Cover Story

Patti Austin
Cruising into a fulfilling life and GRAMMY-winning career
By Preston Turegano


After more than 50 years of making music, traveling extensively around the world to perform concerts and finally winning a GRAMMY after several nominations, R&B legend Patti Austin, who turns 59 this month, says she finally feels like she has her fingers in every pie she’s interested in poking.
    
“Right now, I’m really doing everything that I want to do at this point and that I’ve been working for a very long time to get to,” Austin said. “I’m starting to do production work on a film and on a radio show that ultimately will become a TV show. We haven’t brought anything home yet, but we’re certainly on the journey. After all that gets done, I’m going to a small island and try to figure out what my favorite record is.”
    
The island plan is in response to the question, “Do you have a particular song or record you performed or made that is your favorite?” The answer was identical to what most parents say when asked if they have a favorite child.
    
“I love all my children (songs) equally,” Austin said. “I’m afraid I would not have been any good in the ‘Sophie’s Choice’ situation.” (Austin has never been married and has no children.)
    
Born in New York’s Harlem and raised in Long Island, Austin was the daughter of a jazz trombonist father and homemaker mother who became a psychotherapist. Although she had three stepbrothers while growing up, Austin had no true siblings.
    
She said watching her father practice daily led her to music. Among her other mentors were the late “Queen of Blues” Dinah Washington and dance and song master Sammy Davis Jr.   (Washington was Austin’s godmother, and her godfather is Quincy Jones. Many of Austin’s albums are on Jones’ Qwest label.)
    
In what must have been as phenomenal as some of the vocal juvenile wonders seen on such contemporary TV talent shows as “Britain’s Got Talent” and “America’s Got Talent,” Austin sang at the Apollo Theater when she was 4 and had a recording contract with RCA Records when she was 5.
     
During her adult career as a recording artist, Austin has had such single hits as “Family Tree” (1969) and “Do You Love Me?” (1980). Her duet sensations have been “Baby, Come To Me” (1981) and “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?” (1982), both with James Ingram. “Baby, Come To Me” was immortalized by TV’s “General Hospital” soap opera and “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?” was from the movie “Best Friends” and received an Academy Award nomination that Austin and Ingram performed on Oscars night.
     
Recently, Austin’s duet collaboration in 1979 with Michael Jackson for his Off The Wall album achieved renewed interest. The recording was a blend of funk, disco-pop, soul, soft rock, jazz and pop ballads. For the album, Jackson also collaborated with other writers and performers such as Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder and Rod Temperton.
    
In the wake of Jackson’s untimely death on June 25, Austin appeared on CNN’s “Larry King Live” to discuss her experience with the King of Pop.
    
“I was friends with Michael for a short and glorious period at a time that was his golden era,” Austin said. “Our relationship was a very friendly one, but I certainly could not say I was his regular hanging buddy. We did a lot of talking and working together.”
    
Over the past 33 years, Austin has cut nearly 20 hit albums. Her 2007 Avant Gershwin won a GRAMMY in 2008 for Best Jazz Vocal Album. It was the ninth time Austin had been nominated in the category.
    
“I was very happy to have accomplished that,” Austin said. “But I was much happier for my Avant Gershwin collaborators. What the GRAMMY gave me, as it does other nominees and winners, was about two weeks of name recognition and visibility.”
    
As for 2009, Austin isn’t ready to rate or judge the year professionally.
“It’s hard to say,” she said. “It’s not over yet. I will say it’s been fast moving. My friends and I often agree how quick it (life) all keeps going by. When you’re a kid and in school and you want to get out of the classroom, the day takes a thousand years to progress. Then, when you want to savor something, it goes by like a rocket ship.”
    
Austin’s first half of the current year was spent like many of her other years––traveling to either Asia, Europe or places around the United States to perform, usually at jazz festivals.
She’s scheduled to appear with Norman Brown’s Summer Storm at the 22nd annual Long Beach Jazz Festival on Aug. 7 and perform in Tokyo and Osaka, Japan, for the Billboard Live tour Aug. 21-24. Austin’s fall schedule begins Oct.10 with the Capital Jazz SuperCruise III out of Baltimore. (The cruise is featured in this month’s issue of Smooth Jazz News.) Austin will be hosting a program during the weeklong sailing.
    
“All jazz cruises are great fun,” Austin said. “They attract a great crowd, an enthusiastic, educated audience that’s fun to spend time with and to perform for.”
    
Once upon a time in Austin’s career, Baltimore would have been just a short jaunt from the singer’s native New York, but since the 1970s Austin has lived off-and-on in Los Angeles or in New York. Currently, she lives in Los Angeles, but for security reasons she declined to pin point which community. She will only say she lives in an apartment that has her personal touch. She said she does not collect anything anymore.
    
“Several years ago, a house I lived in burned down because of an electrical fire,” Austin said. “Up until then, I had been quite a collector, shopper and materialistic asshole, but the fire ended all that for me. It was the best thing that ever happened to me, emotionally. Before that, I was very obsessed with things and then I found out how unimportant they were.”**
 
**The complete Patti Austin feature story can be found in the July issue of Smooth Jazz News. Pick up your free copy at our radio station affiliates (see radio station page for listings), various concerts, festivals and select Southern California outlets. Or you can subscribe and receive 11 editions of Smooth Jazz News per year, mailed monthly (except January), for $35. Click here to subscribe online today.

For more information on Austin, including her complete tour schedule, visit www.pattiaustin.com.