Lady Sings the Blues

Facing uncommon obstacles, jazz singer Sanda Allyson at least finds her groove

It's an experience that borders on jaw-dropping, watching willowy, wheelchair-bound Sanda Allyson wend her way to the mic in the middle of Purada on a Friday night, her frail figure seemingly lost in the powerful, enveloping swing of the jazz quintet grooving behind her. Then, when she sounds the first note of her first song, the clubgoers' attentions are fairly riveted by the arresting beauty of her voice.

Possessed of octaves-spanning range, Allyson nails the huskier side of alto, then warbles spot-on soprano; she scat-sings nimbly, just like Ella Fitzgerald, then holds a final note with sustain worthy of the Met.

Yet Allyson never flaunts her gifts. Her performance is often reserved, never histrionic. And when the music does call for one of those scale-busting high notes that a less sensitive chanteuse would drive like a cold spike through one's inner ear, Allyson soars into the pitch with the supple grace of a bird reaching the apex of its flight.

But when one takes these facts in summary, it is yet more startling to hear Allyson describe herself as introverted—the painfully sensitive daughter of austerely religious parents who viewed music exclusively as a vessel for Sunday morning worship.

And then there is the vehicular collision that snapped her spine and robbed her of the use of her legs at the age of 28. The event served to redouble her introvert tendencies, driving her to hide away in a tiny apartment for several years until a friend all but forced her to sing in public again.

In thumbnail, Allyson's story is that of a series of often-cruel ironies, tragic turns of fate that seem calculated to corrupt her reflexive inclination to hope. Hers is a spiritually centered optimism that has seen her through tantalizingly close but then agonizingly fruitless brushes with success throughout her performing career.

"My friends dubbed me the ‘close-call queen,'" Allyson says. She recites a daunting litany of "almosts"—record deals that fell through; top-drawer auditions won, then backed out of due to her own insecurities. But if fate, or something like it, is truly trying to crush Sanda Allyson's spirit, it's failing. Many people wax triumphal when it comes to the notion of courage in the face of adversity, but Allyson has seen more adversity than most. Yet she still lives what she speaks.

"Being the close-call queen doesn't matter," she says with the kind of unaffected, affirming serenity that makes you know that she means it. "One of the few things I know about life is that I was meant to sing. It's a sacred commitment for me, the reason I'm on this planet. Even if it means that I end up on a street corner with a tin cup."

It's unlikely that Allyson will be banging a cup anytime soon. From Knoxville she's found plentiful work doing voiceovers, lending her crisp speaking voice to national and local TV and radio commercials, including the national BlackBerry campaign and local spots for East Tennessee Public Television.

She's also formed a promising musical partnership with the city's brightest star in the world of jazz, esteemed pianist/composer/educator Donald Brown. It is with Brown's local project After Dance that Allyson performs at Purada on Friday nights. Allyson calls working with Brown "the best musical experience I've ever had. He's such a great musician, and also an incredible human being."

An able songwriter herself, Allyson hints that the two of them may collaborate on composing/writing projects in the near future. But it's been a long road back to making music.

It's mid-afternoon on a weekday, and Allyson is entertaining a guest at her neat, elegant mid-sized apartment in West Knoxville. She has an unwaveringly gracious manner about her, a way of making her guest feel at home from the moment she answers the door.

"My grandmother said I was singing before I was talking," she relates with a smile. Yet her parents were much less willing to pay heed to her creative inclinations.

"My family was extremely conservative, and for years, the only music I was allowed to listen to was hymns," she remembers. "But I'd hear things, now and again, and I knew I liked jazz. I was first drawn to Miles Davis at age 6."

She relates that at the insistence of her mother, the family stationed an old piano in the living room, despite the fact that no one in the household played. "I was never supposed to touch the piano," she remembers. "Then one Saturday morning, I was watching cartoons, and one of those old K-tel records ads came on TV. It had a snippet, a few seconds long, of Beethoven's ‘Fur Elise.'

"So I went over and started plinking, and next thing I know I was playing the melody. Then I heard this screaming, and my mom was standing there in the door, white as a sheet."

Grudgingly, Allyson's mother allowed her daughter to start practicing on the long-neglected piano. "That piano became my best friend. I played all the time, but I would never play in front of anyone."

During her high school years in Los Angeles, Allyson also began modeling, having been told that her best strategy was to develop marketable skills in several aspects of performance. She started acting and auditioning for musicals. At age 20, she hosted and produced Facts on Fitness, a sports interview show that appeared on the largest independent TV stations in California.

She also learned that while she was perfectly at ease in front of a camera, she was beset with anxieties when it came to other venues, such as live theater. She'd win parts in musicals, or earn spots with up-and-coming vocal groups, then quit at the drop of a hat. "I'd always find a reason, but the real reason is that I was scared," she says.

