Moment to moment

Rita Graham follows her muse

It's a blustery Sunday evening in Buckhead, too cold for October. The prematurely wintry air, perhaps combined with the chilling fallout of Sept. 11 and a World Series game on television, conspires this night to diminish the typical Sunday trade at Sambuca Jazz Cafe.

Undaunted, vocalist Rita Graham, wearing black slacks, a low-cut black top and a jeweled vest, is leading a frighteningly talented piano/bass/drums trio through a set of jazz, blues and pop standards, including "Everything Must Change," "God Bless The Child" and a blistering version of "Green Dolphin Street." She throws in a few from her recent CD release, Live at Sambuca Atlanta, including the swinging "Down Here on the Ground."

Graham, who performs every Sunday at Sambuca, sings with a natural ease that's at once effortless and commanding. She doesn't posture or pose. She doesn't oversell her performance, allowing the songs — and not her delivery of them — to bask triumphantly in the moment.

Graham grew up in Detroit, where her father ran a barber shop/beauty parlor that featured a rather unforgettable jukebox. "People would come from all over the city to my dad's barbershop," Graham recalls. "That jukebox had everything you could think of on it ." Meanwhile, her mother, a jazz pianist raised on classical music, also exposed young Rita to a wide variety of performers and styles.

Little could Graham have known the path to which her parents' influence would lead. She's performed with Ray Charles, Harry James, Kenny Burrell, Oscar Peterson and many others. Along the way, she's also crossed paths with Redd Foxx, Mike Post and Howard Hughes, to name a few.

It's a course Graham has followed intuitively. "People ask me how I do all these things. I tell them that I don't do anything," Graham says. "I do what that voice in my head tells me to do. It's a spiritual thing, like a beacon."

By the time she moved from Detroit to California in her late teens, Graham knew that music, and not an impending career as a schoolteacher, was her destiny. Gigs in Los Angeles led to an Australian tour, where she met Ray Charles backstage in Sydney. "Ray and I started singing, and I knew all those [songs] that he started throwing at me," Graham recalls, with a laugh.

Back in L.A., the tour behind her, her mother soon had a phone message for her: Ray Charles was interested in putting out an album by Graham. "She said, 'You'd better sit down,' ... I almost fainted," Graham says.

The LP, Vibrations, was released on Charles' Tangerine label in 1968. Shortly after she'd finished the record, Graham got another call from Charles. His vocalists, the Raylettes, walked out on him the day of a show. "He called and said, 'What are you doing today?' ... He said, 'Come on down here. I need a little help today.' ... That night, we were standing onstage at the Coconut Grove." Graham worked with Charles for a year before moving on.

In 1974, she landed the role of Coretta Scott King in the musical production, Selma. She reprised the role off-Broadway in 1983. Also in 1974, comedian Redd Foxx, one of the show's financial backers, brought Graham to Atlanta to perform scenes from the play at a Southern Christian Leadership Conference event. The visit sowed the seeds for Graham's eventual move to Atlanta.

In the late '80s, Graham worked in an L.A.-based ensemble with saxophonist Steve Hooks (who performed on and helped produce her Sambuca CD). By 1990, though, she was ready for a change of scenery for her family, which included two daughters and a granddaughter. She remembered her Atlanta visit and soon the entire family, including her husband and mother, had relocated.

Graham performed at the now-defunct Sounds of Buckhead restaurant, and later was a featured vocalist in the African-American Philharmonic Orchestra. She began her Sambuca stint in May 1999, working usually with keyboardist Jez Graham (no relation), bassist Gary Land and drummer Mike Nepote, although on this night, Arthur Turner is on piano.

Between sets, the apparently tireless Graham mentions that she is working on a novel, a romantic thriller, and later adds that she has written a musical showcasing 20th-century African-American women. She's preparing for a studio recording, a February appearance at the Callanwolde Fine Arts Center jazz series and a European tour next year with drummer Charly Antolini, all of which she'll no doubt take a step at a time.

"I see life as a series of moments," Graham says. "All we have is that moment, and I try to create lovely moments that people can enjoy."

Rita Graham performs Sundays at Sambuca Jazz Cafe, 3102 Piedmont Road, 8-11 p.m. No cover. 404-237-5299. www.sambucajazzcafes.com. Graham also performs Wednesdays and Thursdays at Violette Restaurant, 2948 Clairmont Road, 7-9 p.m. No cover. 404-633-3363. She sings Fridays at the Ritz-Carlton, 3434 Peachtree Road. 6-8 p.m. No cover. 404-237-2700. For more information on Graham, visit www.ritagraham.com.

E-mail or send jazz news to Bryan Powell, 830 Josh Lane, Lawrenceville, GA 30045-3156.