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Becky Kilgore: solid reputation in jazz world

Cam Miller

Blessed with a honey-coated voice, good looks, an effortless delivery and a penchant for songs that swing, Becky Kilgore would have been a perfect fit for a big band vocalist. Except for one thing – she wouldn’t have wanted to be a part of the scene.

Here’s why.

“Maybe I could have made more money than I do now, but somehow I can’t picture me seated on a bandstand, wearing a frilly dress, waiting for a chance to sing one song and then returning to my chair and sitting there with a smile frozen on my face, just waiting to sing again,” explained Kilgore, who will make a return appearance Tuesday night at the Nevada County Fairground’s Family Festival Center with the chamber jazz quartet, B.E.D. “That would have been far too limiting and it wouldn’t be me.”

Kilgore admits she has always been an explorative singer, looking for that obscure tune others may have overlooked, taking an arrangement and re-working it, or checking out a music form to see if it suits her fancy.

That’s how the jazz vocalist got involved in country western and wound up singing in three country bands in the early ’80s before she realized it really wasn’t her cup of tea.

“I enjoyed the experience,” she said, “but I never felt comfortable. I was raised in Waltham, Mass. which is hardly a hotbed for country music. So, I lacked the background to have a real feeling for country.”

No question, the 50-something singer and sometime rhythm guitarist will be on much firmer ground when she performs with B.E.D. with which she’s sung since it was assembled three years ago by leader, trombonist and occasional pianist Dan Barrett.

“B.E.D.’s fun time,” said Kilgore of the foursome that also includes banjoist and guitarist Eddie Erickson and bassist Joel Forbes. “We think alike musically, all of us take things in stride and we’re friends both off and on the stage. You can’t ask for much more than that.”

Nor could Kilgore and friends ask for much more than another concert in Grass Valley after a memorable debut here last year.

“That concert hall is a delight,” judged Kilgore. “Since there are just four of us in B.E.D., our act is suited much better to intimate venues. And while your hall isn’t all that small, the acoustics are warm and inviting. And it makes us feel very much at ease.”

Warm and inviting are also two words that come to mind in describing B.E.D.’s music. The arrangements, crafted by Barrett, feature a tight blend of instruments and voice and instrumental solos are inventive, though not daring. And whereas Barrett and Kilgore are Mr. Smooth and Ms. Silky, Erickson is the band cut-up as well as being a fine vocalist.

Barrett cut his chops on Dixieland joints when he was a kid and Erickson also got his start by playing banjo while still in short pants. Not so Kilgore, who blossomed much later than her colleagues.

Although her father was a trained musician, Kilgore is a natural. She has had little or no formal voice training – only guitar lessons – but instead claims “Ella Fitzgerald was my teacher. I learned by listening to her records early on.” Later it was Billie Holiday and Maxine Sullivan who became her over-the-air mentors.

Kilgore considered herself a closet vocalist until she moved to Portland in 1979, where she had her first gig with a swinging Wholly Cats combo with which she both sang and played guitar: “It was a gas and it convinced me that I wanted to make a career out of singing.”

Kilgore may have been a late starter, but over the years she has built a solid reputation in the jazz world. At last count, she had 30 albums to her credit, with a new B.E.D. disc (“BEDlam”) available soon, has appeared on Prairie Home Companion, can be heard on the sound track of the flick, “Sleepy Time,” has been interviewed twice by the respected Terri Gross on PBS’s “Fresh Air,” and has become the “must have” vocalist for jazz party producers.

She also has sung with several small bands over the years and built a solid following on the jazz festival circuit while singing with Hal Smith’s Roadrunners, a sextet based in San Diego. While the stint gave Kilgore exposure, it also was limiting and she eventually left the band to concentrate on “bigger fish.” And when she did, Smith broke up the group, saying that “Without Becky, the band just won’t be the same.”

Until quite recently, Kilgore hosted a show on a Portland radio station that featured interviews she had taped with jazz greats wherever Kilgore happened to be performing.

“It was great fun and I’d still be doing it if it weren’t for the time it takes to edit the tapes. When you travel as much as I do, eight or ten hours just to edit one tape are more than I can spare,” she said. “At one time, the radio show was high priority, but now it isn’t.

“I’m married to a musician (a trumpet player) and we have precious little free time together so I think I’d better be concentrating on the things that are important to my marriage and my career.”


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