Hidden beneath the marquee-lit moniker of “Live Music Capital of the World,” there is a powerful undercurrent. With so many talented musicians calling the same place home, it’s inevitable that, in addition to the singer/songwriters and country music chart-seekers and indie darlings, there should be other genres not only surviving, but thriving in fertile soil.
Perhaps the most challenging of these covert genres is jazz. A difficult sound to perfect, it is recognizable at an instant; and, in Austin, while it may not be a regular part of the radio dial, it definitely has more than a few places to hang its hat – Parker Jazz Club, the Continental, the Skylark, and that age-old proving ground for every musician who thinks they’ve mastered the genre, the Elephant Room. An almost secret realm thrives on those stages and in those rooms, reminiscent of classic days with blue notes and bourbon flowing, and a trumpet man or sax virtuoso reign over every space their sound reaches.
If there is a torch-bearer of this hidden kingdom of jazz, it would be Sarah Sharp. A veteran of the aforementioned jazz palaces – including a regular set at the Everest of Austin’s Jazz scene, the Elephant Room – Sharp’s intoxicating voice has been a mainstay of the band Jitterbug Vipers long enough to cement her place among Austin’s elite music-makers. She frequented the confluences of culture that are SXSW and the Austin Film Festival, getting her vocals into other creative endeavors while building a life and a reputation alongside the band mates and the loved ones she called her own. Her reign has been on a slow and steady climb, and it wasn’t until a sequence of life-altering events visited her that anyone expected anything but a jazz dynasty.
Her closest Jitterbug Vipers bandmate, Austin legend Slim Richey, passed in 2015, casting a pale pallor over the music to come, as Sharp’s life would no longer have Richey’s vibrance, talent and friendship close at hand. And, not too long after, she and her long-time husband decided to amicably part ways from one another. It hasn’t been the most melodic sequence of events, but, as with all great jazz musicians, Sarah took the cacophony and harnessed it into a new musical thread. Without Slim, the Vipers have faded into history as she prepared to strike out on her own.
“When Slim died, I didn’t want to be in my own band,” she explains. “I couldn’t stay once he was gone. It wasn’t the same band to me anymore, and I just couldn’t stay in Jitterbug Vipers.”
It was a meaningful decision that helped Sharp weather the storm still to come, including her separation. Her decision to release four EPs under her own name gave her an outlet and a voice into processing the challenges her life was seeing. “I mean, if anybody goes deep on the listening, the last song on the second EP – ‘Dream’ – is written about that, but I actually finished it with Andy; and when I was asking him to help me put the chords to it, I changed it to be from his perspective.”
Most people experience transition in slow steps. Sharp’s life witnessed a transition that most would call cataclysmic.
“It was an upheaval to leave the musical band and partnership and family that I had been in for seven and a half years,” she muses, “and also because Slim’s death was really hard on us and we all handled it differently… It’s not an enormous shock when somebody who’s 77 years old – and has had an incredible life and is playing at the peak of his career right up until five weeks before his death – passes away. But, losing him did shake me up and really made me reevaluate what time I have left.”
Sarah took the cacophony and harnessed it into a new musical thread.
Richey’s loss and the waning of her most cherished relationship both hit hard, but the pursuit of her passion did not fade with the new dynamic she found herself in. “I didn’t want to stop being a musician and so I just had to start playing under my own name,” she says.
It’s that sort of improvisation that is serving not only Sarah’s music, but her life well. “I guess it was kind of lucky that it was time to write something under my own name, because I’ve just been through such changes and such transition. It’s the most significant chapter of my adulthood.”
And, like all musicians with the bravery to perform their tunes live and in front of an audience, she has had opportunity to revisit those songs and those feelings, over and again. Whether it’s Jitterbug Viper standards or the new, transitional and heart-wrenching, tunes, Sharp’s heart is as much on display as her incredible voice. “I still play some of the songs that I wrote for Jitterbug Vipers; and I’m proud of that record and I’m proud of those songs,” she says. “They have a lot of legs. These are more just what I needed to needed to get it out and get it down and then release it. Emotionally, it’s literally a release.”
