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About thirty years ago, jazz vocalist Joan Bow moved from Ann Arbor to California on a dream and a big fat lie. The 20-year-old University of Michigan student told her folks she was going for an extended vacation, sure that they'd try to dissuade her if they knew she intended to make it as a singer. Weeks passed before she confessed. Surprisingly, they weren't livid. Her dad told her if things didn't work out she could always come back home.
"There was nothing my parents could really do to convince me to come home. I was 3,000 miles from home, and I had gotten a job and an apartment," the former Joan Bow and current Joan Belgrave said recently over lunch at T. N. Thai Bistro in Grosse Pointe. Over the course of the meal, she talked about her long road back to Michigan and how her husband of the last few years, renowned trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, has helped put her singing career back on track.
The chanteuse is 53, although she looks 20 years younger and has the physique of a Pilates instructor. Her speaking voice is just as intoxicating as her singing, and when she sings her voice covers you like a cozy comforter. She can belt pop, R&B, classic rock, the blues and jazz. Whatever the genre, her forte is performing love songs. Belgrave's voice is so soothing and sexy, she could give a pit bull goose bumps. If proof is required, check out Excitable, her new album released on the independent label Detroit Jazz Musicians Co-op Inc., and executive produced by her hubby.
Excitable is a mix of jazz standards and Belgrave's original love songs. Swing-master tenor saxophonist Charlie Gabriel and her spouse figure prominently on this album. Newcomer Sullivan Fortner, one of Marcus Belgrave's protégés, adds piano throughout, with a warm touch on "You Leave Me Breathless" and "When a Woman Loves a Man" that's reminiscent of former Jazz Crusader pianist Joe Samples. It seems as if Fortner was born to accompany versatile jazz vocalists. As the session leader, Belgrave is in charge indeed, but she governs her band with a soft hand.
"She knows how to touch your emotions with her voice. That's a quality that goes back to her singing in church. She a soulful singer like Billie Holiday and Nina Simone," says Gabriel.
It's true that Belgrave embodies characteristics similar to the great jazz vocalists of our time. You can add Natalie Cole to the list of Belgrave influences you'll hear. In fact, if you hum the melody to "Unforgettable," Cole's signature song (by way of her late father, Nat "King" Cole), you'll hear a resemblance to Belgrave's title cut, "Excitable."
However, if you push aside the comparisons and give Excitable your undivided attention, you might discover Belgrave has a knack for self-reinvention. In fact, she sounds new and improved on each track. Throughout the album, her voice is so distinct and endearing it appears she's giving you a private concert. That's the mark of a skilled vocalist. She's also sort of a songsmith. The original compositions she wrote for this have a touchy-feely innocence.
The singer grew up in Ann Arbor, a tomboy with five brothers, the only girl in the neighborhood who knew how to change the motor oil in the family car.
Her mom inspired her to sing.
"I remember being 3 years old," Belgrave recalls. "She would have me stand on a footstool and sing for friends when they visited." At the University of Michigan, Belgrave was a classical voice major before the move west.
In California, she got gigs fast. At small clubs, she sang R&B. She worked regularly for two years. Then she fell in love, got married, moved to the suburbs of San Jose, had three children. It would be more than 15 years before she sang publicly again.
"It was a choice of either I stop performing and take care of my family or have someone else take care of them," Belgrave says.
She never really stopped singing completely. She would write songs and sing them to her kids. The years passed. The kids grew up and grew more independent. Belgrave had more free time. She contemplated picking up her career where she'd left off. Her husband balked.
In 1994, her dad died. When her mother asked her to sing "Amazing Grace" at the funeral, she had an epiphany: "I felt like I was watching myself sing. People told me how wonderful I sound. When I got back to California, it was as if my dad was talking to me, asking what was wrong with me. Why aren't you singing? You moved to California to sing. You're not doing that. I felt like a waterfall rushed over me. I had to sing."
Belgrave was adamant about restarting her career, and her husband was still opposed. They bickered, separated and eventually divorced, as she tells it.
By day, she managed a recording studio. At night, she performed around town. She made two independent albums — Emotions Blue and Variations. She became popular around the Bay, says Gordon Stevens, the owner of the recording studio, Open Path Music, where Belgrave worked and recorded her albums.
"Her ambition was to make music," says Stevens. "She was no jazz snob. She would sing any kind of good music. She was the kind of person that could make you feel good just by being around her. She was real genuine. That's no bullshit."
Her career was back on track. And then she got bad news. Her mom had a stroke. Belgrave sold her house and moved back to Ann Arbor to take care of her. As time-consuming as that was, she still kept singing. The vocalist also worked as a concert promoter, and aspired to assemble a band of her own. One night, a friend took her to a jam session at Bert's Marketplace in Detroit. After she sang, she recalls, "This little guy came running up to me wanting to buy my CD. I sold him two. Then a week or so later, he called me."
The little guy turned out to be renowned trumpeter Marcus Belgrave. She hired him to work with her on a tribute to Ray Charles, her future husband's employer in the '50s and '60s before he settled in Detroit. After that, they worked together regularly. A year later, they began dating. Initially, she wasn't interested in a relationship, but her feelings changed. She soon realized they're "meant for each other" and that she'd never had a man so supportive. After a year of dating, they got married in a Niagara Falls ceremony that, she says, Marcus planned.
Two years have passed and, musically, they're inseparable. She's performed on two of his albums and currently manages his career. Earlier this year, at the album release party for the trumpeter's most recent disc, Marcus, Charlie and Joan Back Together Again, he told the crowd that he was on his fourth marriage and that this time, he'd finally got it right.
Asked if being married to a big name in jazz has a downside, she talks about an ugly and hurtful rumor that suggested she only married the trumpeter to advance her career. The hurt shows in her face.
"Marcus always said don't pay any attention to what people are saying about us because we know what's happening, and that's all that matters," she says.
Which brings us back to her new Excitable album.
The album hits the streets this week followed by a mini-tour in July, with stops in Canada and her second home state: California.
After that, the Belgraves, Joan and Marcus, plan to restart his outreach program for aspiring jazz musicians the Jazz Development Workshop, which the trumpeter formed in the '80s at the infamous Cobb's Corner.
One last note about Excitable: The vocalist wants it known the album is a musical love letter to her hubby, and songs such as "You Leave Me Breathless," "When a Woman Loves a Man" and "He Called My Name" are about how he makes her feel.