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Shawnn Monteiro: jazz evangelist
By Lauren Johnson
Banner Correspondent

“It was 1982, I think,” says Shawnn Monteiro, the Providence-based jazz vocalist who will open the Provincetown Jazz Festival on Aug. 10. “I was in New York at a big company’s recording studios. I had just walked by Bob Dylan in the hallway. I got into the session, and we did about 20 minutes, and I just said ‘guys, I can’t do this’ and I left. They wanted me to be Karen Carpenter, and that isn’t me.”

Prior to that day, and every day since, Shawnn Monteiro has been performing the music that is her — jazz. A native of Boston, Monteiro was “discovered” by percussionist and Latin band leader Mongo Santamaria while playing at a club in San Jose, Calif., where she went to school. He signed her as his vocalist, and her touring life began in earnest. During the years that followed, Monteiro shared the stage with too many notable jazz names to list, among them Spyro Gyra, Red Holloway, Ray Brown, Lionel Hampton, her godfather Clarke Terry and her own legendary bassist father, the late Jimmy Woode.

“My dad traveled all the time when I was a kid,” recalls Monteiro. “He played with all the greats (Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong, to name a few), and he was with Duke Ellington’s Orchestra for five years.” In 1950, her father made his first trip to Europe; 10 years later he moved to Stockholm. Much later, when Monteiro was recording her first CD and playing in New York, her father came to hear her. Afterwards, he encouraged her to come to Europe, where the jazz scene was thriving, and where it was (and still is) much easier to make a living as a jazz musician. The European enthusiasm and support for jazz continues to this day, as Monteiro has discovered for herself.

“Walk down the main street in any city in Europe, you’ll find a place where they’re playing live jazz,” says Monteiro. “Little children there know the music, they know the history of jazz. There’s a whole network of small jazz clubs. There’s just so much love and enthusiasm in Europe for this American art form.”

This kind of support translates to a thriving jazz scene, where musicians can make a reliable living — unlike in the U.S. As a result, Monteiro and artists like her spend much of their time playing and teaching there. In Italy, Monteiro teaches a week-long master class every year. Students work on their vocals, learn the history of jazz, try different styles, all the while working with professionals. “I love to teach,” Monteiro says. “While I can’t give talent, I can help with things like material choices, set choices. I can talk about how to command respect from your players — something female vocalists in particular have to know.”

When she’s at home in Rhode Island, Monteiro works to preserve the art of jazz through her teaching and performing. She bemoans the loss of music programs in public schools, and recalls the early ’90s, when she and other Northeastern jazz musicians went to public schools on the Cape to teach students about jazz. “We’d meet at seven and drive all over, talking about Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, all the greats. We’d give concerts and play music with the kids. Programs like that are always the first things to go.”

Monteiro speaks with great compassion and concern for those affected by Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed the homes and the venues of so many American jazz artists. “Jazz is our own art form, a purely American art form,” she says with great urgency. “It’s critical that those people get the help that they need to survive, to continue to be able to live and play in their city.”

Fresh from her most recent trip to Italy, Monteiro is thrilled to be a part of the relatively new Provincetown Jazz Festival, now in its third year. More festivals, of course, mean more places for artists like Monteiro to perform their craft, and more opportunities for people to hear live jazz. Besides, Monteiro says, laughing, who wouldn’t want to come to Provincetown in the summer? “I’ve always loved Provincetown — there’s so much culture: the art, the street musicians, the history. My husband and I have always enjoyed coming here, walking around, remembering how beautiful it is.”

As a vocalist, Monteiro has been called “exciting, pulsating and completely original,” and she acknowledges the influences of Carmen McRae and Sarah Vaughan in her approach to her music. Her popularity continues to grow both here and abroad; she continues to “spread the word” about jazz, and as always, to perform the music that is her own — that is, in fact, her legacy. Like her father, Monteiro is a member of jazz’s royal family. “But really,” she says with a laugh, “I’m just an old timer — someone who wants to see the art form survive.”