Susannah McCorkle grew up listening to top 40 radio and had to go to Europe to discover jazz.
Good thing she went to Europe.
“I didn’t grow up hearing any jazz at all,” said McCorkle, who may be jazz’s best underappreciated singer. “My mother had stacks of Broadway show albums, and I loved songs and lyrics.”
She sang in some high school stage shows but put music aside as a “girlish hobby” in favor of a writing career.
She won the Mademoiselle College Fiction Prize, which prompted her parents to offer to support her for a year while she wrote. She went to Europe, fell in love with Billie Holiday and never looked back.
“When I first started singing, I only wanted to do Billie Holiday songs of the ‘30s with swing bands and dressed in period clothes.”
Friends in London encouraged her to develop her own style.
“They told me, ‘It’s OK for us because we’re Europeans - it’s OK for us to imitate American records,” she said. “But you are an American; you need to do something unique.”
Guitarist Barney Kessel gave her the same advice when he was in London, but by then she had already figured out she couldn’t be another Billie Holiday: “I have a pleasant voice - some people say it’s distinctive - but it’s not a voice like Billie Holiday’s.”
There are better voices in jazz, it’s true, but few singers get to the heart of a song like McCorkle.
“I’m not a virtuoso singer who comes out and does vocal pyrotechnics,” she said. “I’m a storyteller and a communicator.”
That only hints at McCorkle’s ability to make a song come alive. She does what a song needs, no more no less, to make it work. Whether it’s Cole Porter or Rupert Holmes, Paul Simon or Antonio Carlos Jobim, McCorkle seems to know instinctively which syllable to emphasize, when to punch the lyric with a little growl, where to put the blue note.
Some singers pull effects out of a stock bag of tricks. McCorkle uses them the way a painter uses brushes.
Sunday at Sandpoint, McCorkle will sing music from her last several CDs, including standards, show tunes, Brazilian jazz and, perhaps, some pop material that has received the McCorkle treatment. She’ll perform tributes to Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Chet Baker.
McCorkle still writes - a story of hers was published in the O. Henry Book of Prize Short Stories and she writes profiles of her musical heroines for American Heritage magazine - but she is first and foremost a jazz singer.
And, for that, we can be grateful.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: SUSANNAH McCORKLE Location and time: Memorial Field in Sandpoint, Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Admission: Free