Wednesday, July 16, 2003

When Esther Haynes was in the sixth grade at Arlington’s Taylor Elementary School, her teacher gave her a very special gift: Music lessons.

“She taught fingerstyle guitar,” remembers Miss Haynes, who will be singing early jazz, bossa nova and blues Sunday at La Porta’s restaurant, 1600 Duke St. in Alexandria. “I just loved playing.”

These days Miss Haynes plays banjo as well as guitar, but she’s probably best known for her singing — old standards like “Exactly Like You,” “Billie’s Blues,” and “Sugar Moon.” With a voice that has been likened to honey with a dash of pepper, her mixture of musical styles along with her own brand of soul has earned her three Washington Area Music Award nominations for jazz vocals/traditional music.

From those early lessons in the sixth grade, it was just a short hop to the banjo and bluegrass. Four years at Virginia Tech led to almost nightly jam sessions and frequent attendance at fiddlers’ conventions. Back then, bluegrass was at the heart of it all.

“I’m from Virginia,” she says emphatically. “For me, bluegrass is part of my identity.”

But one day while she was driving back to college with her brother, he put on a tape of Billie Holiday.

“I was stunned,” she remembers. “Her voice was just so incredible.”

Soon Miss Haynes was raiding her parent’s record collection, listening to the likes of Charlie Christian, Sippie Wallace, Helen Humes, and Anita O’Day. And of course, Ella Fitzgerald.

What tied it all together?

“They had voices that could cut across a band,” says Miss Haynes. “And they could change their [vocal] quality to match the genre.”

It’s precisely that quality, she says, that she strives for in her own music today, whether she is singing early jazz from the ‘20s, swing music from the ‘40s, or an old Billie Holiday tune.

Miss Haynes’ incipient interest in blues and jazz continued after college as she moved on to studies at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. There, she met up with Hiro Arita, a fellow student who taught her to play swing and hot jazz in the style of Django Reinhardt.

Soon, she was playing and singing in the acoustic bluegrass/swing group Boston City Limits, and working with fingerstyle guitarist Larry Unger in a ragtime/blues duo.

It was, she says, a time to broaden musical horizons after pushing the envelope on what the various genres could offer.

“I got into bands with some excellent musicians,” she says. “That helped me develop as an artist myself.”

After touring abroad, Miss Haynes returned to her hometown in 1993, where she hooked up with the vintage jazz/blues band Hokum Jazz, twice nominated for a Washington Area Music Award for best duo/group, jazz traditional.

Just don’t expect to hear any bluegrass during her solo turn at La Porta; this is a night for jazz, blues, and swing. Of course, she still uses her bluegrass guitar, built by a friend from a Martin kit, to accompany herself.

• • •

On Saturday, the annual Herndon Bluesfest at Frying Pan Park offers a rare treat: an all-day, all-acoustic program of blues that features musicians playing in the Piedmont style. Unlike the blues music of the Mississippi Delta, Piedmont blues relies on a distinctive method of guitar picking using a rolling bass technique. The style came to the Washington area from the Piedmont areas of North Carolina and Virginia along the same railroad tracks that brought bluegrass musicians to Washington.

Headlining at 7 p.m. will be Guy Davis and the High Flying Rockets. The New York-raised blues wunderkind has been wowing critics with his distinct blend of urban sensibilities and Southern style.

Despite his pedigree — his parents are actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee — Mr. Davis is legitimately steeped in blues traditions, especially those having to do with the railroad and the use of the blues as a vehicle for good times as well as bad ones. As a child, he was entranced by the stories his grandparents and great-grandparents told of life in the South and working on the rail line. As an adult, he counts bluesman Taj Mahal, Blind Willie McTell, and Garrison Keillor among his musical — and storytelling — influences.

Also appearing on Saturday, at 3:15 p.m., will be Sparky and Rhonda Rucker, the husband and wife duo who have made a career out of combining storytelling and the blues. Together, they have parlayed a long interest in the Civil War into the production of a historical program based on period songs. The duo has been featured on radio programs like “Prairie Home Companion” and music festivals around the country. If you missed them at the Smithsonian’s Folklife festival recently, here’s a chance to hear them fresh in concert and out of the elements in Frying Pan Park’s big barn.

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