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San Francisco jazz singer Mary Stallings balances art, life

Mary Stallings sings at the 2013 Monterey Jazz Festival
David Becker

An insider disclosure about music journalism: When we praise how strong a singer's voice has remained, we're grading on a curve, with an unspoken "for someone of that age" included.

Except for Mary Stallings.

Listen to any of the San Francisco's native's 1960 recordings and then a recent work, and you're hard-pressed to find any way in which her voice has diminished at the age of 74. The range, projection and control are all there, accompanied now by interpretive skills that reflect decades of personal experience.

Stallings says it's a matter of trying to live a healthy life and not pushing too hard. "I don't know if I'm lucky or just blessed," she says over the phone. "I do try to always sing at a reasonable volume, as if I was in a small venue. Most singers have a tendency to stretch in a big hall, and that can get you in trouble."

Fortunately, that's a technique perfectly suited for the acoustically superb main hall at the new SFJAZZ Center, where Stallings performs Jan. 16 and 17. (The 17th show is a duo with longtime colleague Eric Reed, while the 16th finds her working with pianist Kenny Barron for the first time since the shared the stage with Dizzy Gillespie's band 34 years ago.) The singer says the city's shiny temple to jazz quickly became one her favorite venues. "It has a presence and a sound that's just incredible," Stallings says. "You hear yourself the way you think you sound."

Which is fortunate for San Francisco, as Stallings has learned to be choosy about where and when she performs. Decades before iTunes and YouTube rewrote the rules of having a musical career, Stallings decided being a singer couldn't be her only identity.

Raised in Laurel Heights and rooted in gospel singing, the young Stallings started making the rounds of the city's 1950s jazz scene as a teenager, impressing heavyweights such as Dizzy Gillespie, Ben Webster and Cal Tjader, with whom she recorded the landmark "Cal Tjader Plays, Mary Stallings Sings" in 1961.

Stallings spent her 20s building her musical profile, touring and recording with masters such as Billy Eckstine and the Count Basie Orchestra. By 1972, however, she'd had her fill and left touring behind to focus on raising a family. She wouldn't record again until 1994, when made a triumphant comeback with "I Waited For You." Since then, she's recorded a handful more CDs and established a leisurely touring schedule that usually includes one or two swings a year to Europe and/or the East Coast.

Stallings is confident having a full life outside music has helped make her a better singer by giving her more to drawn on when she interprets a song. "Your personal life is what you have to draw on to approach these songs," she says. "The experiences you've had helps your ability to relate to the stories you tell."

And it's stories that drive Stallings, whether she's trying out a contemporary number such as Eric Reed's custom-created "Mary's Blues" or personalizing a standard such as "I Love the Way You Love Me." She needs a story she can inhabit, and preferably something on the sunnier side of the street.

"I couldn't sing a song like 'Love for Sale,' " she says. "When I was with Billy Eckstine, he pushed me to sing those kind of tunes, but I just couldn't do it.

"I'm a sentimentalist...I want to sing about the emotionally positive side. I want to bring a little joy to people."

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