[JAZZ QUEEN] On a recent Wednesday night at the Pearl District restaurant Touché, a large party of thirtysomethings chattered, laughed, drank and ate their way through the evening—oblivious to one of the world's greatest singers turning familiar standards into little miracles just a few feet away. Decades from now, when your favorite Portland musicians are forgotten, the history books will proclaim that this city was home to Nancy King.
Now 72 and getting around with the aid of crutches that help her deal with degenerative rheumatoid arthritis, King has an agile voice that sounds as fresh as a 20-year-old's. Every note is informed by the natural gifts (immense range, musical sensitivity, spot-on pitch and rhythm) and experience—some of it devastatingly hard—she's earned over half a century of performances with some of the best jazz musicians on the planet. At her weekly Touché gig and monthly appearances at the Bijou Cafe, she's energetic and gregarious, performing with New York jazzers who practically genuflect at the opportunity to hear her. King's take on a standard is as vital as the latest indie-rock breakthrough, yet durably unforgettable.
"My main thrust was always music," King says. "And I stay young because I'm in the music all the time."
King grew up on a farm outside Springfield, where her parents imbued in her a love for music and dance. She attended the University of Oregon on a music scholarship, where in 1959 and '60, she sang and played drums in a band with two of the state's other most renowned musicians, guitarist Ralph Towner and bassist Glen Moore, who later founded the seminal jazz and world-music ensemble Oregon. After being arrested in a protest in favor of racial equality for the school's few African-American students, King journeyed to San Francisco, where she played often at the Jazz Workshop and performed with local greats like Vince Guaraldi, John Handy and saxophonist Sonny King, who became the father of the couple's three children.
King moved to Portland in 1978, gigging with pianist Steve Christofferson (still her musical partner) and managing what was called the "bebop hotel" on Southwest Alder Street. But her profile was international: King played festivals around the world and appeared on discs by Portland pianist Randy Porter, legendary bassist Ray Brown, singer Karrin Allyson and others, earning a Grammy nomination for her 2006 album, Live at the Jazz Standard With Fred Hersch. Her recent New York performances with pianists Hersch and Geoffrey Keezer and singer Kurt Elling earned rapturous reviews in The New York Times. After one such performance, the great opera singer Renée Fleming approached her. "I always wanted to be you," the one-time jazz singer told King.
Her accolades have not enabled King to escape the financial stresses imposed by her medical bills (she needs knee replacements) and jazz's declining significance. King has also struggled against a lifetime of tough breaks: Family betrayals, near-death experiences and, worst of all, the recent death of her youngest son.
But King's triumphs and tragedies all inform her singing so deeply that every phrase is fueled by her unfiltered feelings. "I'm not singing for myself," she says. "I really am singing for you. I want everyone to experience what I'm feeling."
That experience isn't always easy, but it is hugely rewarding.
SEE IT: Nancy King plays her weekly residency at Touché, 1425 NW Glisan St., on Wednesday, Aug. 15. 7 pm. $5. 21+.