Alumna Karla Harris headlining ‘An Evening of Jazz with Springboard to Learning’ at alma mater on June 11
Karla Harris expects to be fighting a few more butterflies than normal when she walks onto the stage Saturday evening and looks out at an audience of familiar faces seated in the E. Desmond and Mary Ann Lee Theater at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center.
“It’s a little nerve-wracking to think about singing for people you know,” Harris said. “It’s harder than singing for strangers to me. A few more nerves involved!”
Harris, a jazz vocalist based in Atlanta with three albums to her name, will be headlining an “An Evening of Jazz with Springboard to Learning” in what will be her first time singing in her hometown since 2005, and there will be no shortage of family members and friends in attendance.
She’ll be performing alongside old friends who were part of the venerable jazz group Gateway Jazz Ensemble, including jazz pianist Rick Zelle and Harris’ mentor, Jeanne Trevor, known as St. Louis’ first lady of jazz. The event benefits Springboard to Learning, a nonprofit committed to making the arts a part of learning for economically disadvantaged children throughout the region. For decades, Gateway Jazz Ensemble performed hundreds of concerts under Young Audiences, a part of Springboard to Learning. During the benefit, Trevor will receive a proclamation recognizing her work with the organization.
Harris is happy to be traveling to her hometown for the event, and considers it serendipitous that she’ll be performing on the campus of her alma mater, having earned her bachelor’s degree in speech communication with certification to teach drama and speech at the secondary education level from the University of Missouri–St. Louis in 1986.
“They had looked at other locations as well,” Harris said. “The fact that I’m going to be performing at my alma mater was another unexpected thing that I’m looking forward to.”
Harris, who grew up in Ballwin and graduated from Lafayette High School, transferred to UMSL after starting college at what was then Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri.
She described being homesick living away from her family the first time, and coming back allowed her to live at home and commute to campus.
“That was just a better choice for me at that point,” said Harris, who worked part-time as a bank teller and also joined a sorority while working toward her degree.
She had a love of words, and that’s what prompted her to choose speech communications as her major. Though she didn’t wind up teaching high school students, she made use of her degree while working in public relations – something she continues to do on a freelance basis today.
But music was always Harris’ passion.
“Growing up, I always sang,” she said. “It was just something that I did. My mom says she remembers me singing in the grocery cart when she pushed me around the store. I was always in bands, always in choir. But I didn’t have any professional musicians in my family, so it didn’t seem realistic to me. It seemed like something that some magically selected people out there got to do, and for me it was pretend.”
She pretended a lot, spending Saturday afternoons singing in her living room as though she were appearing on “The Carol Burnett Show” or putting on impromptu concerts for relatives visiting over the holidays.
As Harris grew older, singing remained mostly a hobby. She performed with wedding bands on weekends and got invited to join the Gateway Jazz Ensemble, fronted by Trevor, while she was a student at UMSL.
“Rick Zelle knew of me through the connection of being at the same high school and both living in the same area,” she said. “One day, he called me up and told me about the group and he said, ‘Jeanne doesn’t want to do these more contemporary songs that we want to put in the set.’ The goal was to introduce kids to jazz and to give them a wide range of the music through the years and how it influenced rock and roll and then more contemporary jazz.”
Harris had grown up with jazz records in her house and had an appreciation for the art form. She also liked the idea of making some extra money to keep gas in her Ford Pinto.
It was only years later that she would grow to appreciate the wealth of talent she got to perform with as part of the group.
Trevor, in particular, was supportive of Harris.
“I was green,” Harris said, “and she welcomed me. She made me feel completely comfortable. And I learned so much from watching her.”
Harris performed with the Gateway Jazz Ensemble for three years but stopped not long after graduating from UMSL. Around the same time, she married her husband, UMSL alumnus John Harris, who received his degree in applied mathematics, and they started building their life together.
She continued to sing with several pop bands in clubs around St. Louis as she started her family. But it was only years later, after she met and started singing with bassist Tom Kennedy, a St. Louis native, that Harris started to think she could make singing her primary career and delve more into jazz.
“Tom was off the road, and he wanted to start up his own group and try to work more locally, and we happened to be on this same gig,” Harris said. “He later asked if I’d be interested in singing with his jazz combo that he was putting together. That was the beginning, in kind of a roundabout way, of when I really started to take this more seriously. Because it was such a golden opportunity, and I was working with an incredibly experienced and knowledgeable jazz artist.”
It was with Kennedy that she first started recording music while still in St. Louis. Their album “Twice as Nice” was released in 2007.
Harris had moved to Portland, Oregon, at the end of 2004 after John relocated for work. After taking time initially to get her family settled near the West Coast, Harris eventually found her way into the Portland jazz scene through some jam sessions. From there, she started getting regular gigs.
“I worked frequently with a lot of people who have done a lot of really cool things, and they were very nurturing,” Harris said. “It was such a highly developmental period in my musical path.”
John was transferred again in 2012, this time to Atlanta, so Harris moved across the country and started building relationships and finding opportunities in a new jazz community.
Two years later, she released her second album, “Karla Harris Sings the Dave & Iola Brubeck Songbook,” through Summit Records.
Her career has continued to grow with a list of performance credits that includes the Sarasota Jazz Festival, Portland Jazz Festival, Oregon Coast Jazz Party, Nantucket Arts Festival, Siletz Bay Music Festival, Atlanta Jazz Party and Atlanta Jazz Festival.
Harris released her third album, “Certain Elements,” in 2019, and it was the first to feature some of her work as a songwriter. The album reached No. 44 on the Jazz Week chart. Two of her original songs from the album, “Interlude” and “When Michael,” achieved semifinalist status in the International Songwriting Competition.
Since 2017, Harris has also worked as an artist-in-residence in the Jazz Studies department at Kennesaw State University, where she teaches applied vocal jazz to aspiring singers both 1-on-1 and in combos.
The pandemic kept Harris from performing regularly for more than a year, but she’s been returning to the stage in concert settings over the past several months and is getting set to embark on a short tour in North and South Carolina.
“All of the things that I do now are all things that I dreamed about when I was little,” Harris said. “But I just didn’t see how it could be true. It’s pretty cool to look back on, and I’m looking forward to what comes next – the performances and the music that’s to come.”
Including being in front of her friends and family – and sharing a stage with Trevor – on Saturday night at the Touhill.
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