Interview by Scott Preston
Stephanie Browning made a name for herself as the Artist-in-residence at the world renowned Gold Star Sardine Bar, a listening room reminiscent of Paris in the ’30s. The venue was an international gem and captivated audiences assisted Stephanie in honing her improvisational skills and soulful voice. During her two-year tenure she performed for celebrities and European royalty, as well as many a love struck couple out to make a memorable night.
While The Gold Star is gone, fans and listeners are lucky to have a beautiful snapshot of one night in its romantic and magical life with Stephanie Browning’s CD “Live at the Gold Star.” Made in single takes, without manipulation, the recording is as bare and revealing as the mirrored stage from which Stephanie and the band transport the listener into the spot-lit club. Many have found themselves so caught up that they applaud right along with the recorded audience for Stephanie and the grooves and tasty solos of pianist Jeremy Kahn, bassist Larry Kohut and drummer Joel Spencer (you can purchase your own copy of the CD at cdbaby.com).
Since that time, Stephanie has been featured at the Chicago area’s most notable jazz clubs, including Andy’s, The Green Mill, Pete Millers, Pops for Champagne, as well as many others.
Cincy Groove: Are you based out of Chicago?
Stephanie Browning: I am, I have been in Chicago since 1991. I was born and raised in Colorado, its a lovely state but there’s not much to do there for a jazz singer. Although, because there is such a great standard of living there, a lot of high level, professional musicians live there. When I first started singing in Colorado, somebody came up to me after one of my gigs and said to me “You got a lot of talent kid, but you will never get any better unless you work with musicians who are better than you.” So I thought “Let me see who is around”. It turned out Carmen McRae’s rhythm section lived in Denver. Right around that time she was having some medical issues and canceled her summer tour. So the next gigs that I booked, I booked Carmen McRae’s rhythm section. That was one of the scariest things I have ever done. But that just shows you what kind of talent there is in Denver.
This was 17 years ago, but now I hear that have a lot more of a jazz scene there. But at the time there was no way I could do the number of gigs I needed to do to get better, so I moved to Chicago. Chicago gave me the chance to do a thousand gigs, make a thousand mistakes and learn from every one of them.
Cincy Groove: Are you working on any new projects?
Stephanie Browning: Well I have been at the Peninsula Hotel in Chicago every Saturday for the last 5 and a half years. I have had the chance to play with a lot of great musicians over that time, so I think it will afford me the opportunity to record something really special.
The cd I have now is a recording from the Gold Star Sardine Bar, which was a fabulous, internationally known little club. I was there with this great trio for a couple years before we recorded the cd. Its a rare and wonderful thing to be with a band for that period of time, you don’t have to rehearse you just know what to do. It becomes that ESP communication between you and the other musicians. I have been waiting for the right group of musicians and this Peninsula Trio with Ryan Cohen on piano, Jason Ellis on bass and Todd Howell on the drums is such a great band. We are working together so much that the magic is starting to happen where it feels like a band. Thats what I have waited for so long to make a cd. My last cd was recorded back in 1997, but it was one of those things that came together so effortlessly that I like to say that the universe produced that cd. Ever since then I have been waiting for the universe to kick in or find another producer. I just haven’t found the right combination of things to make it happen yet.
I have thought of doing a collection of standards and letting people make their own collection. Basically just going in with the band and recording a bunch of songs we like and not trying to compile them into any kind of album but to release a couple tracks a month. That way you can keep your listeners coming back and keep them engaged into what you are doing. But at the same time you need to have a cd to sell people, because they like to have something to take home with them from a show. Although I really enjoy making live recordings, which is the way I made my last cd, because thats what jazz is.
I’m really proud of the live cd that I did, because the band was so amazing. It was recorded with 2 microphones live in front of a live audience. Not every note is perfect, but I am proud that it is jazz, it is a record in time of a performance and not a conglomeration of overdubs.
Cincy Groove: Are you playing with the Peninsula Trio at the Indy Jazz Fest this weekend? (Sat June 14)
Stephanie Browning: Part of it, Jason Ellis the bass player is a graduate of Indiana University and a fantastic musician, and he is my hookup for the Indy Jazz Fest. He has put together a great quartet, with the great Indianapolis drummer Kenny Phelps who is bringing in Hamilton Hardin from Cincinnati, OH. So the quartet is myself, Jason, Kenny and Hamilton. So it will be its own exotic creature.
Cincy Groove: Have you played any other festivals?
Stephanie Browning: I have done the Yellowstone Jazz Festival in Wyoming twice. I have been the only person to play 2 years in a row so I guess they really liked me over there. I haven’t done very many other jazz festivals so I’m really ready to crack this nut of the jazz festival scene. I’m really excited for the Indy Jazz Fest, I have never been to Indianapolis.
Cincy Groove: What music did you listen to when you were growing up? Was there any particular performer who influenced you to become a jazz singer?
Stephanie Browning: Well when I was really small, about 5 years old, my parents got this free album with a set a Bridgestone tires. The album was Ella Fitzgerald and Nelson Riddle. It had all of these fabulous big band arrangements of “I Only Have Eyes For You” and “Need to Meet”. Something about that record captivated me when I was really small. You know how kids can be obsessed with things, I would carry that album around with me everywhere. I would even have it my my room at night when I slept. I was also in jazz choir in high school, but later as I became an adult I worked in the advertising business as a Stylist which involved a lot of hard work. One day I had a moment of clarity and decided I needed to do something else. I asked myself what do I want to be? I then decided I wanted to be a jazz singer.
At that time in my life there were two types of people. There were people who would say WHAT?!?!?!? and then there were others who would say “Yeah I could see you doing that.” Right about that time I became obsessed with Sarah Vaughn in a way that her music became the soundtrack of my life for a while. She also passed away right around the same time. Right then I decided I am going to take a shot at doing this, Sarah was really an inspiration for me. I also went through a period of listening to the Coltrane Ballads album, I would listen to it all day everyday. I would have it in the tape deck and let it loop around because I wanted to imprint it on my DNA. I didn’t want to think about it, I wanted to internalize the music. So I would say Sarah Vaughn, John Coltrane and Ella Fitzgerald were my three biggest influences.
Upcoming Stephanie Browning tour dates:
For complete show details visit www.stephaniebrowning.com
SATURDAYS* @ THE PENINSULA
108 E Superior St. (312)337-2888
Cost: No Cover
* EXCEPT: 5/17, 5/31 & 6/14. This is one of Chicago’s most elegant evenings. Stephanie leads her SUPERFINE TRIO: Ryan Cohan on Piano, Jason Ellis on Bass & Todd Howell on Drums. You can dance, dine, or endulge your sweet tooth with the all-you-can-eat Chocolate Buffet. (gentlemen: chicks dig it!) Come as you are or dress to the nines it’s a perfect Saturday night-spot. Call ahead to make reservations!
MONDAYS, WEDNESDAYS & FRIDAYS* @ STETSONS
151 E Wacker Dr,
* EXCEPT 5/30. Tasty tunes in an intimate atmosphere with SB and some of Chicago’s finest musicians. Drop by after work, before the movie, or come enjoy a delicious beverage for no reason at all. One of Chicago’s Best Kept Secrets.
Gigs By Date
Kroger INDY JAZZ FEST at Military Park
June 14th 2008, 4:00 pm
Check out the KROGER INDY JAZZ FEST WEBSITE for details: www.indyjazzfest.net