Jazzing it up after a day at middle school
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., January 8, 2003) – Jazz singer Sonya Kitchell occasionally gets a little nervous just before she goes on stage. But as soon as she starts singing, she feels fine. She’s likely to feel more self-conscious off stage than on. Onstage, she’s in her element; she’s where she wants to be.

And why not? Singing jazz beats doing homework or talking on the phone or instant messaging – the typical recreational activities of 13-year-old girls like Kitchell.

There’s nothing typical about Kitchell, although to meet her you’d hardly notice. Though poised and well-spoken, she’s not at all haughty and doesn’t come across as particularly precocious.

She just happens to be the youngest performer to have sold out the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton two times in a row. She just happens to have an incredible talent far beyond her years for singing jazz, writing songs and commanding an audience’s attention. And she shares her extraordinary talent with a quintet of equally talented teen-aged musicians in the Sonya Kitchell Band, which performs a return engagement at Club Helsinki this Sunday, January 12, at 7:30. Call 413-528-3394 for reservations.

An eighth-grader at the Hilltown Cooperative Charter School in Haydenville, Kitchell has studied voice since she was seven. As a 10-year-old, she performed at the 1999 Special Olympics World Games in North Carolina. For four years she has taken part in the Vermont Jazz Center Summer Program with Sheila Jordan, and she has won an “outstanding musician” award from the University of Massachusetts High School Jazz Festival and a scholarship to its Jazz in July summer program.

For the past year and a half, Kitchell has been writing original songs – some in classic jazz style, others more folk- and rock-influenced. Her own compositions now have a place in her repertoire next to sophisticated standards like “Frim Fram Sauce” and “I Remember Clifford.”

Sonya’s mother, Gayle Kabaker, says her daughter has been singing ever since she was a young girl. “I actually found a holiday letter I wrote when Sonya was four, and in it I wrote that Sonya walks around singing all the time and wants to be a singer just like Madonna,” she said. “I think it’s just in her blood.”

Kabaker and Sonya’s father, Peter Kitchell, are artists, and Sonya was exposed to music and all things cultural from a very early age. “My dad has a whole wall of CDs in his studio, and my parents listen to a whole lot of different music,” she said.

But early on jazz grabbed her, and she listened to Ella Fitzgerald, Nat “King” Cole and Dianne Schuur long before she was exposed to her current popular favorites like Sheryl Crow, Bonnie Raitt and Joni Mitchell.

“I felt a connection to jazz, I really liked the energy,” she said. “And I like how you don’t have to stick to the melody; you can always make it your own. You’re always being challenged to do something new and you have to be on your feet because you never know what will happen.”

With her band, a group of boys ranging in age from 17 to 19, Kitchell shares an enthusiasm for jazz’s freedom and infinite possibilities of expression.

“As opposed to playing with older, very experienced musicians, which I’ve done, whenever we’re up there on stage it’s all new,” she said. “It’s still all new to us because we’re so young. It’s still really exciting, and there are so many new things to try and we’re all learning together.”

The members of the Sonya Kitchell Band include drummer Ben Jaffe, 17, a senior at Mt. Greylock Regional High who has studied with renowned drummer Randy Kaye, performed in jazz ensembles at Williams College, and attended the Litchfield Jazz Festival Summer Workshop for two years and Jazz in July at UMass Amherst in 2001. Violinist Caley Monahon-Ward, 17, is a senior at Northampton High School. He also plays mandolin, guitar, bass and drums, and was recently awarded a full scholarship to the University of Massachusetts’ Jazz in July program.

Guitarist Ross Bellenoit, 19, was a founding member of the award-winning “Absolute Jazz” PVPA high school combo. In the 2001 Downbeat Magazine Student Music Awards, he received an award for “outstanding performance” in the high school rock/pop/blues soloist category. He also performs locally in the local soul/rock band The Systematics, and has recently been a member of the Chapel Jazz Big Band at UMass.

Bassist Sean Pentland, 19, is self-taught on the electric and upright basses. He studied classical piano for eight years prior to studying jazz piano for the past four years with Peter Tavalin at the Putney School. He has been a participant for the past two years in the Vermont Jazz Centre Summer Workshop.

In addition to Sunday night’s performance with the Sonya Kitchell Band, pianist Miro Sprague, age 17, will be warming up the crowd at Club Helsinki for Mose Allison tomorrow night.

What’s it like to be a 13-year-old girl in a band of older teen-age boys?

“It’s really very complicated, because I always feel because I’m a girl and a singer and I’m thirteen .… Singers first of all are looked down upon, and sometimes girls in music are too, and being thirteen makes me seem … giggly.

“But they’re all seventeen-year-old guys who are really good musicians. I’ll have ideas of what we should do, but I’m not always sure I should say it because they know more than me. And it’s hard because I feel weird about telling them what to do because I’m younger than them and maybe I don’t know as much as them.”

For the mother of the 13-year-old jazz singer, there are also complications.

“I get a fair amount of conflicting opinions about how we’re going about things with Sonya,” said Kabaker. “Some people think it’s not appropriate -- the music, for one. And I’ve always been really careful. There are songs she cannot sing. She can’t sing ‘All of Me,’ she can’t sing ‘Loverman…’

“I love ‘Loverman,’ but I can’t sing it,” interjects Kitchell with disappointed but resigned understanding.

“She’s not up there singing inappropriate material, but it’s been a real challenge with jazz because jazz is so… sensual,” said Kabaker.

“The bottom line is I know we have a very healthy lifestyle. She’s a very grounded kid. And the fact that we live in the country makes a big difference. If we were living in a city I think this whole thing would be very hard to manage. We don’t even have a TV.”

In any case, Kitchell is clear about what she wants – and what she doesn’t want. If tomorrow a record label scout told her she could be the next Britney Spears if she dumbed down her music down and tarted herself up?

“I’d say no, thank you -- I’m not interested in that,” she replied.

“Right now, you look at Norah Jones and how she’s kicking off, I would love that. I’d like to be touring the world because I love to travel and I obviously love music. So my dream is to travel the world playing music because that way I could learn from the different cultures, all the different musics they have to offer, and perform and sing for many different people.”

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on January 10, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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