Patti Austin: Jazz journey in the blood

By Annemarie Quill

Jazz is "like mother's milk" for singer Patti Austin.

"It is the best way I can describe it. It is the way I have always made my living and I love it."

She should know. The godchild of jazz greats Quincy Jones and Dinah Washington, Harlem-born Patti started performing at just 4 years old, has released more than two dozen albums during her career and is still performing at 61.

She has had chart-topping success with Baby come to me in 1983 but her voice transcends styles and she is best known for her jazz.

After such a long time in the business, she has starred at the key musical festivals around the world - her favourite being the Montreux.

"A lot has to do with the setting in the Swiss Alps, but also with Claude who runs it and is always encouraging everyone to get up and dance and be a part of the festival.

"I've performed there several times and there are always lots of passionate music lovers and musicians making passionate music."

Hearing about the growing reputation of the Tauranga Jazz Festival, Patti was keen to join the celebrations for the 50th anniversary.

"I'm hearing about the festival from others who have participated and everything I'm hearing is fantastic. The festival has a great reputation and I'm looking forward to having a great time and hearing some great music."

She visited New Zealand for the first time in 2010 when she performed in the Nina Simone tribute concert "Sing The Truth" at the New Zealand International Arts Festival in Wellington.

"I had such a great time here then and I'm so excited to be coming back."

At the festival, Patti will be singing songs from her For Ella album - a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald released in 2002.

"Ella of course was a huge influence for me, as well as Bach and Beethoven. Now there's so much music going on now, but what resonates most with me is music coming from gospel and country musicians and singers.

"There are great lyrics and stories being told and interesting musical things happening."

Despite her longevity in the business, Patti won her first Grammy at a relatively late stage in her career. In 2008 at the 50th Annual Grammy awards, she won a Grammy for Avant Gershwin after nine nominations.

"I've never been a Grammy-ite and I don't get excited about awards for music or arts and don't really know what they represent other than a popularity contest. But when I finally won the Grammy I flipped out completely - just like everybody else. I was surprised at myself, but I got over it and yes, the Grammy is sitting in a very prominent place in the house."

As well as her music, Patti is known as a keen humanist and is the US international spokesperson for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

"That is a very important part of what I do. I'm working on a whole lot of projects - I was part of the remake of We Are The World for Haiti and since then I've been working on a project to get young women to vote in the United States elections.

"I've written an anthem LOVE - Let One Voice Emerge, which we hope will address the apathy around young women voters.

"I'm also working on a project for television and in my spare time - the two days a year - I do interior design and am working on a line of furniture."

Patti has been an inspiration to people by being very vocal about her health - particularly weight issues - after gastric bypass surgery in 2004.

"It's eight years since surgery and my health has been amazing, but since turning 60 I have put on 20lbs (9kgs) and it's driven me more crazy trying to lose these 20lbs than trying to lose the whole 145lbs (66kg).

"I can't believe I walked around with an extra 145lbs for 30 years.

"Having gastric bypass surgery is just the start of a journey to health - a lot of people put it all, or most, back on. I've really had to work at it.

"It certainly helps lose weight faster, but once you get to ideal weight you have to work at it like everyone else.

"I don't eat a lot because of the surgery, but I have to work out, and at my age I just want to chill out so I've got to ramp it up a notch and it's hard.

"I'm not a person who loves working out at all and always have to find ways of making it interesting, but my health really is magnificent now."

It must be, because even in her 60s Patti continues touring all over the world.

"I'm looking for a man who owns a plane ... no strings," she chuckled.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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