Beautiful, young and talented, Nalley hasn't had an easy life, yet circumstances didn't deter the gifted artist. BayView Times Biography
Singer Kim Nalley new owner of Jazz at Pearl's
by Wanda Sabir

As the new owner of Jazz at Pearl's in North Beach, 256 Columbus Ave., at Broadway, San Francisco, singer Kim Nalley has definitely found a way to extend the ambiance that is indicative of whatever stage she graces. Beautiful, young and talented, Nalley hasn't had an easy life, yet circumstances didn't deter the gifted artist, because her mother "somehow found the money" to put her daughter in private school, give her good advice, which she followed, and, well, the rest, as they say, is still being written.

I recall seeing the singer at Intersection for the Arts with the Marcus Shelby Orchestra years ago. Creating a stark presence on the - if you know the venue - cramped stage, Nalley made everything fall away except the song. Blown away by the singer's poise and handling of jazz classics or standards - white flower in her hair hinting at just a few of the great women she channeled that night - I became an instant fan.

Jazz at Pearl's

More recently at Pearl's, the magic continued at a tribute to "Late Great Women of Blues and Jazz," featuring Kim along with Denise Perrier and Frankye Kelly. The show was fantastic last October! Look for a reprise at Yoshi's Tuesday and Wednesday, March 2 and 3.

The creator of the chanteuse role in a European-style dinner show, Teatro Zinzanni, a spot that was subsequently filled by performers such as Maria Muldaur, Ann Wilson, Joan Baez and Sandra Reaves-Phillips, Nalley, along with husband, former vaudevillian and magician Steve Sheraton, whom she met on tour in Switzerland in 2001, re-opened Pearl's with a bang last year with artists such as legendary Art Blakey Jazz Messenger pianist James Williams, whose multiple volume album "Jazz Dialogues" features Kim along with some of the best names in jazz, including Jon Faddis, Christian McBride, Mary Stallings and the late Etta Jones.

Williams wanted to have his CD release party at Pearl's, but Nalley wasn't certain that she'd have her license in time.

"I told him that I wasn't sure if I'd have the permits ready in time. 'Maybe you want to talk to Club Jazz Nouveau, Sunny and Pearl and do it at the Shanghai instead?' And he was, 'No, no, no. I think you can do it, Kim. I think you'll have it done by then.'"

"And sure enough, I get the entertainment permit on Sept. 16, my mother's birthday, and we opened on Sept. 19, and he did some wonderful promotion. (His) name alone was enough to bring people to the club. Chuy Verela (KCSM, 91.1 FM) has been very helpful. All the places I played at before were so wonderful. Enrico's on the corner has been absolutely great. The people at Yoshi's have been really wonderful - Marshall Lamm - they offered all kinds of wonderful advice to me. The whole jazz community has been so supportive. There hasn't been a sense of any competition. It's the more art in the area, the better."

"I think what makes the club unique is the (fact) that I own it. The musicians say that I'm like everybody's kid sister that you didn't beat up. I'm someone who's on the music scene with the musicians and have played all over the place, and everyone kind of knows me. I feel the place, to a large degree, is an extension of my living room. There is a certain kind of feel to Jazz at Pearl's that I don't feel at any other club, and that's because I am a musician. I know what it is that makes things comfortable for musicians and what is needed in a listening room."

Nalley, whose personal life almost fell apart after her younger brother committed suicide and her mother died shortly thereafter, observed that "having a grandmother in your life is an indicator of whether you'll be successful in life even over a father."

"She was always around (then and now). I think that had a real stabilizing influence on me. Also, my great great-grandmother was also a huge part of my life. And they taught me how to play some piano and put the notes to the scale and some basic things about music."

"I remember 'Over the Rainbow' and 'Oh, Danny Boy' because they taught it to me. Everyone in my family was musical. I always joke about that. I thought everybody could sing. | No it's only my family. The Christmas carol would always be in three-part harmony. My grandmother would always take the low part, and everyone could play. ... My great uncle, Reggie Jackson, a drummer, was also a photographer and one of the first African American pilots (Tuskeegee airmen).

"After the war he ended up staying in Europe, and he played with some really famous people like Dexter Gordon and people like that. My other uncle is also a drummer and a songwriter. I have a cousin who's a guitar player and a songwriter. He had one R&B hit in the '70s, and his mother was Ruby, of 'Ruby and the Romantics.'"

Kim Nalley with her shot bob, bright smile and pretty figure can get feisty when someone challenges her for her reserved parking spot in front of the club. "I look kind of young without make-up," she admitted.

Although she went to private Catholic schools, Kim says that she had to dodge bullets and spend a lot of time indoors with her kid brother making and producing shows - the used syringes making outdoor play unsafe. Heeding her mother's advice, to "finish school and don't get pregnant," Nalley studied voice and theatre at the Educational Center for the Arts, a high school for artistically gifted teenagers, which gave her the opportunity to study with pianist Bill Brown and to perform at the legendary Yale Repertory Theatre and Yale Symphony Hall.

Even though she received a full scholarship to the College of Holy Cross and began an intense study of classical music and opera, receiving stipends as a soprano in the Worcester Choir and Holy Cross' Schola Cantorum, she said that back East, because higher education is much more expensive than in California, she decided to pursue another academic career.

