Kool Kat of the Week #2: The Better Half Will Reach You: Jazz Singer Yolanda Rabun Is Keeping It So Real at the Atlanta Jazz Festival

Posted on: May 23rd, 2012 By:

Photo courtesy of Yolanda Rabun.

The Atlanta Jazz Festival brings a national and international who’s who of the art form to Piedmont Park for an amazing free concert every Memorial Day Weekend. With so many incredible artists, we decided we couldn’t pick just one, so this week, look out for two Kool Kats.

Kool Kat #2 is Yolanda Rabun, one real lady of jazz who’ll be singing both her own originals and classic pieces on Memorial Day Monday, May 28 at 3 p.m. The former Atlantan now lives in North Carolina but is excited to be returning home in support her debut CD SO REAL, and we can’t wait to hear her, whether she’s channeling classic chanteuse Billie Holliday or showing us with her voice how the true meaning of love embodies peace and harmony and even when true love means it’s time to leave. She has sung with Isaac Hayes for President Ronald Reagan, performed with Clay Aiken, been the lead vocalist of the Stanley Baird Group opening for Jennifer Holliday and traveled the world. All at the same time as serving as corporate counsel for a Top 5 Forbes company. We caught up with her to find out more about her eclectic background, what her mother taught her about music and life, and what it means to be So Real…

How did you discover jazz?

My mom introduced me to Nancy Wilson and Nina Simone when I was younger. Billie Holliday was a really big hero of mine. And Diane Reeves. My background is musical theater. I always think of musical theater as a story being told to music and that’s what jazz does too. As I got older I was called by jazz bands asking me to come play with them, and I began stepping out. In fact, throughout school I would sing with different jazz bands. I’d do things here and there, but I really got into my jazz vocal career five to six years ago when I became the official lead jazz singer for a band in North Carolina.

Who are some of your favorite classic jazz singers and why?

Billie Holliday, her music changed during the course of her career and that was very impressionable on me because it gave me meaning behind what jazz what can be. When I think of jazz, I think of improvisation—feeling through music based on what’s going on around you, being more straightforward with tones, more purposeful with meaning. As Billie got older and had been through more, her music became slower, energy more focused either in the emotion of anger or the emotion of sorrow. That was amazing for me. This woman could take music and deliver a message basically through the emotion going on in her life and the song. That’s a skill that I’ve worked on through my years studying music.

Sara Vaughn and Dinah Washington also made an impression on me, and Nancy Wilson is one of my biggest influences.

Trumpeter Al Strong and Yolanda Rabun at Raleigh's Artsplosure Festival 2012. Photo credit: Frank Myers.

Do you consider your style to be traditional jazz or contemporary jazz?

I don’t even think I want to be labeled. I like to be considered both so I’m not put in one corner or other. There’s a photo of me with a flower in my hair on my album, and that’s part of my brand. When you see it, you probably think Billie Holliday. I almost want to you, I sing traditional jazz in live shows. But listen to all of my music and you’ll find out it’s a mix. I want to send the message that whether I am singing contemporary or classic jazz as it was back in the day, whether soulful jazz or gospelly jazz, in the end it is jazz. And jazz is delivering emotion through the actual sound you hear in the music.

There must be a great story about how you came to sing and do a recording with Isaac Hayes and sing for President Reagan?

I was a junior at Northside School of the Arts and President Reagan was visiting. There was a big production and they wanted a song. They said Isaac Hayes was producing it and my face lit up. When I met him, he said he was so glad I was singing it. He was amazing. He was very caring about what needed to happen but also very stern and concerned that I was at my best. When I did it, it was on CNN and all the news stations. As soon as the song was over, I got so excited that I turned around and shook President Reagan’s hand. The Secret Service didn’t expect that. But he grabbed me and hugged me. It was a great experience all around, meeting the President and working with Isaac Hayes.

You often quote the statement: “Half of what I say is meaningless but I only say it so that the other half may reach you.” Where did you get that from?

It was something my mother said to me. I always wondered what she was saying. But I know now it means to pay attention to everything that is said since the portion that you need the most comes when you are ready to receive it.  The story about Isaac Hayes and being able to meet the president—what does that all mean? Mr. Hayes said a lot to me in the course of our working, I remember him reiterating that I would be a singing lawyer and that I am! In the end, it’s about having been blessed and continually being blessed to be able to work with really great people in my career. I’m based in NorthCarolina now, have traveled all around the world and I get to come back home to Atlanta for the Atlanta Jazz Festival. Did you know I used to sing the theme song for Atlanta and now I am coming back toAtlantato sing my music. I’m really, really excited.

Can you take a little about your debut CD SO REAL?

SO REAL is smooth and soul jazz. I started writing the song “So Real” for my husband. It was exciting for me, doing a demo and getting back into the field of music. As a corporate lawyer,  I’d gone full surge into that career but I wanted to get back to music. I wrote the song “So Real” as part of a demo and then set it aside.  Finally, the hard start of stepping out on my own and starting on my own album began in 2010. Because everything became  “so real,” that’s the music I wanted to sing and make my own. I took the single and created a full HD video, and then it toured to Portugal, Spain, Turkey and Jordan. I sang for it for the US troops because what they are doing for us was so real. Then I finished the album and took it back to Diego Garcia, and the  response  was amazing. The “So Real” song and album did well on the charts for the independent labels in the UK. I can’t even tell you how overwhelmed and excited I am.

Can you give us a taste of what you’ll be performing at the Atlanta Jazz Festival?

Hi, I’m Yolanda Rabun here and this is my new contemporary jazz album “So Real.” That’s a big deal. I’ve been the lead singer for a jazz group and now I’m stepping out and here I am. You will see a mixture of a lot of musical influences, Nancy Wilson,  Billie Holliday and others that will surprise a few. I will do some songs from my SO REAL album, and a song by one of the biggest influences in my life out of all my influences, Gladys Knight! My songs involve a journey of love, a journey of freedom, a journey of harmony and peace. My show is centered around the idea of real love and what that is, whether it’s blossoming, wonderful and happy or searching and unclear. In the end it’s about harmony and peace.

I’m from Florida but grew up in Atlanta. I went to Warren T Jackson Elementary, SuttonMiddle School and Northside School of the Performing Arts. I met my husband, Rick, in Atlanta, I was married in Atlanta (formerly known as Yolanda Williams) , one of my children was christened in Atlanta at my home church (Cascade United Methodist), my mom, (Kappitola) is in Atlanta where I was raised as her only child.  Atlanta is my home. I’m coming full circle. I started in Atlanta with my music, went off and became a lawyer, and now I’m coming back with my music.

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