Smooth jazz innovator Angela Bofill aims to bring jazz back to the mainstream. 

Bubblegum Jazz

My mother says that I sang before I talked," recalls Angela Bofill, "and I'm still doing it and loving it."

The singer, whose huge mezzo-soprano voice powered a string of pop and R&B hits, grew up in the heady, music-rich environment of New York City in the early '70s. Her father had been a singer with Cuban bandleader Machito in the '40s, "I grew up listening to Tito Puente and all those Cuban jam sessions. There was always a concert to go to; a lot of all kinds of music."

Recognized as a gifted child, she went to one of the city's elite magnet schools and hung out with a group of like-minded friends. "Instead of basketball, we would play recording artist," she confides. "I knew that I wanted to make a whole life of it." Several of her childhood friends went on to successful performing careers, including Dave Valentine, Marcus Miller and Valerie Simpson.

While studying voice at the Manhattan School of Music she performed all around the city. She was the featured singer for the Dance Theatre of Harlem when Valentine brought her to the attention of producer Dave Gruisin, who signed her to his fledgling GRP label. "I started out listening to the music of Earl Klugh, I really loved his stuff, [then] within a year I was playing with him."

The music was lyrical and commercial. "We called it 'bubblegum jazz,' now its called 'smooth jazz.' Now there are radio stations that play nothing but smooth jazz," she laughs. "We were there when it started."

The lightweight music may have been a reaction to the heavy times — the Vietnam War protests, the Kennedy and King assassinations, and the emotional, increasingly abstract jazz explorations by musicians like John Coltrane and Miles Davis. "Jazz can be quite complex, and that was stuff to study and revere," Bofill says, "but jazz started out as popular music. Maybe we were just moving it back toward public acceptance."

Bofill's own acceptance was immediate. Her 1978 debut album, "Angie," was a huge success; the second, "Angel of the Night," made the Top 10 on the R&B charts. The far larger Arista label picked up her contract, where she became one of the label's top moneymakers. Her enticing alto vocals and 3 ø octave range was part of the reason for her success, but so was her songwriting. She wrote many of her own hit songs.

"Aretha Franklin was one of my biggest influences," Bofill asserts. "She was so promoted as a singer that nobody recognized what a great writer she was. I also loved Bert Bacharach, Carol King and Stevie Wonder."

More than two decades later, after touring the world as a singer, and the United States as the lead in the gospel play "God Don't Like Ugly," and after extensive TV and radio appearances she is still finding new challenges. She just finished shooting a period film about Philadelphia's legendary elite, all-black detective unit, "The Anderson Squad."

Now living in northern California, Bofill is looking forward to this week's performance. "Every audience, every country is different," she says. "And some of the best people are in Richmond and Washington D.C. They have fun getting into the music, they love it, and you love them too."

The singer says that connecting with her audience is the key to success. "It's easy to tell when things are going well; I feel uplifted, really good. And I know when I am having a good time they are too.

"People having a great time," Bofill says proudly, "that's my job."


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