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Sharon Rae North Shares How Jazz is Generational: “We’re Still Here”

Northern Virginia-based jazz singer Sharon Rae North possesses an extraordinary passion for what she does, choosing to share with the world her beautiful voice and personal projects that evoke emotions for thousands of listeners. She is a strong force in not only our local jazz world, but the world as a whole, as she adds her own touch to the musical genre she fell in love with while paying homage to those who have come before her. Read more to learn about where her jazz journey has taken her so far, and what makes pursuing it worth it – the history behind the genre and its power of bringing people together. 

North has released several projects since 2003 that have garnered worldwide acclaim. Notable ones include her first commercial studio album, The Way You Make Me Feel, which came out in 2007 and still continues to receive international airplay. Also included is her Sincerely Yours EP from 2016 that charted globally and made the 59th Annual GRAMMY Awards’ initial ballot in the “Best Jazz Vocal Album” category, and two of the five songs were Billboard contenders. Her 2019 Billboard-charting single, “Moments”, featuring saxophonist Marion Meadows, was also a first ballot contender in the GRAMMY Awards. It marked the third consecutive summer in which North landed a song on the Billboard Smooth Jazz Chart. “Moments” led to her most recent album released in 2022, Silhouette, produced by two-time GRAMMY nominee Chris “Big Dog” Davis and two-time GRAMMY winner Paul Brown. “We Should be in Love (Silhouette)” was also on the initial GRAMMY ballot in the Best R&B Song category.

She has learned to balance her full-time job with her true passion. Her award-winning journalism career included serving as a news writer and fill-in anchor for CNN in Atlanta, where she did her last journalism jobs. In 2008, she had been out of television for a few years when she applied for a position with the City of Richmond, where she then relocated to become the Public Information Manager for the Department of Public Works. After about 12 and a half years, she decided to try something different, and moved to Virginia to work for the Fairfax County Government as their Communications Section Chief for the Department of Public Works and Environmental Services. “Since I was born a singer, everything else is something that I do,” she says. “A singer is who and what I am, so that goes with me.” 

This unique perspective follows her wherever she goes, as music is in her soul; she learned to sing as a little girl. She remembers sitting in front of her parents stereo for hours when she wasn’t even old enough to go to school yet. “I didn’t realize then that I was studying their voices, because I could listen to the same song all day,” she says. And this is something that she still does – listening to the same song in her earbuds for months in order to learn more and grow.

"Silhouette" promotional photo
North is a proud, strong, independent Black woman. / "Silhouette" promotional photo

Her parents were very musical; her father loved straight-ahead jazz musicians like Charlie Parker, while her mom gravitated toward vocalists like Nancy Wilson. It is clear to see how greatly her parents have influenced her. Among her career, North is also an author, and wrote a book called Frantastically Frances dedicated to “The Sayings and Snarks of My Mama, the Senior.” (Her other book published in 2003 is a children’s book entitled My Brand New Leg about a young girl who is questioned about her prosthetic leg by a schoolmate, based on a conversation her father had with a little girl shortly after losing his legs due to complications from diabetes.) She shared a touching story with me about a particular performance where these childhood memories flooded back to her:

“I remember when I was a little girl, my mom would be out on the patio, singing “Over the Rainbow,” and she had the most beautiful voice. About three or four years ago, she was at one of my shows in Richmond, and I was kind of warming up to “Over the Rainbow”, and she says, ‘Why don’t you do that sometime?’” 

It was just her and a piano player that night at a special event, but she told him to add “Over the Rainbow” at the end of the set. 

“I started singing, and I looked at my mom sitting, and I thought, ‘Where did all these years go?’ Because she had to have been in her twenties then, and a couple of weeks ago, she turned 85. And I’m thinking, ‘I used to listen to her singing while she was cooking; she’d be in the kitchen … And now she’s sitting on the front row of my show listening to me sing it.’ And tears started streaming down my face. I mean, not just one little tear, but just streaming down my face. And I’m thinking to myself, ‘What in the world is happening?’ And then my voice cracked a little bit, and I’m like, ‘Finish the song.’ So I went on ahead and finished it strong, but the emotion … it was just amazing to me that that happened. I don’t even know where the tears came from.” 

North's book about her mom, "Frantastically Frances"
North's book about her mother, "Frantastically Frances"

This shows just how much emotion goes into North’s craft, and performing is one of her greatest joys. She describes every show she’s done as a good show. Some highlights she mentioned include: the Serenade en Chalabre Festival in France, Herb Alpert’s Vibrato Grill Jazz in Los Angeles a few months ago, and The Tin Pan in Richmond last month. Last summer, she performed at her hometown Youngstown, Ohio, for its Wine and Jazz Festival. North puts on a mesmerizing show, and has opened for many national acts such as Patti LaBelle, Bob James, Joe Sample and the Jazz Crusaders, Four80East, and many others. “I’m appreciative of the people who come out and see me and enjoy,” she says. “I’m appreciative of the musicians who work with me.”

North is extremely grateful for the position in the jazz realm she is now able to fill, and pays tribute to the musicians, especially Black musicians, who have paved the way for her – their history is palpable. “All of us out here performing now have African-American artists that we stand on their shoulders,” she says. “They did the groundwork and the legwork and the suffering and they did all of that for us so we don’t deal with it the way they did … Black History Month gives us an opportunity to really go in deep on our heritage and what it means, and the significance of the accomplishments that we’ve had in this country that we don’t always get recognition for.” She reminds us that every month is Black History Month: “Black people helped make this country what it is.” She points out that she is only just a few generations removed from that suffering, which certainly puts things into perspective. “All of my grandparents, if they were alive, would be well into their hundreds, so it wasn’t that far removed from where I am right now,” she says. “Hundreds of years later, we’re still here. We’re resilient … They weren’t stupid. They were victims.”

What would Sharon Rae North tell her younger self? “To start everything younger, to not fill your head with self-doubt,” she says. “If you think you can do it, do it. There would be a lot of lessons that I would teach myself. I’m in a great place now, but there’s always your younger self who didn’t know what you know now.” 

As for the future, she is excited to do more shows since COVID slowed everything down. She is still cautious, but dipping her toes back into the water. On May 3, she will have her first headlining show at D.C.’s Blues Alley, where she will also perform this Wednesday, February 22, as a guest vocalist for Patrick Lamb. Within the next few months she will also be performing in Atlanta and Youngstown. She has accomplished so much in the past couple years, and has already had an eventful beginning to 2023 as a three-time jazz finalist for this year’s Wammie Awards. “I’m just excited about all the possibilities,” she says. North is a testament to always follow where your passions lie and see where they take you. 

Visit North’s website for more information and to stay up to date on her upcoming performances:

Alchemical Records contributor Emma Page

Emma Page

Emma Page, a recent Journalism graduate of The George Washington University, possesses a passion for music journalism and storytelling in all its forms. Originally from Baltimore, MD, when she is not writing, she can be found at a local concert or making music of her own.

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