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Kim Nalley: the acclaimed jazz vocalist's at Feinstein's

by Jim Gladstone

Kim Nalley
Kim Nalley  

The free flow of lateral thinking, a sense of artistic freedom, the time to refine one's craft: these are among the elements that make for a fertile scene, says Kim Nalley, the acclaimed Bay Area jazz vocalist, who begins a rare a ten day residency at Feinstein's at the Nikko tonight.

And not just a jazz scene, emphasizes Nalley, who owned the late lamented Jazz at Pearl's in North Beach from 2003 to 2008.

"Some of the same ingredients that are essential for a healthy jazz community are also critical for a comedy scene," says Nalley, who brings a particularly sophisticated perspective to her take on the trajectory of local nightlife.

In addition to her lauded musical career -she's played the Tokyo, Monterey and Lincoln Center Jazz Festivals- Nalley is also currently in the history Ph.D. program at UC Berkeley.
"I'm ABD; all but dissertation," she says with a laugh. "You know how that goes."

A gentlewoman and a scholar, Nalley interprets changes in the San Francisco entertainment scene with the same degree of nuance and sophistication as she brings to her takes on the Gershwins and Etta Jones.

"Stand-up and jazz were both such a big part of San Francisco nightlife before the 2000s," says Nalley. "But the influence of tech has really turned out to be a problem."

But, unlike many longtime locals who simplistically bemoan Silicon Valley for its economic impact on the local scene, Nalley brings different arguments to the table.

"Sure, it's difficult to run a club and keep cover charges down with rents the way they are," she says. "But the new wealth in the Bay Area has also let us have an amazing institution like SF Jazz Center."

More pernicious than tech's effects on the cost of doing business, says Nalley, is its often overlooked impact on the artistic development process.

"This is where jazz and comedy are both really effected," she laments. "They're both very dependent on artists having a chance to work on new material over time, to improvise and to make mistakes in order to get better.

"When people bring their smartphones to shows, make videos and post them online immediately, it has a really chilling effect. Whether you're a young person starting out or you just want to explore something new, having your experiments -your personal exercise- put up on YouTube or Facebook can be really discouraging. Performers need space to grow and explore."

And, says Nalley, even once their acts are well-polished, performers deserve an audience that's fully present.

"If you come to my shows at Feinstein's," she says, "I want you to put your iPhones away and get into the music. Stand up, shout, dance! This is about having a good time, not making a video or going to a museum."

The annual August Feinstein's residency (prior years have featured Paula West) is a prize gig for local luminaries, a chance for them to show their full range of repertoire over a long stretch of nights, unlike the club's typical one- to three-night engagements.

"I'm going to do a different show every night," says Nalley, who will be joined throughout her run by 83-year-old saxophone legend Houston Person and (next Thursday only) by Denise Perrier for an all-blues night featuring tributes to Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Nina Simone among others.

Again, no videotaping please. And Nalley would also be perfectly happy if you'd refrain from asking when her dissertation will be finished.

Kim Nalley performs with Houston Person at Feinstein's at the Nikko, 222 Mason St. August 2-12, Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 5pm. $30-$60 ($20 food/drink min.) www.feinsteinsatthenikko.com

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