Scholar of swing

Music teacher by day, jazz singer by night, Port Chester resident Jaana Narsipur prepares for shows next week and album release in October

By John Donegan

This story originally appeared in the 7/16/21 edition of the Westmore News. For the original article, follow the link.

Jaana Narsipur has been a musician her whole life. She sings, plays the piano and can strum basic chords on the ukulele and guitar. Her voice is reminiscent of Julie London, a lilting languid contralto capable of cosmic wrath and meditative calm.

“As a singer, we’re suckers for a beautiful ballad,” Narsipur said.

But Narsipur isn’t the bar singer of old; she doesn’t moonlight at Manhattan’s famously smoky Arthur’s Tavern or frequent the midnight crowd at Cleopatra’s Needle. By day, she is a music teacher and a mother of two. Since her start in singing live jazz nearly five years ago and her interest was sparked in the art medium 30 years ago, the Port Chester resident has never turned from its world. She has taught at several schools throughout New York City, primarily in the Bronx, as well as in Westchester.

By night, she’s a blues connoisseur. Since 2019, she’s sung R&B alongside her cover band, Jaana and The Groove IQ, at Sweet Afton in Astoria, Queens, as well as swing jazz gigs in New Rochelle, White Plains and Mount Vernon.

To her, music is more than just the manipulation of sound with words. Embedded in the instruments and lyrics of blues are the codex of America’s racist past. And like many teachers, Narsipur believes the best lessons are told through stories.

“The thing about jazz is that it is truly the only American art form that originates here,” Narsipur said. “Within jazz is the entire history of our country. It’s the history of slavery, the South, the migration to the northern industrial cities. It’s the story of New Orleans; it’s the story of the blending of cultures, from the Caribbean to Europe. It’s the story of people from every background, every race and socioeconomic placing. That, for me, is not only fascinating but it makes it very teachable.”

Despite her penchant for the art form, Narsipur didn’t start out as a jazz prodigy, slamming keys and snares into prodigal, invariable melodies like Charlie Parker or Roy Hargrove. Narsipur was introduced to jazz while learning classical music.

She graduated from Northwestern University with a bachelor’s degree in music in 1993 with a goal to make it as a singer, working in the classical sphere. Things didn’t exactly work out. Her passion deflated, leaving her somewhat aimless.

“I started to realize that wasn’t really what I wanted to do,” Narsipur said. “But I wasn’t really sure what would replace that.”

Around that time, she started dating a guy with a major interest in jazz. He collected records and cassettes and let them play in the background. Narsipur remembers listening to the tracks and feeling enraptured by them.

“I thought, ‘this is amazing,’” she said. “I’d never had any listening experience with jazz, I didn’t know anybody that were jazz musicians and it’s not like I grew up with it in my family. Yet, right away, it really spoke to me.”

Narsipur began versing herself with classic chanteuses like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. Then she came across a 1962 self-titled release by Nancy Wilson and Cannonball Adderley. The LP didn’t land especially strong when it was released; it reached No. 30 on the 1962 Billboard Top Albums Chart. But it was a defining album for Narsipur, 30 years later, that ultimately decided her future.

“It was a game changer for me,” she said. “It was a fascinating time in music history and a very cool collaboration: she was an upcoming singer and Cannonball was an established tenor sax player. It’s just the most wonderful album; you feel like you’re sitting in somebody’s home listening to this collaboration in the moment. That was a real turning point for me because I thought, ‘that’s who I want to be as a musician.’”

Still in Chicago, Narsipur returned to school and acquired her teaching certification from DePaul University in 1998. In the same year, she moved to downtown Brooklyn.

The one time Narsipur faltered from her path in jazz was in 2007. She was in between a move from Washington, D.C. to Amsterdam and considered leaving the profession. “I wasn’t singing very much,” she said. “And my life was at a static point.”

