“If Satchmo played the trumpet, I wouldn’t have to do anything,” a recently svelte Paula West said. “I’d just sit back and let him make a load of money.” She was referring to her five-year-old French Bull dog sitting at her feet. The dog is named after the late legendary jazz musician Louis Armstrong. Satch, who accompanies the vocalist everywhere, relaxes in the green room during her performances. “Satch is a big attention whore; he’s changed my life.” She continued, “I don’t trust people who don’t like dogs. It’s as offensive as saying, ‘I don’t like Mexicans or I don’t like Blacks.’” She feels those folks are missing something in life. She clarifies, “he’s not my kid; but he’s my baby. The plus side is the ramifications of ‘F’ ing up a kid are worse.”
The private West is shy and demure in contrast to the public West, who is a powerhouse on stage with her freewheeling swing style, canny phrasing and captivating vocals. She’s one of those performers who walks a fine line between jazz and cabaret and is adept at both. Her month long engagement at Feinstein’s at the Nikko, her new San Francisco home, falls into the jazz genre. “There’s usually not as much instrumentality in cabaret. The swing factor seems to be missing,” West explains. “We have more instrumental solos and more jazz arrangements.” Her arrangements and expressive articulation of lyrics inject a new feel and energy into even the familiar love songs. She takes delight in surprising her audience from song to song, from mood to mood, from romance to swing. “Luckily, I can do both jazz and cabaret so I will customize the set list for the venue.” For example, when she plays Europe where the audience may not be able to understand the subtleties, she’s less lyric oriented.
“I’m not one to get personal except in my music,” she quipped when asked questions bordering on the personal, but she’s talking about her dramatic weight loss to squash rumors of cancer or gastrointestinal bypass surgery. “I want people to appreciate what I do when I perform. Of course some of my life experience goes into it.” West’s fan base is diverse in terms of color, sexuality and age which speaks to her broad appeal. She has a knack of selecting songs that convey meaning for her and her audiences as well.
She cuts a slender figure minus a striking 80 pounds dropped over the past year. “I knew something wasn’t right,” she told me when we talked in Michael Feinstein’s new venue at the Nikko in SF one afternoon before her sell out show. Although she received an initial diagnosis of diabetes, her doctors are now considering the possibility of an auto-immune disorder. The good news aside from the fact that she can squeeze into size 0 pants, is her clear, rich and versatile voice was not affected. “It used to be that my skinny clothes were 12’s and 14’s. Now shopping is more fun.” She looked remarkable in long stylish jersey dress. And that’s not all, “I was always body conscious on the cable cars.” But now, “I say, ‘Oh, there is room here’ when someone offers me a seat.”
Back to her music. She admits that it changed afer the 2012 sudden death of her musical director and close friend, George Mesterhazy, who for many years had been accompanist to the late Shirley Horne. She found herself at loose ends without George and the almost simultaneous closing of her New York City venue, the Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel. That was a difficult time, but West finds answers in her music. “Sometimes performing is therapy,” she confided. “I do a certain song because I have an opinion about something. I can reveal myself through my material. That’s as personal as I can get. I can relate to every song I do.” One example is “Go Back Where You Stayed,” an Ethel Waters song about female empowerment. And she always includes songs outside the traditional songbook, for example those of Bob Dylan, who she now considers a classic.
“I’m a Black woman living in San Francisco; people know where I stand.” She feels gay rights are civil rights. “No one should be deprived of their civil rights.” But to be certain, she reinforces that she’s singing a Hank Williams, Sr, song –“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”– rather than one of right wing Hank, Jr.
Although lamenting the loss of Mesterhazy, she shows warm appreciation for her current musicians as well — musical director and pianist Adam Shulman, bassist John Witala, drummer Greg Weiser-Pratt and Dizzy Gillespie’s former guitarist Ed Cherry. They bring their gifts to the stage so her show is never the same twice. “I hear the nuances;” she said, “that’s the growth, which is the biggest thing for me right now.” When Adam has chord changes, the other musicians pick up on it.
She’s an ardent supporter of the arts and serves on the Board of the year old SFJazz, the first stand alone venue in the country dedicated exclusively to jazz. West is in favor of government funding for the arts. “Many kids have never heard an acoustic instrument. It’s too bad we don’t do it like Europe does. The arts are essential and shouldn’t be an afterthought,” said West, who learned to play a clarinet to satisfy a music requirement in school. “Music makes us more human. It goes to that place in the heart able to reach out to people and communicate.”
Now in her mid-fifties, West dreams of a future filled with music, joy, and supportive and loving people. ‘If you’re growing, you are always evolving, and you have no idea what will be next.” But she’s ready.
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