If performing music suddenly became illegal, at least three local entertainers say they would continue sharing their crafts as outlaws in an underground scene. Fortunately, there’s nothing pointing to the demise of public song in the Valley of the Vapors — quite the opposite, as both the Hot Springs Jazz Society and Spa City Blues Society will put forth their annual festivals at month’s end.
Mezzo-soprano Diane Kesling, jazz vocalist Shirley Chauvin, and blues bassist Kathy Kidd recently met upstairs in the historic Ohio Club to talk about their musical origins and inspirations.
This will be Kidd’s first year to take part in the Blues Festival. She said, “It is such a big thing for me. I’m so excited to be able to play on that stage.”
Referring to herself as a “late bloomer,” Kidd’s career in music began when her husband’s band broke up, and he drew upon the talent she possessed for a duo act. That first performance happened after only six weeks of rehearsals, so she was thrown into the deep end pretty quickly. From there, she went on to play professionally several nights a week in
venues around Fayetteville, New Orleans and Texas.
For Chauvin, musicianship ran in her family. She took to entertaining an audience as early as first grade, and said she’s “never gotten over loving the applause.” During middle school, she began studying piano and eventually added vocal coaching lessons.
Her stellar ability to improvise vocally came when Chauvin became the first vocalist and female member of the acclaimed One O’Clock Lab Band at the University of North Texas. After that, she was able to take those skills on the road, traveling across the country with professional big bands during the 1950s and ’60s, which she said really polished her as a performer.
In Kesling’s case, musical study started with the violin, but she transferred to vocal studies in college. Her instructor there suggested she take typing lessons, saying she wouldn’t be able to sing professionally, but Kesling worked hard, and went on to become a longtime member of New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House.
Although these ladies make music look easy, each pointed out the dedication and discipline required to make it in the business. Chauvin keeps boom boxes in her kitchen, bathroom and by her treadmill, along with both CD and tape players in her car, so she’s always working with her voice.
Kesling added, “Once you get to the top, then you have to keep putting in the time — you cannot stop.”
All three agreed that while the aging process may present challenges, the experiences gained over time allow for richer onstage expression that helps them reach audiences emotionally.
Kidd said, “In the blues, it’s a simple form, so the emotional aspect really is the essence of the art form. … If you don’t have that, I really don’t think you have anything in music.”
Chauvin has found musical liberation as she’s grown older, worrying far less about what others think. She said that has given her increased vulnerability, which affords her the mental space to give listeners everything she’s got.
Training for Kesling may have taken place on the lyrical stage, but she’s come to adore jazz performance, saying, “I love singing in this discipline because it’s so much more free. You can put your own emotion and style into it.” Her first experience with JazzFest was when musician Clyde Pound originated the Classical and Jazz Blow Out, where Chauvin will emcee this year and Kesling will perform an aria.
Blues is part of Kidd’s lifeblood. She said, “I was born pretty close to Memphis, over in the Delta, so I think it may just have come up through my feet. … It’s always been in my heart.”
Jazz was the only thing Chauvin ever heard in her parents’ home, and she said, “I didn’t know there was any other kind of music.” That love has gone on to benefit the area, as she was a founding member of the local Jazz Society and has been integral to its festival since the beginnings, in 1992.
Along with the music, she appreciates that festivals can be an educational opportunity for students, which is a big part of the HSJS goals, as the organization gives student scholarships annually.
Kesling sees festivals as special because, “You have a zillion people together that all love the same thing,” adding, “I just love the freedom and comfort you get from music. It fills all aspects of our psyche.”
This year, the Hot Springs Blues Festival’s official dates are Sept. 2-3 at Hill Wheatley Plaza, but additional performances at the Big Chill beginning Aug. 30 will lead up to the downtown event.
The Hot Springs Jazz Society’s 26th JazzFest will run Aug. 31-Sept. 4 at various venues.