Jazz Vocalist Extraordinaire Mary Stallings:
Singing from the Heart
Mary Stallings is headlining the
Isthmus Jazz Festival in the
Wisconsin Union Theater June 2.
At night when she was supposed to be asleep because she had school the next day, Stallings would sneak her transistor radio
underneath the covers and listen to a San Francisco jazz station during the night. And then there was the influence of Dan Francisco’s
famed Fillmore district.
“The San Francisco jazz scene was heavenly” Stallings recalled. “During the years before I was able to — I was too young to really get
out there during my adolescent years — I was just excited to grow up because everybody was here. The big bands were coming here
and all of the singers: Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, Dinah Washington and all of the people in my mind who were just the greatest that
ever were. Count Basie’s band and Lionel Hampton came. Woody Herman came. Everybody came through San Francisco. We had a
district called the Fillmore area, which is a historical area where all the music was, all of the musicians used to hang there. The church
that my family and I were affiliated with was near the Fillmore area. We used to have to cross the Fillmore area in order to get to church.
And I just couldn’t wait to go to church. All of the clubs and all of the happenings were there. I just couldn’t wait to grow up. It was
phenomenal, just to walk those two little blocks. It was a joy for me. There was the smell of whiskey coming out of those places. I knew
it was a sin for church, but I said, ‘Boy, it sure smells good to me.’ And I didn’t even drink. What was going on was really cool.”
By the age of 15, Stallings was performing jazz in local clubs. She started going around and playing at hospitals in military installations.
And her career just took off singing with many of the big names on the Sane Francisco seen including the Montgomery brothers and
toured for several years with Dizzy Gillespie.
“Touring with Dizzy Gillespie was wonderful,” Stallings said. “I learned a lot from each person that I travelled with. It was musically,
obviously, very fulfilling. Working with him was wonderful because he’s a great teacher without having to tell you anything. He always
loved to pick your mind to see what you liked and what your feelings were about the music. But he would never give any advice or
anything. He saw the talent. By the mere fact that he would hire me, he saw that I was talented and very serious about my music.”
As her career has ebbed and flowed through the years, she has remained in love with the art form of jazz. And while she might look
supremely relaxed on stage as she sings, she is very serious about the music.
Stallings admits that jazz is the number one love of her life. And like a passionate lover, she doesn’t like it if people don’t treat it right or
infuse it with the love that she has for it.
“You have some out there who play the music and sing the music,” Stallings said. “But if it doesn’t come to your heart from a real
standpoint of love and liking the music like I do, I think it is just a waste of time. I think it is such a great means of expression, a great
means to open up and to share. It’s always been a music of the heart to express yourself. I feel that if you don’t come with the right
intentions, don’t do it. I love it that much. Who am I to say? Jazz gives you such a great outlet. I love the music and I live and breathe it.”
Lately, Stallings’ career has been on an upswing as people discover her once again. And it feels good to work.
“I think things are pretty good,” Stallings said. “Life is greatest when you’re working and turning down jobs, working at least 10 months
out of the year. So it is going pretty good right now. When I get to that point, I will say it is great.” Stallings let out a chuckle.
One reason Stallings has been on a roll is because of her collaboration with Eric Reed and High Note Records. Stallings has released
two CDs in the past three years, pretty good considering she released a dozen or so records during the first 40 years of her career.
“He’s so full of ideas and so gifted,” Stallings said of Reed. “He inspires me so tremendously. He helps me open up even more than I
ever thought I could because he inspires me to go in different directions. And I feel the freedom in my music. I feel very confident in
everything that I am doing. I feel that I am growing and not stagnated. Every day is like a new day when I wake up. I’m inspired to look at
some more music, some new music because there are always projects going on in my mind and his mind as my producer.”
When Stallings comes to the Wisconsin Union Theater, she will bring pianist David Udolf and a local bassist and drummer will round out
the band. After a couple of rehearsals, they should be ready to perform. What is important to Stallings is the sincerity and the love for
“In rehearsal, we’ll hook up and find ourselves in the same place at the same time, I hope, with the music,” Stallings said, her smile
almost visible over the phone. “If you love the music, you can play together. I’ll say this. Everyone can’t play together. You can play. You
can find yourself in the song. But there are certain people who bring you out much more than others. If you are a serious musician and
love your craft, you can play together. And sometimes, people who you think are really not as gifted in their craft, but if they have the
feeling, you still got you something. It can still be very, very fine, wonderful music.”
And with the passion that Stallings brings to her craft, a musical evening with her at the Wisconsin Union Theater will be heavenly
By Jonathan Gramling
When listening to Mary Stallings sing jazz, I can close my eyes and feel the intimacy of her music
as if she is singing in a jazz club somewhere and I have a front row seat. Her voice is a bridge
from heaven to earth. Her tone is oh, so earthy, while her range will take you to the heavens.
Stallings, who will be performing at the Wisconsin Union Theater on June 2nd in a free concert as
a part of the Isthmus Jazz Festival, had a little bit of heaven and earth in her musical upbringing in
the San Francisco area. Her musical foundation is the Black church.
“The AME Church was the greatest influence on my music because it was my beginning,”
Stallings said in a phone interview with The Capital City Hues. “That was the first music that I
knew. From that music sprung everything else. Religious music and jazz are very much part of the
same thing when it comes to the blues or religious. It was my beginnings and it was very natural
that I kind of evolved into what I am doing today.”
While she started performing religious music when she was seven years old and sang in the
church, she started to sneak in a little jazz when her mother wasn’t around.
“I was influenced by and exposed to jazz at an early age, around the same time as my religious
music,” Stallings said. “I started toying with it at about 9-10 years old because my uncle Orlando
had a big band. He used to come to the house and rehearse. One Thursday, my mother went to
church for rehearsal and it gave me a chance to toy around with the music because she was very
strict, of course, with the choice of music that her girls would pursue. My uncle let me sing with
the band when she went to rehearsal, so that was really great.”