Despite her blues, she attended Jazz in July, a two-week music program in Amherst, Mass. before she left. There, Narsipur met Sheila Jordan, the famous jazz singer and songwriter. “It was an incredible experience,” Narsipur said. “I give her 100 percent credit for reigniting my love of jazz and my path. The right teacher or even jazz lover can do that for you.”

After leaving for work pursuits in Washington, D.C., she attended some conservatory studies overseas in Amsterdam, though she didn’t stay long.

“I started my masters (in Amsterdam) and then discovered it wasn’t a very good fit,” Narsipur said. “And it was very challenging to live as an ex-pat—more challenging than I realized. While the classes were mostly in English, the culture was very Dutch. So I left the program after a year and we got married and I realized I really missed being an American. I think it took me living somewhere else to realize what mattered to me about being here.”

She returned to New York in 2010 with a desire to enter her post-graduate education in jazz studies at Queens College as well as with her future husband. She moved to Port Chester in 2014 and has been a resident ever since.

As a music teacher, Narsipur will sometimes pull out a map of the United States for her lesson plan. The connection she makes for her students is that every song has an origin—for many, she can literally point to the place where the artist wrote the song or based it upon. The blues is the roadmap to our history, she explained, and each era of music connects to the next, like the trunks and branches of a family tree.

“I can bring out a map of the United States and take them through that journey that the song takes us on,” Narsipur said. “There can be a lesson or even a whole unit in (each song).”

When she’s not teaching, Narsipur continues to perform with her cover band. She noted the sometimes difficult and delicate nature of building rapport within the scene, with bar owners, fellow players and fans. The key, she said, is not trying to be the best player in the world but being a good teammate.

“The jazz life is a lot of getting to know people, it’s a very personal thing,” she explained. “You can be great at what you do but it’s very much about relationships—both creating them and also showing up. Venues and bookers want to see that you’re a good musician and that you have a good following of people that will come out, but they also want to know that you’re committed to jazz. So it takes time to establish oneself.”

And what began as a side project in 2019 quickly evolved into the recording of Narsipur’s first album. She said the album was almost unavoidable after the cover group had gained significant traction throughout the county, which she attributes to the artists working alongside her.

“We were playing all over Westchester, Mount Vernon, White Plains, Harrison—you name it,” she said. “It’s a project that I’m, of course, very passionate about, but I’m also really happy with the way everything has turned out.”

The release is scheduled for mid-October. Previews of the music can be found on her SoundCloud profile, Jazzgirl04.

Narsipur still collects records to listen to, primarily for each of the artist’s liner notes, or “gateway into the bands,” as she described them. She still has the Adderley/Wilson album within her collection. She plays the records for relaxing, for having “intense music sessions,” as she calls it, and most notably, for cleaning the house.

“People love bebop because it’s fast,” Narsipur laughed. “It’s great for having intense listening sessions but it’s also great music to clean the house with.”

As the mother of a daughter and a son, Narsipur said her kids have adjusted surprisingly well to her schedule. Both students at Park Avenue Elementary School, they know to wish her well on days of rehearsal and good luck on nights that she performs. 

“One time I heard my daughter running around outside with her friends and she said, ‘no, my mom is a musician; she sings and she plays piano—my mom’s a musician,’” Narsipur said. “My heart swelled. She’s 6 and a half and I’ve never heard her say that before, but she did it so matter of factly.”

While she isn’t pressed to have her kids follow in her footsteps, Narsipur thinks her daughter will be the one of the two to pursue a career in music. And whether she does or not, she knows by the environment in which she raised her children that they both will always love and appreciate the art form, just as she does.

“That’s one thing I would say to anybody, whether they’re a parent, or they’re single—the best way to encourage kids to love music is to have a broad listening diet. Listen to music all the time and you know, ideally, don’t have it be crap,” Narsipur laughed.

Narsipur will perform in two upcoming shows next week: at Constitution Park in Larchmont on Thursday, July 22 at 6 p.m. and at The Good Witch Coffee Bar in Hastings-on-Hudson on Saturday, July 24 at 10 a.m. The shows are both free and open to the public.

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