I don’t have a precise memory of meeting Wesla Whitfield. In the ’80s, I got to see Whitfield in the Plush Room in San Francisco, and she was just amazing, and I would see her at the Algonquin in New York. Years later we performed in Tucson, Arizona—my first time singing in Tucson, where I now live—at Centennial Hall. We did a show with the pianist Mike Greensill, her husband, and Karrin Allyson called “Broadway Swings.” This was the first time we really got to hang out and spend several days together, and it was great getting to know her and getting to witness the process between Mike and Wesla, because their relationship, both as a married couple and as two musicians who worked together, was really special in this business. The sensitivity of Mike’s accompaniment has always been sublime. He has impeccable taste. There are a lot of people who know how to play jazz, but not a lot of people who know how to accompany a singer, and he is one of those rare people.
After the tragedy of her being shot and paralyzed [from the waist down, in 1977], Mike would bring her onstage and just matter-of-factly lift her up and put her on a stool. And it was “This is what happens, and now it’s not about that anymore; it’s about the music.” Suddenly you felt like you didn’t need somebody moving around, shaking their hips, walking the stage. That was the power of her focus and of the beautiful intelligence she brought to the great songs of jazz and Broadway.
Her lack of self-pity was incredible, and she was such a role model for anyone who was trying to deal with any kind of tremendous obstacle. But I did notice in her overall being a slight sadness. I think she had big dreams; that was my impression. The last time I saw her, Mike was accompanying me in a symphony concert in the San Francisco area. She was sad that she wasn’t working very much, and I was trying to encourage her. She had a certain sense of resignation. I don’t think I understood—because she didn’t tell me—the condition of her health. The main thing about Wesla is that she wanted her life to be about the music—about her heart and her soul and not about her body. With that fortitude she was able to have a career that touched so many people. Everyone who knew her loved her. She always had a very devoted following, and it was usually a smart, sensitive, fun crowd. Those audiences worshipped at her feet.
She had a clarion voice, and she could do so much with it, but she also had a very refined sense of what needed to be done with her singing. Her voice was like an oboe. When you hear a concert with a symphony, the oboe has the big solo that makes you cry; it has that sort of plaintive quality to it that suddenly stops everything. She got started in opera, but her emphasis on telling the story of a lyric was what made her special. She paid stunning attention to the nuances of emotion in a song. So many jazz singers have remarkable instruments and do so much and it’s a dazzling, pyrotechnic festival of sound. But they don’t always listen to the lyric; they don’t always tell the story the way she did. You learn something from that kind of performance.
We were both drawn to the theatrical power of an intimate performance that is like a thought-out journey, in the way that somebody makes a movie. That’s the way she and I approached an evening of music. There was a hybrid group of us that came out [who were] creating a cabaret experience in the language of jazz. I think many of the people I admire in jazz are people who bring together many interesting threads of musical inspiration. It doesn’t have to be a scat-singing bebop experience to have the delicacy or the feel of jazz. She had her own unique blend of theater and jazz, and I think Mike’s gorgeous harmonies and clever arrangements served her music very well.
She was a sweet person. Her hobby was making teddy bears, and if she liked you she gave you a teddy bear. I feel like Wesla never got quite as much national attention as she deserved, and I hope people will remember her and benefit from the beauty of her singing.
[As told to Evan Haga]