At the end of the title track to her new album, entitled "Red," Sarah Elizabeth Charles allows herself to become fully immersed in a swirling wave of emotions. Charles' velvety voice softly echoes that she is “wading in the red, wading in the red.” The color, she believes, defines a whole panoply of feelings. That’s fitting because, as famed bassist and jazz composer Charles Mingus once observed, jazz music is a language of the emotions.
And Charles, who grew up in the Hungry Hill section of Springfield and recently returned here for an acclaimed concert at Robyn Newhouse Hall, speaks that language fluently. With a new album released in September on Truth Revolution Records, she is a sought-after performer in New York City and beyond.
But she knows that the composition that is her life could have played out differently. If it weren’t for the scholarships she received as a young girl to the Community Music School of Springfield, Charles says she might be in law school right now instead of lighting up a room with her lush voice and musical arrangements.
“What the Community Music School has done is to allow children who otherwise wouldn’t have gotten an intensive musical education to get one. I’m forever in debt to them for providing me with that,” Charles said before her concert at the school on Oct. 5.
A singer in the choir at the former Our Lady of Hope School in Springfield, Charles was captivated by music at a young age.
“One of my earliest memories is sitting in the church pews, looking up at the choir and wanting to sing,” Charles said.
When she wanted to take classical piano lessons at age 6, her parents found the Community Music School of Springfield. For more than 30 years, the school has offered intensive education to students in the Greater Springfield area thanks largely to the generosity of donors.
“The jazz tradition has always been an important part of our mission,” said Eileen McCaffery, interim executive director. “That’s why we’re so excited Sarah could perform here.”
It was at the school that Charles took jazz vocal lessons with Montenia Shider.
“I started listening to some of Montenia’s recordings,” Charles recalls. “I really loved it and started imitating what I was hearing. I wasn’t really exposed to jazz at home growing up, but as I began listening more, I just gravitated toward it naturally.”
Eventually, she would study under world-renowned masters at The New School For Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York City while earning a dual degree from Eugene Lang College in sociology and urban studies, not to mention numerous accolades.
Wherever her musical journey takes her, it is never too far from her roots. Two of the songs on her latest album are her renditions of Haitian folk songs, an exploration of her Haitian heritage through her father and an expression of hope for a country that has been ravaged by natural disasters and poverty.
The allure of jazz is rooted in its spontaneity. No two versions of “Red,” for instance, are ever the same.
“Jazz challenged me and pushed me when I started singing it,” Charles said. “If you find that in something and you also love it, what more can you ask for?"
Photo credit: Jim Langone | langonephoto.com
Sarah Elizabeth Charles sings "Night of the Nightingale" at a fashion show during Couture Fashion Week in New York.