Sarah Shea and all that jazz

Sitting under a picnic-shelter by a large pond at Carrie Blake Community Park, Sarah Shea recalls her son had his first birthday party at this picnic table. Now 6-and-a-half, Liam is a cellist and a soccer player. After picking his cello up from near the park’s bandshell, Shea and son return to the park later in the day for his soccer game.

“I was having a lot of gigs when I was pregnant and the saxophone player was playing right into my stomach, so he’s been hearing music all his life,” Shea says.

“He’ll say, ‘Don’t you know who my mommy is? She’s a jazz singer.’ He thinks I’m kind of famous.”

A Sequim native and popular jazz singer who has been performing in the area for many years, Shea has worked with a rotating cast of musicians, recorded several albums, and performed in local musical theater.

Her musical partners include the Stardust Big Band and Chez Jazz Trio.

Shea is having a particularly busy month: earlier this month, she traveled to New York City to participate in her graduation ceremony at Teachers College of Columbia (she earned a Master of Arts in music). Last week she flew back to Washington state and to perform in the sold-out Chelan Jazz and Wine Festival on May 17 and 18 with George Radebaugh (piano), Milo Peterson (drums), Todd Fisher (bass) and special guest Dmitri Matheny (fluglehorn), who’s played his own sets at the festival.

Known locally for her smooth and open vocals, Shea was almost surprised to receive an invitation to the Chelan festival, noting that she did not apply and that many of the festival roster are heavy-hitters in the Seattle jazz scene.

Shea’s singing career has at times been anything but smooth: She has experienced a number of injuries affecting her ability to croon. She broke her back, she broke a rib, and suffered an injury that impaired her jaw’s motion.

“I’ve really had to retrain myself as a vocalist, she says.”I kind of had to use the back-space of my soft-palate more. I had to make sure I wasn’t raising my larynx, keeping it in a neutral spot. For about two months I couldn’t talk.”

Now she’s dealing with a cyst on her vocal cords. Following her trips to New York and Lake Chelan, Shea sent an update, “I actually fell down an escalator in New York on Thursday and fractured my sacrum so I was singing in Chelan the whole time with a fractured sacrum. It’s been crazy!”

In addition to the physical challenges, she has shouldered a fair amount of emotional burden going through the process of being a single mother.

However, she says, all of this contributes to a closer connection with the music. When discussing her 2011 recording of “Cry Me a River,” Shea says that she would sing it differently now, with a rawer vocal interpretation. As she matures, she is less interested in vocal acrobatics, and more tuned into the words’ meaning and the expression of their underlying emotion.

Adapting and changing

Known by fellow musicians for never rehearsing before shows — something some improvising jazz musicians appreciate about her — Shea says part of her motivation for avoiding rehearsals is that it creates a more open space for authentic musical experiences.

Photo courtesy of Sarah Shea / Sequim jazz singer Sarah Shea is pictured on stage before a windy set at Lake Chelan Jazz and Wine Festival on May 17.

Photo courtesy of Sarah Shea / Sequim jazz singer Sarah Shea is pictured on stage before a windy set at Lake Chelan Jazz and Wine Festival on May 17.

She says she is more interested in genuinely connecting with audiences than performing or entertaining. She will often have meaningful interactions with audience members after shows about the feelings that her music brought out in them.

As an exception to her normal process, she decided to rehearse for the Chelan festival, and she confesses that it was helpful, recalling this “epiphany” through laughter.

Lately, however, music has been on the back-burner for Shea. She speaks openly — if not with a detached and dry humor — about how life has been somewhat hazy of late. She says that her friends joke about her melancholic outlook. As the sun beats down across the park lawn, she also notes she is happy to be out taking photographs, talking about her music and gearing up to bring it to the people.

Shea will be singing with ska-punk band Mort Crim All Stars as a part of the Juan De Fuca Festival in Port Angeles, at 4:40 p.m. Saturday, May 25, at the Naval Elks Lodge ballroom (131 E. First St.), and 2:45 p.m. on Sunday, May 26, on the outdoor stage at the Vern Burton Community Center, 308 E. Fourth St. She will also be joining them at Summertide Solstice Art Festival on June 15 at the Port Angeles Fine Arts Center, 1203 E. Lauridsen Blvd.; their set begins at 4 p.m.

Keep an eye on Shea’s Facebook page ( for local show announcements.