"I made a very conscious decision back East that I wanted to sing jazz, instead of going the classical route, Kim said. "I really didn't see any point spending $20,000 a year to go to Holy Cross. I was on a Martin Luther King Scholarship, so it wasn't like it was (money) out of my pocket. Then at the same time schools back East are more expensive, and you really need to think about what you want to study. It's not like in California where it's just a thousand dollars or five hundred bucks. It's really a privilege to go to college."

"It was really strange growing up, because I always felt that I was different. I always felt that something different was going to happen to me. I don't know if that was just my ego, but I always felt that I was put here by mistake because it really wasn't that great. When I return home and show people where I grew up, the overwhelming fear that you get is the feeling.

"I don't see many neighborhoods in California that compare with the ghettos in the Northeast." When I spoke of the ghettos in New Orleans, she replied, "It's a little bit different. Even when I went to Compton, it was like, 'You all have houses? And front yards and back yards?' It was so extravagant. It was definitely difficult. I don't know how my mother did it, how she managed to get money together to send me to a Catholic school. I think that really changed the direction of my life, because I knew that the public school was not so good, and I would have probably gotten eaten up alive.

"I was able to get a really good education in a different type of environment than what was going on around me. I would keep to myself and my mother would say to me, 'Whatever you do, go to school and don't get pregnant.' That was the thing - I still don't have any kids today. All the people who lived in my neighborhood, they all ended up getting pregnant at 13, 14, 15. I really didn't want that to happen to me. I wanted to fulfill my life's potential."

"Music seemed to me a (profession) where there were a lot of older musicians who were willing to pass the knowledge on to me and mentor me and give me the music knowledge that I needed for free as long as I wanted to take that knowledge. So I decided that it was a waste of money to go to school for that, since I was going to do this anyway."

In college, Kim decided to study history and get a law degree, and in 1990 she transferred to UC Berkeley to do just that. However, the New Haven native's graduate career was doomed once the stage called her name. And the singer found herself traveling to New York and Europe on professional gigs, winning awards and recording as a solo artist and with others like bassist Marcus Shelby and his Orchestra, and the Contemporary Jazz Orchestra, an 18-piece big band under the direction of Christopher Pitts.

Located on the busy corner of Columbus at Broadway, Jazz at Pearl's has red drapes lining the windows on the street side, the bandstand on that side of the room, the entrance (also nearby) a larger area with a full bar, stools and more spacious tables situated on either side of the center stairway. Art decorates the walls, while tasteful flower arrangements are a nice touch to the inviting space. Booths are along the back wall, cozy with rich fabric designs; chandeliers and candles give the room a dreamy feel.

This week, Jazz at Pearl's has a weeklong series of "Sweet Heart Concerts" Friday-Sunday, Feb. 13-15, each night featuring a different artist: Celia Malheiros, Clairdee, Denise Perrier on two nights and Jess Righthand, who's just 17 years old, and the SFJAZZ All-Star High School Ensemble under the direction of Dr. Dee Spencer.

The following two weeks, Pearl's hosts Black History showcases - two nights of film, music and poetry, Wednesdays, Feb. 18 and 25, 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. There will be over five jazz bands each night, including Marcus Shelby, Kim Nalley, Denise Perrier, Tammy Hall, Allen Smith, Frank Jackson, Daryl Green and many others.

The first week will cover the work of Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Nat King Cole. Guest celebrities will be reading excerpts of Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen and Zora Neale Hurston. The second week will include the work of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Nina Simone, Charlie Mingus, Art Blakey and more. Guest celebrities will be reading excerpts from Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and Maya Angelou.

Both shows will be augmented by musical shorts - vintage film clips - of Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and more. Also during week two, Feb. 17, Kim Nalley's regular Tuesday evening set, she will perform a "Tribute to Nina Simone."

Jazz at Pearl's is a place the whole family can enjoy, its owners committed to fostering a place somewhat like the juke joints of old, where one doesn't need a lot of money to listen to good music, relax and have fun. The convenient late hours and full kitchen mean that Pearl's in the place when you're hungry at 12 midnight and don't feel like Chinese cuisine. It's also a place where you can hear the Berkeley High Jazz Band or a kid can participate in a series of free Guitar Masters classes.

"It's kind of a hang there," Nalley says. "I don't want it to be an expensive place. I don't want it to be a Yoshi's, a showroom. I don't want to compete with SFJAZZ festival. Even though we'll have some big name people in here, it will be mainly because I know them; they're friends of mine, or that it happens to be convenient that way."

"I want to create a jazz joint, the kind of place you're going to come to two to three times a week and you feel comfortable spending your evening there or always ending your evening there - just to hang out, like a juke joint."

So it really is an extension of your living room, I ask.

"Yes, and it opens me up creatively. The Tuesday performances have been great, better and better. The musicians are excited about playing with me, doing the gig and there have been so many people coming out. It's incredible. The place has been packed, with lines out the door for jazz."

"Jazz is dead? Well, you haven't been here," she giggles. At a reasonable $10 door, Pearl's 100 seats fill quickly, so arrive early or make a dinner reservation to guarantee your seat. Call (415) 291-8255 and visit

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