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For jazz singer Stephanie Nakasian, all the sacrifices are worth those fleeting moments of audience connection. 

Pieces of a Performing Life

For jazz singer Stephanie Nakasian, it's all about swing. The sophisticated rhythmic momentum essential to her music is mirrored by the syncopated scheduling required for sustaining a life in the performing arts.

Nakasian, who has just released her fourth CD, "Invitation to an Escapade" (CMG), has a warm and assured approach that harkens back to Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and the golden age of jazz, without compromising her own musical personality. Her ability to perform with authentic technique has led to frequent appearances on the syndicated Public Radio program "Riverwalk," where she has been cast as Peggy Lee, Helen Humes and various other singers of the past. On "Invitation" she goes beyond the standard repertoire, finding less familiar gems to reflect her graceful, polished style. The result is a heartfelt and lyrical recording that should appeal to a wide audience. The challenge is in reaching that audience and bringing her music to life — while at the same time "piecing together a living."

"I'm still on the struggling side of things, but I tell myself 'face it, you're not a banker, you're an artist,'" she says. "I have freedom and flexibility; I get to travel. All I have to give up are the little things people take for granted — like health insurance.

"But when you see me onstage, smiling, looking like I'm levitating, that's the feeling that I want, even if it's only for the moment, especially if the audience gets it, too."

Nakasian, who has a degree in finance, was working as a futures consultant in New York in 1980 when she attended a life-changing performance by leading bebop/swing pianist Hod O'Brien. It was the beginning of a 20-year-and-counting professional and personal relationship for the now-married couple. Nakasian started singing in New York area clubs, both with O'Brien and with the vocal-great Jon Hendricks' ensemble.

"We kept on the road all the time," Nakasian remembers. "We had gigs up and down the East Coast — there were far more clubs in the '80s than there are now." The couple moved from New York to the Poconos in the mid-'80s, then relocated to Charlottesville in 1994 when O'Brien landed a steady gig at the Greenbrier.

As the number of jazz venues has declined, Nakasian has transferred her energies into education. She currently works with about 30 private students as an adjunct instructor at both the University of Virginia and The College of William and Mary. (For a time she also taught at Virginia Commonwealth University, even developing the curriculum for a vocal jazz major before budget cutbacks ended the program.) "I take someone from warm-up exercises to performance," she says of her classes. "Most people, when they relax, can sing much better than they imagine. The music is already in them." She is currently working on a book based on her teaching approach.

Nakasian also takes her love of music to public schools around the state as part of a program subsidized by the Virginia Commission for the Arts. "I love working with the kids," she says. "They are so optimistic and idealistic. You can open them up to new forms of expression and interaction, get them out of their shells. If you only hang around with the 50-year-old-plus crowd it can get kind of negative. I think the experience of working with children has made me a better singer."

But Nakasian's greatest satisfaction comes from performances, especially in front of an appreciative audience. "One of the reasons that education is so important is that the more they know, the more of what you are doing they can hear," she says. "The highest level of performance comes from when the audience is there with you and wants to go farther. That's what makes the music develop to another level. … I have had those moments in Richmond — when someone hears something in the middle of a solo and screams out. You know they got it; they're not just waiting for the break in the solo when everyone else is applauding."

Nakasian and O'Brien also spend a lot of time on the road — traveling to festivals in Europe and across the country. O'Brien is a significant player whose public appreciation is just beginning to catch up with his reputation among other musicians. "They've just discovered Hod on the West Coast," Nakasian says with satisfaction.

But though the duo is a headline act in Italy, Chicago and on the Gulf Coast, it is more of a challenge in Virginia. "It's hard to be seen as a national act when you live locally," Nakasian says, ruefully. But living on a big piece of land with a beautiful view just west of Charlottesville has its own rewards. And Nakasian sees things getting better for jazz in general.

"About seven years ago I started doing a program called 'The Great American Songbook,'" she says. "It's really just very accessible jazz music, but you couldn't call it jazz because then people would think they didn't like it. They had negative preconceptions — 'jazz' didn't have a good connotation. But I think that that is changing
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