Jacqui Sutton

Jacqui Sutton

 Houston, Texas, USA

Imagine Billie Holiday, Dolly Parton, and Aaron Copland jamming on the back porch. That's the sound of Frontier Jazz: an organic, artful blend of jazz, bluegrass and orchestral. Debut CD rode CMJ jazz charts for 6 weeks, peaking in Top 10 at #7.


Turning 50 and starting a garage band is not the usual vocalist’s narrative. But that’s what happened with me. It’s not just any band, but an orchestra: what I call the Frontier Jazz Orchestra—a stylistic mash-up of jazz, bluegrass and orchestral/chamber music that come together in my debut CD "Billie & Dolly"—an homage to my two vocal heroes, Billie Holiday and Dolly Parton.

As a singer, getting there wasn’t a straightforward trip. I was born in Orlando, Florida, the second of six children. In the 1960s, my mother (newly single, and pregnant with her sixth child), was determined to make a better life for all of us. She moved us to Rochester, New York. Think: Martin Luther King, Jr., the Beatles, integration, school busing, and the Jackson 5. It was about crossing lines. That sense of boundary trespass filtered into my world as I found myself drawn to experiences that were the opposite of my own. I could never get enough of Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, nor the Beatles’ Yesterday. We had one of those old-fashioned, what I call “kitchen table radios”, with the round wooden body, fabric over the speakers, and a crackly dial. I’d lean against that radio and be consumed by the sadness of Yesterday. Later in life, even certain songs that I heard on Muzak radio stations could make me stop in my tracks. It just had to sound beautiful to my ears. (Musical theater would take longer for me to appreciate, but I got there eventually.) As a musician, I had a brief stint in grade school as a flutist—recitals and everything—which ended abruptly at around age 11 when I lost the instrument and was terrified to report it. Around 1982 (my early 20s), I realized that there were no flute police in the Rochester City School District, and I could well have gone on to have some kind of instrumental career. I made this revelation during my time in the San Francisco Bay Area. Bobby McFerrin and Tuck & Patty were on the rise. As soon as I got there, I cast aside what I thought was my dream to be an environmental designer and at the insistence of one of my roommates, I auditioned for Jazzmouth, a vocal jazz ensemble led by Molly Holm. I had been a competitive gymnast for 11 years, but nothing seemed more dangerous, physically precarious or, paradoxically, beautiful than singing. My roommate helped me prepare one song: Summertime. After several false starts in the audition room (I couldn’t find my starting note, and finally pleaded to sing it a capella so I could get the heck out of there. Embarrassed, I bolted as soon as I was done. Molly called me up and asked me to join, with one admonition: “You’ve got to study.” I did. A lot. Well, Jazzmouth came and went. I moved to Portland, Oregon and got lured into the world of stage acting—from Shakespeare to dance theatre. Acting felt safer than singing because I was part of an ensemble—and besides there was “work to do.” I could distract myself—plus, there was all that cathartic emoting! When I performed in shows with music, I was regularly miscast as an alto because I have a low speaking voice, and I didn’t have the technical savvy to navigate my range. I was stuck performing in musicals that forced me to sing consistently out of my range—I developed a strong low end, a shaky transition, and rarely understood my high end. The whole thing just felt unreliable and scary, but I knew I enjoyed singing. Things changed after I moved to New York. I began studying with Jane Burbank, who finally diagnosed me as a lyric soprano. That was a partnership that lasted my entire stay in New York—15 years. When my husband and I moved to Houston, Texas in 2008, the foundation that Jane gave me helped me fully appreciate the last steps that were needed to help my voice become reliable. And I took those steps with Cynthia Clayton, an amazing, no-nonsense instructor who helped me love singing for the first time in my life. Not the idea of singing, but the act. Now you can’t shut me up! She gave me the freedom to create a vocal style and sound that produced what I think of as “vocal honesty”—something I hope that is authoritative, and my own.

In many ways, I feel grateful that I’ve discovered my voice now rather than when I was in my 20s. All those years languishing in oblivion forced me to respond to music in a more mature way. "Billie & Dolly" is the beginning of the journey for me. I’m curious to see where this all will lead. Stay tuned …


Notes From the Frontier (c) 2012
Billie & Dolly (c) 2010; Now playing on Pandora

Set List

Lady of the Harbor
Hummingbird/Blue Rondo a la Turk
Jenny Rebecca
One and Only
Nature Boy
Dear Friend
Where the Music Comes From
Weary Angel
Blue Mountain
Better Than Anything
God Bless the Child
Lazy Afternoon
Keeper of Your Love/Sweep Me Off My Feet
Those Memories of You
My Man's Gone Now
The Moon Is Made of Gold
Mississippi Song
Sleepin' Bee
Endless Stream of Tears