“I don’t perform ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is’ that often,” jazz singer Sara Jones admits. “I mean, the song’s a real downer. You have lyrics in that song like ‘lips that taste like tears’ or ‘lose their taste for kissing.’ Think about that for a moment, the idea that tears are running down someone’s face as you kiss them, and the moment is so heartbreaking and emotional that they can’t even stop to wipe them off. It’s so sad, just a vacuum of despair. That song’s a hard one to sing, especially depending on how fragile you’re feeling that day.”
“Good point,” I reply. “I do associate you with happier, more fortunate songs.”
Perhaps that’s because a happy, fortunate circumstance is what first introduced me to Sara Jones. It’s a story I’m fond of telling–how I was aimlessly walking through the Baltimore Book Festival one bright, Saturday morning and Jones’s voice brought me to a screeching halt. She was on stage, performing because she had just taken top prize in the Billie Holiday Vocal Competition, and belting out blues and jazz standards. I was mesmerized, both by her interpretations of those songs and the lovely, natural ease of her voice. I stayed for her entire set.
Raised in Maryland’s Eastern Shore by way of Thailand, Jones grew up with music. “I listened to a lot of ‘80s pop,” she tells me. “Michael Jackson, Madonna, Whitney Houston. And I listened to big band music on AM radio. My grandparents would play it in the mornings, and I loved the sound of it: the big horns, the singers, how mellow and smooth the voices were.”
Jones studied music at St. Mary’s College of Maryland and received a Masters of Music in Piano Accompaniment from the acclaimed University of Cincinnati College’s Conservatory of Music. Upon graduation, she went on to sing and perform all over the nation during her six years with the celebrated U.S. Army Field Band’s Soldier’s Chorus. Since then, she has released an outstanding album (Daydream a Little) and performed at notable venues throughout D.C., Maryland, and Virginia.
I’ve seen Sara Jones perform everywhere from dim lounges to packed outdoor festivals, and watched conversations come to an abrupt close when she starts to sing. Crowds quiet. Strangers feel an urgency to listen. It’s a lovely, powerful thing to witness.
“So what song,” I ask her, “first really hit you?”
“Hmm.” Jones takes a moment, then says brightly, “Oh, I have one! But it’s not jazz. Is that okay? I’m going to say it anyway. When I was in eighth grade, I used to listen to some show on NPR.”
“I know, right? Anyway, it was a classical music show, and they played a piece of opera. It was a piece by Puccini, and I didn’t even know who Puccini was. But I remember hearing it, and I was completely blown away. It was so beautiful…almost like a religious experience.
“And then there’s the second movement of the Ravel Piano Concerto in G,” she goes on. “It’s gorgeous. The piano is just playing without any accompaniment from the orchestra, and it’s so simple and so elegant. And then the orchestra creeps in, and it’s like a rainbow appearing in the sky. It makes me think of my grandmother for some reason. She wouldn’t have known this piece, but something about it makes me think of her. And it makes me cry.”
“Oh, but it’s not a jazz tune. Is that still a good answer?”
“Still a good answer,” I confirm. “Is there a jazz vocalist you pattern yourself after? Personally, I always think of Ella Fitzgerald. Like her, you have this inherent cheerfulness in your voice. Not for every song, obviously, but it always strikes me when you sing something happy.”
“Thanks, man! That’s high praise. I really like Ella Fitzgerald, and Julie London and Rosemary Clooney. They all have smooth-sounding voices, clear and strong. I mean, I love Billie Holliday, but I wouldn’t want to sound like her. Which isn’t to say she didn’t have a great voice. She did. It had a color of its own, and it’s very…she sounds like herself. She was an incredible interpreter of that music. It wasn’t generic. And I also love Jane Monheit’s voice, and Stacey Kent’s. They have beautiful instruments.”
“What was your best performing experience? And isn’t that such an interview question?”
She laughs. “Such an interview question. I swear, one of the coolest things I ever did was sing for the Boston Pops, in Boston, on the Fourth of July. The cast of the freaking West Wing was in the front row, and Martin Scorsese was there, all these famous people. There were a thousand gazillion people there, and then they had fireworks. It was like a dream. Oh, and another time I sang with the U.S. Army Field Band’s Soldier’s Chorus and, afterwards, Susan Lucci came up to me backstage, and she said, ‘You are so much fun to watch!’”
“The Susan Lucci! Emmy-winner! Erica Kane! Queen of soap operas! Susan Lucci came up to me and said I was fun to watch. I could have died. I was so shocked and happy. She started going on and on and I was like, ‘What is even happening right now?’ It took a few minutes, but I finally got my military bearing back and I said, ‘Thank you, ma’am.’ Susan Lucci!”
“That is such a cool, random story!”
“It was definitely a highlight,” Jones confirms. “And times like that balance out the tough parts. Like when you have questions of self-doubt, or even wonder why you’re doing this in the first place. I mean, especially the older that you get, you start thinking about that stuff. You’re turning into an adult, and you have to ask yourself how you’re going to pay the bills. And with the arts, it’s always a question of self-worth, based on how successful you feel you are. That’s the hardest thing, I think. It’s not just the difficulty of making music all the time. Sometimes I wish it was.”
“So what would be your ultimate dream?”
Jones hesitates. “It’s hard to say. I would just love to perform shows and concerts and recitals all the time. I really love entertaining. Just making people happy. It’s an opportunity to give something to somebody and send them off feeling better. I’m not a therapist by any stretch, but it makes me feel so, so good after a show when someone tells me, ‘My heart feels lighter now.’”