By the early '90s, her career had gained momentum, in spite of her ongoing battles with stage fright. Her music was garnering label attention; she turned down a number of offers from smaller imprints, and entered into negotiations for a major-label record deal.

Then, in 1992, on a ski trip, she and some friends were strolling the parking lot of a mountain overlook when a runaway pickup came barreling around the curve, slid off the road into the overlook area, and rammed the Jeep their party had been riding in. The Jeep lurched forward, smashing into Allyson with such force that it caved in the hood all the way back to the engine.

Her spine was snapped completely in half, dislocated; she endured a grueling three-hour wait for an ambulance. She spent three months in the hospital and learned she would never walk again.

The driver who caused the accident was essentially uninsured. Burdened with enormous medical bills, she became a ward of the state. She lost her home, her car, her savings, her record deal, and, most distressingly, she says, "99 percent of my friends."

"After the hospital, my introversion went off the charts," Allyson says. "I call it my ‘cave experience.' I lived in a tiny apartment, and I wouldn't let anyone in. If I got a FedEx package, I opened the door six inches for the delivery."

Finally, after more than two years of self-imposed isolation, Allyson was jolted out of her malaise by a visit from an old friend. "He came and said, ‘Listen to me. Don't interrupt until I'm done talking. You have got to get back on stage again.'

"The only way I agreed was if I could sing background for him. We had an acoustic trio called Taylor and Cheyne. I sang background and played percussion. It forced me to work through some things. It did my soul some good."

Soon she was sitting in with other musicians, playing ever more frequently. "My return took on a life of its own," she says.

Then, out of nowhere, the DreamWorks label began making overtures, and Allyson found herself with real prospects for another major-label recording contract. The deal eventually fell through, but it provided a much-needed shot of confidence for Allyson's wounded spirit. "It was a comfort, that they thought I had talent, and took the time to consider me, even though I was in a wheelchair."

Allyson bought an acoustic guitar, anchored her finances with an office job, and spent her spare time writing songs at a frenzied pace. With help from some well-respected musician friends, she landed spots in prestigious California music festivals. Then she was asked to provide vocals for the 2004 ESPN Celebrity Golf Classic.

But the pace of life in Los Angeles—not to mention the high cost of living—was taking a toll on Allyson's health. With little thought other than finding an accessible apartment in a city with mild weather and a sane cost-of-living, she combed the Internet until she found a modest but attractive apartment, centrally located and handicap-accessible, on the western, suburban side of Knoxville.

Within days of her arrival here in 2006, she went to a local garage for routine car maintenance, where she made small talk with stranger who, upon learning she was a singer with an interest in jazz, insisted that she meet the esteemed jazz performer and University of Tennessee music school instructor Donald Brown.

At that time, Brown was playing regular gigs at the now-defunct Homberg-area restaurant Cha Cha. Allyson came out to a show one evening. They were introduced. "He asked me to sit in for a song. He doesn't usually let people he doesn't know sit in, so I'm suspicious that one of our mutual friends must have really bugged him to do it."

Brown admits that a mutual acquaintance did request that he allow Allyson a turn on the mic. But he says that he already had a sense that she wouldn't disappoint. Still, he was startled well beyond expectations the first time he heard her voice.

"Sometimes you get a sense of what people can do by how they carry themselves," Brown explains. "She knew all the songs, the keys, so I had a good feeling about her. But she was so much better than I expected. I was blown away when I heard her. I could tell she was very seasoned, that she had done a lot of singing professionally. There was a sense of history in her singing, in her ability to interpret so many different styles, jazz and blues and Latin and R&B."

It wasn't long before Brown asked her to appear with him regularly, a date that held over even after Cha Cha and the Bearden jazz club 4620 closed, and the newcomer Purada stepped in to make up for the dearth of live jazz hereabouts that resulted from the loss of those venues.

Allyson is unequivocal in her assessment of their musical collaboration, enthusiastic to a degree that seems notable even for a woman who's unafraid to embroider her zest for life and her art on both shirt sleeves. "I love where this is going. This is far and away the most fun I've had playing music, ever."

Brown adds that, "we've talked about writing together. A lot of my music has been put to lyrics in the past. And I could definitely envision doing that with Sanda somewhere down the line."

"Right now, I love what I'm doing," says Allyson—once again, spoken with the sort of peaceful knowing that leaves little doubt that it's true. "I'm not sure where the things I'm doing with Donald will go, what will happen with it, but I've long since learned to stay in the moment, that tomorrow will take care of itself. For me, the most important thing in life is that I keep moving forward, that I can always say that I'm better today than I was yesterday."