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Published: Thursday, 5/15/2008

Susan Chastain worked her way to jazz

Susan Chastain will perform at Murphy's Place this Friday. Susan Chastain will perform at Murphy's Place this Friday.

ANN ARBOR - Being a jazz singer and owning a jazz club in a hip college town would be a dream come true for a lot of people.

Not Susan Chastain.

The jazz vocalist and owner of the Firefly Club in Ann Arbor, who will perform at Murphy's Place tomorrow, never imagined a career in jazz. In fact, it was probably the last thing she ever thought she'd be doing for a career.

"I was an avid hater of jazz all my life," Chastain said with a laugh. "I dismissed the whole genre as kind of silly. But now I consider myself a jazz convert."

Her change of heart started in 1984 when Ron Brooks, owner of another Ann Arbor jazz club, the Bird of Paradise, asked her to manage his club.

Chastain said Brooks' offer came right after she had gone through a divorce and her futon store went out of business.

"I took the job because I needed money to support my kids. I had to drag myself into work every day," she said.

Pianist Harvey Reed ran a Monday night jam session at the Bird of Paradise and ended the night with the same song every week.

"After I was there six months, I asked Harvey what the name of the song was and he said, 'That's All.' I said, 'Does it have lyrics?' and he said, 'It does and I'll bring them in next week and you'll sing it.' He did and I did."

Chastain said that when she took the stage at the end of the night for her vocal debut, "there were three drunk people in the club."

She continued to sing "That's All" to close the Monday night jams.

Then another Ann Arbor jazz star, Paul Keller, invited Chastain to join his band to sing "Route 66" one Sunday evening, and that became a weekly gig for her.

"So I knew two songs total, and a lady came in to hear Paul Keller's band one night to hire a band to play at her wedding, and afterward she tells me, 'I just hired the band - with you as the singer.' "

Chastain said she had a few months to prepare for the wedding and eventually came to realize that the term "jazz" is a broad one.

"There are many facets to the jewel of jazz - big band and traditional jazz and Dixieland and progressive and bebop - a million different kinds," she said. "And there are some kinds I like more than others."

She found her niche singing the Great American Songbook and classic tunes by such composers as George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Harold Arlen.

Chastain has recorded three CDs, has two more on the way, and sings regularly in Ann Arbor with the 13-piece Paul Keller Orchestra, the Paul Keller Quartet, and the Easy Street Band.

She also has owned and operated the Firefly Club since 2000, when she assembled a group of 19 investors.

"I got the club open in June, 2000, on a shoestring and it's been on that shoestring ever since," she said.

Last year, the Firefly Club moved from its downtown location to 637 Main St., four blocks south of the main drag in the former site of The Ark, a legendary Ann Arbor folk club.

"It was a rough move. We're about four long blocks south of the strip and, man, it might as well be four miles," Chastain said. "But we do have parking on site and I saw very quickly that we had to be a destination and that I had to book big names."

The Firefly Club was recently named one of the 100 best jazz clubs in the world by Downbeat magazine, but last winter's snow and ice storms caused havoc in her operating budget, Chastain said.

This jazz convert is not about to abandon her beloved musical genre, however, as a club owner and an artist.

"It's still a thrill to look out on the faces and see the people enjoying the music. People want to like what you play. You have to work hard to make them unhappy," she said. "I don't feel I have the greatest voice in the world but I do love people and I love a great song. I just love to sing the songs."

Susan Chastain will sing with The Murphys Trio at 9 and 11 p.m. tomorrow at Murphy's Place, 151 Water St. Tickets are $8, $10, and $15 from the club, 419-241-7732.

Contact David Yonke at:


or 419-724-6154.

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