnificent, and there’s an arc when she sings the lyric so it’s not delivered in a way where it loses its power over time,” he reflects. “The timing of her delivery allows for that.”
Timing has been pivotal in the ascent and occasional pauses of her professional life. West, now 59, says that her career happened “over time”—it’s still happening over time.” She’s gracefully straddled the gauzy line between cabaret and jazz, topping out in each. Her regular residencies at the Oak Room in New York’s Algonquin Hotel (now closed) and the Empire Plush Room in San Francisco’s York Hotel (also now closed) could be counted on to sell out. Wynton Marsalis hired her to sing the lead in his Pulitzer Prize–winning opera Blood on the Fields. But that was seven years ago.
“People think I’ve ‘made it,’ but I don’t think I’ve made it,” West says. “If I’d made it, I’d be working more consistently.”
NORTH TO HOME
West started singing in small bars and cafés around San Francisco in the late 1980s because she could. “There would be little places—a lot of them don’t exist anymore—where you’d work for, like, four hours,” she says. “It’s not a listening situation, but that’s where you can learn the tunes, ’cause you have to do it to get better.”
She had moved to San Francisco in 1988 from San Diego. She was one of three children; her father was a career Marine who listened mostly to classical music. West played clarinet in school. “I think it helped me with my breath control,” she says. She quit in 11th grade. “I didn’t want to be a band nerd.”
She sang by herself while listening to the radio and after high school took classes at San Diego State. She was looking for a change from the conservative city she’d grown up in, though, so when a friend moved up to San Francisco, she tagged along. She also needed a creative outlet, so she took a Shower Singer workshop at the Learning Annex, thinking she’d hit an open mic now and then. But something was evolving, and West soon sought out serious singing lessons with Faith Winthrop, a highly respected vocal teacher who passed away this summer. Winthrop had a deep knowledge of the Great American Songbook and helped her student learn the canon.
West listened to albums at record shops when you could still do that and bought armloads of used LPs to study the vocalists and learn songs. “I thought my best teacher was definitely listening to old tunes. I wanted to learn extra songs and not just stuff everybody knows about,” she says. “Sometimes I just liked the way the LP cover looked, and I’d buy it and take it from there.”
“When I first met Paula, she was still singing at Café Claude,” Shelby tells me, referring to the intimate downtown French bistro that occasionally hosts live jazz. She supported herself waiting tables while developing a following for her singing. She met the veteran pianist Ken Muir, who took her up a level when she began sitting in at his Ritz-Carlton gigs. He would become her pianist and arranger for a significant part of her career.
“She had what it takes to develop organically,” Muir says. “Instead of trying to put too big a stamp on a song, she’d just rephrase it beautifully, do subtle embellishments that respected the material.” Muir played piano on West’s first three albums. What he remembers most is her innate intelligence and fierce sense of decency about how artists should be treated.
LITTLE BLACK DRESSES
At Miner Auditorium, West appeared in a simple, elegant black taffeta gown. Her wavy black hair just brushed her shoulders. At the sound check the previous day, the other singers had told her what they’d be wearing and that they’d even be making changes between songs. “I thought, Oh, I’d better do something then,” West says. She has a discerning interest in matters of style and has a significant following on social media, where she alternates droll fashion commentary and blistering political takes.
She ended up pulling the gown from the back of her closet. “I never buy things at the last minute. I have to get everything hemmed, because I’m short,” she says. “That’s the nice thing about being thinner—you have more choices. I never have to worry about ‘Oh, does it come in my size?’ ”
Five years ago, West lost more than half of her body mass. She had been feeling off but wasn’t sure why. “In 2013, I was working a lot, going back and forth to New York. I thought, Maybe I’m just tired,” she says.
Rice and bread started tasting sweet to her. She stopped eating them. Braised meat didn’t taste right. She avoided that, too. “The only thing that tasted appealing was raw vegetables, which is not me if you know me,” West says. She stopped drinking, because alcohol made her feel tired. “I was losing a size a month. I started altering some clothes, and by the time I got them back, they were too big.”
Rumors of cancer, some other illness, or even a weight-loss procedure started to circulate. A woman cornered her at a party, convinced that West had had gastric bypass surgery. “She’s asking me, where did I get it, and I said, I didn’t have it, and she says, ‘That’s not what I heard.’
“Well, I don’t know what you heard, lady, because I couldn’t have afforded it if I wanted to get it, anyway.” She was eventually diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. She will be insulin dependent for the rest of her life.
“If I hadn’t seen somebody in several months, they didn’t know it was me,” West says. “They would ask, ‘Are you OK?’ ”
LOVE OF GEORGE
We meet for lunch a week after the SFJazz show at a Mexican restaurant near downtown San Francisco. West is at the long, empty bar nursing an iced tea and nibbling chips. The midday lunch rush is over, and only a few tables are occupied, but a large party behind us in the dining room has ordered tequila shots to finish off a celebration. The bartender expertly pours the amber liquor into two rows of short, thick glasses.
The staff is on a first-name basis with West. She orders a three-enchilada combination plate not on the menu. A soccer game plays on the television, and in a mirror we see the party table raise their shot glasses.
Soon we’re sipping hearty margaritas and waiting for our food. She’s genial and friendly without giving too much away. When the plates arrive, she makes sure the bartender brings me a special green salsa. She says it’s too spicy for her, and the bartender agrees. Politics are on her mind. They often are. West “hates” the president and has nothing but bile for anyone in his family or the administration. She occasionally circles back to condemning him—her antagonism rising each time.
She tells me about taking Satchmo, her beloved 11-year-old French bulldog, to an animal rights event the night before. A therapy pig attended, and Satchmo was not nearly as amused by it as the humans were. Satchmo often travels with her, including to New York.