The catharsis and the moody dive into lush fields of both meaning and deep introspection are on display, weekly. “Our main thing is at the Elephant Room,” she says. “And we never play the same show twice.”
And play, she will continue. Already lined up after this latest EP, ‘Dream,’ is number three in the sequence. It’s in the process of being polished and readied for release. The third, and the fourth also, have quite the stories to tell, as Sharp describes.
“The next one is being mixed. I recorded that here and it has Mitch Watkins, Pat Harris, Masumi Jones and Oliver Stick on organ. I went to Brooklyn and made a record with Phoebe Hunt producing and got seven songs but didn’t get a full record, so I had to come back and do something different with a couple of tunes. In the session I’d booked in Austin with my Austin players just to get two songs done, we had all day and we did eight songs. So between the Brooklyn Session and the Austin session, this third EP is more of what people probably still think of the most from Jitterbug Vipers – a couple of straight up jazz standards.”
When the creative blood is racing through Sharp’s veins, it doesn’t stop, so the fourth EP will be fast on the heels of the third, all with a different hue atop the same enchanting voice.
“The fourth one – I have this whole other record. Yaniel Matos is from Cuba, but lives in Brazil, and he was here doing some shows and Masumi [Jones] called me, saying, ‘you’ve got to see this guy in this band, he’s amazing, can we come use your piano?’ I have my mom’s 1929 seven-foot Steinway—mom was a classical pianist—so Masumi brought him over just so that she could play together and jam. We all ended up writing a song on the spot that day, which is ‘Right Through Me.’ (it’s on the EP, ‘Dream’) and he was on his way to the airport but we said to each other that day, ‘we’re supposed to do something together!’ So, the next thing I knew I, I booked a flight to Brazil – a crazy cheap flight. I had no idea what to expect. He lived way on the edge of town and I figured I would be sleeping in his bathtub or you know, his closet or whatever and it just turned out to be amazing. It was like one of the best vacations in my life – except we wrote eight songs and demoed them in 72 hours, and then I went and got right back on the plane.”
When the creative blood is racing through Sharp’s veins, it doesn’t stop
Music, it seems, waits for no one – especially the creative. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that, amid turmoil, tragedy, travel and tumult, that Sarah Sharp should be putting out the best music of her already impressive career. “I find it a complete pleasure and indulgence, when I get to find or carve the time to write,” she beams. But it won’t just be on any of the four EPs she’s primed for release that Austin gets to hear her. This is her home, and she will, as in her actual home, fill it with a marvelous sound, driven by everything that has built that sound and that voice within her.
“There are a lot of logistics to attempting to have a music career. It’s a ton of work and it’s not for the timid. That’s why the only people that do it are the ones that can’t help it. Nobody’s doing it from a place of ego. It’s a spiritual practice… The Elephant Room hasn’t increased what it pays since it opened.” Sarah still persists, still connects and still plays on, despite the challenge. “I had a really, really amazing show the other night at Parker Jazz Club,” she says. “The response helped me be certain I have to do this because I can’t help it. A lot might be quite a bit easier if I gave up on living the dream in Austin, but I still consider it living the dream.” And she’s not giving up on her dream.
To help that dream continue, Austin only has to listen and – perhaps – be a little considerate when consuming these pieces of art. “This town is such an embarrassment of riches when it comes to music. It’s what makes the music so good because you have to be good enough for somebody to want to put any money in that direction. But, get people to come, to bring their friends, to put money in the jar by the music. Hire us! It’s all music, and the beauty of having such good players is it still brings these moments of just sublime connectedness.”
Transition, upheaval or no, that’s a thought the “Live Music Capital of the World” can and should endorse…tipping their cap to one of the city’s jazz icons when doing so.
Cover photo courtesy Nicola Gell Photography