Online since August 2002

Exit strategy
Ailing singer helps plan her own going-away party

Published May 2005

Not to be fatalistic, but Peggy Claire has decided to take her farewells into her own hands.

Diagnosed with cancer, uncertain of her future health or performance opportunities – and facing a growing pile of medical bills – the San Diego-based jazz singer (and poet – see our Poetry section) decided to help organize her own benefit/farewell concert.

Of course, anyone who's ever had the chance to talk to Claire for more than a few minutes will realize that this is a tough woman and that only a fool would bet against her recovery without a hedge or two.

"A couple of months ago, Charles McPherson said he wanted to do a benefit when I told him I was ill," Claire said by phone from her San Diego home. "I hate asking for money, hate being sick. But I realized, No. 1, I do need money. The alternative things I'm doing that aren't paid for by insurance are what's keeping me healthy; keeping me strong enough for the chemo. And 2, I wanted to see all my friends. There're so many wonderful, wonderful musicians that I've worked with or hired as a booking agent through the years that people don't get to hear."

And so in late March at Humphrey's Backstage club, a who's who of San Diego jazz gathered to celebrate Claire's life and career – and undoubtedly make some incredible music, too (your correspondent was too ill to attend). For $25, listeners were to hear some of the very best jazz musicians to ever grace this town. In addition to McPherson (who earned his chops back in the '60s playing for Charles Mingus), world-famous guitarist Mundell Lowe was scheduled to play, as will former Sarah Vaughan sidemen Mike Wofford (piano) and Bob Magnusson (bass). They were to be joined by other local faves like Gilbert Castellanos (trumpet); saxophonists Daniel Jackson, Joe Marillo and Tripp Sprague; Holly Hofmann and Lori Bell on flute; and Jim Plank and Chuck McPherson on drums. Among many, many others. (Afterwards, jazz luminary Jeannie Cheatham described the evening as stellar.)

It was likely the largest gathering of San Diego's top jazz players ever assembled.

Claire's own San Diego roots stretch back to 1973, when she blew into town determined to make it as a folk minstrel.

"I wanted to get a taste of what was left of the hippie culture," she said of her arrival. Born and initially raised in New Mexico, Claire's family had moved to New Orleans when she was in junior high school.

And while New Orleans has made an impression on many a jazz musician, Claire's experience with the Crescent City wasn't so positive – nor clich�d.

"I didn't want to stay in New Orleans!" she said. "I hated the racism there and I wanted out of the Deep South."

Peggy Claire Besides, Claire said, she didn't become interested in jazz until she was in San Diego.

"I grew up listening to the music of and loving the music of the '50s. I was born in '52 – born straight into hearing Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra and seeing them on TV.

"I was trained classically as a child, starting at about 5. My mother says I hummed melodies before I talked! My favorite singer was Frank Sinatra, because I could sing an octave above him. I learned a lot of songs by singing along to Frank."

But it was as a singer-songwriter in the folk mold that Claire first made her way as a professional musician; how she first cut her teeth in San Diego. But she said in the late 1970s, her drummer loaned her a tape of Billie Holiday – and Claire said it was a revelation.

She dissolved her band, and began studying jazz.

After spending a little time studying two songs, she went to one of Joe Marillo's gigs and asked to sit in. But when Marillo's bass player hit a wrong note, it threw her off and she said she was unable to recover for the rest of the song.

However, rather than scaring her off, she said that experience is what permanently hooked her on jazz. "I thought, 'I found music that is much more complicated than I thought it was and much more interesting and I'm going to have to really study, really learn how to do this music. it's not something I can just pick up and boom, I'm a jazz singer.' "

After studying with jazz great Jimmy Cheatham at UCSD, Claire was ready for the quarter-century of jazz she's enjoyed to date.

"The most fun thing about jazz is the freedom – not having to have a set list, not having to have charts. I much prefer working with guys who don't need charts. Even though things might be a little blander, I'm not into jazz for complexity – I'm into it for freedom.

"Singing is so ephemeral; it's like flying. It's never the same twice.

"Nobody goes into jazz for money. You do it because you love it; you do it because you can't not do it. You do it because you're obsessed with it."

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