She winds her way into the story of hearing about her pianist and friend George Mesterhazy’s sudden death, at 58, in 2012. She was strolling with Satchmo to San Francisco’s Huntington Park, across from Grace Cathedral and near her bright Nob Hill apartment, when she received a call from Mesterhazy’s girlfriend. “She said, ‘George is gone.’ I cried the rest of the way to the park and then just sat on a bench and cried some more.” While Satchmo wandered off, a strange dog came over and started licking the tears streaming down her face, until its teenage owner ran over to restrain it. “He saw my face was all wet and apologized. I said, ‘No, it’s OK, it’s OK. It’s me.’ ”
West started working with Mesterhazy in 2006 after Bruce Barth, her pianist at the time, received a call to go on tour with Tony Bennett. A job with Bennett is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and it speaks to the level of musicianship West keeps around her. Her bands are made up of musicians not necessarily considered accompanists. Pianist Eric Reed and guitarist Ed Cherry are two highly regarded players who often work with her. She’s generous with musicians, allowing plenty of space for them to play, and they respect the gesture.
Mesterhazy had impressive credentials. He had accompanied the mesmerizing, idiosyncratic singer Shirley Horn after she stopped playing piano but was still performing. Horn was a master of down-tempo romantic lyricism who took a controlled approach to unveiling meaning and depth in a song. West has similar restraint but stronger pipes.
“It was really a transforming partnership working with him,” West says of Mesterhazy. And it went beyond music. They became pals—the kind who call each other late at night to talk about dogs or politics. Mesterhazy often phoned her as he headed home to New Jersey from a gig. It might be 3 a.m. his time.
With Mesterhazy arranging the music, West followed her instincts away from the traditional songbook and toward a broader repertoire in which the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” fits next to the Billie Holiday–associated “Miss Brown to You.” “I could never go back to doing a whole set of just Cole Porter and Irving Berlin anymore,” she says. West wasn’t inventing this idea—Nina Simone did Bob Dylan in the 1960s, and Ella Fitzgerald sang Stevie Wonder in the ’70s. Yet West singing “Like a Rolling Stone” was less about being modern than about expressing who she was.
Her first album, Temptation, was released in 1997. Restless followed in 1999. Both are filled with standards, yet West gives the songs freshness. About 2001’s Come What May, All Music critic Ken Dryden wrote, “With a soulful voice, a great range, and the ability to get the most out of each set of lyrics, this confident singer seems capable of taking on any song in which she takes an interest.”
After an 11-year gap, West released her 2012 album, Live at the Jazz Standard with the George Mesterhazy Quartet. It received rave reviews. She hasn’t recorded since.
SOMETHING’S GOT TO GIVE
Twenty years ago sounds longer than it feels, but back then, West had the Plush Room and Oak Room residencies, and another one at the Rrazz Room (now Feinstein’s) in San Francisco’s Hotel Nikko. In 2007, the New York Times’ Stephen Holden wrote, “A decade ago, Ms. West’s dark clotted sound was her main calling card. Today the power of that sound is matched with a probing musical intelligence informed by a cheeky feminist attitude.”
And in 2012, at New York’s Lincoln Center, West sang the female lead, Leona, in the oratorio of Wynton Marsalis’s Blood on the Fields, with Marsalis conducting the redux performances of the opera he’d premiered in 1994.
However, West treads cautiously when reflecting on the past, as if land mines are buried there. “I have had some high points, some things I’ve accomplished,” she allows. “The Angela Davis thing at SFJazz—that was nice.”
West finds it difficult to pinpoint exactly why she hasn’t sung more, recorded more, toured more. “It was kind of a setback for me, George’s passing, and the diagnosis of diabetes was jolting—it’s OK now,” she says.
In October, however, West is booked into Mezzrow, a Greenwich Village jazz club operated by the legendary Small’s. In November, she’ll play the high-style Dizzy’s at Jazz at Lincoln Center. And in February 2020, she’s booked at Feinstein’s in the Nikko, her old stomping grounds.
West has always been independent, used to doing things herself for herself. But she reveals that she has a manager now—her first in 20 years. They’ve been working together for a few months. More East Coast dates have been confirmed for the fall. Not having someone dedicated to booking shows may be the simplest explanation for why she wasn’t performing as much as she wanted.
“It’s been up and down, but I think there’s more positive than negative—there’s constant growth,” West says. “I just try to look at the glass as half full rather than half empty.”
At the Fillmore Jazz Festival this summer, West perches on a stool with a gray shawl around her shoulders, shivering in the cool San Francisco breeze. A stack of song arrangements rests at her feet. She opens with the sly blues “You’ve Come a Long Way from St. Louis” (pronounced Saint Louie), a song she learned by listening to Pearl Bailey perform it. The set continues with Antônio Carlos Jobim’s “Waters of March” and Cole Porter’s “Don’t Fence Me In,” two of her favorites. She is warming up as the audience packs in tight around the stage and extends down the street.
West reaches a different gear for the ballad “Stars Fell on Alabama,” her voice now full and lissome. She follows with Dylan. Her “Like a Rolling Stone” cuts differently than the original. Less angry, more probing. Not accusing but sympathetic—asking the song’s leading question in a staccato burst: “How. Does. It. Feel?” The crowd whoops as West drives the lyric home. Heads are bobbing, fists are pumping, eyes are wet. “To be on your own?” Everyone has their own answer.
West hits the next note and holds it forever. The music churns beneath the impossible strength of her voice, which has become a lifeline. Where does this sound even come from? Exaltation washes over the crowd as it ends. West searches through the wind-scattered sheet music looking for the next song.
Marcus Crowder is a Sacramento-based music and theater critic. He will interview Paula West at an Alta event at Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley, California, on November 13.