“I always knew I wanted to sing. I don’t think I vocalized it, but I felt it,” says Ann Mack, a lifelong performer and, at 85, a relative newcomer to the Bay Area jazz scene.
Hailing from Cleveland with a family history linked to the evolution of jazz, Mack’s preferred songs are the standards: Gershwin tunes like “A Foggy Day” and “Embraceable You,” Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and perennials like “April in Paris,” and her all-time favorite, “Night and Day.”
“I will never forget that song; I’m from the rock ’n’ roll era, but I wasn’t a rock and roller,” adds Mack, who appears this week in San Francisco with the St. John Coltrane Church Ensemble, founded and led by her sister and brother-in-law Marina and Franzo King. Their Sonic Ascension Vesper jazz worship service in Grace Cathedral on July 21 commemorates saxophone genius Coltrane and Billie Holiday. (Both died on July 17; Holiday in 1959, Coltrane in 1967.)
Mack first formed an appreciation for “Night and Day”—famously recorded by Holiday and Frank Sinatra among other vocal stylists—and other supremely crafted songs while growing up in a house filled with music.
“My mother loved Billie Holiday and there was music all around,” says Mack. “My aunt Elizabeth lived with us and she loved jazz too—Sarah Vaughan. My uncle played trombone, dad played trumpet, and auntie played the piano. All my grandparents’ children played an instrument,” she said.
But not everybody’s uncle was Fred Robinson, trombonist with Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five: The lineup recorded “West End Blues,” an arrangement widely considered to be the formative recording to usher in the improvisational jazz era.
“I was listening to Uncle Freddie when he’d come to town, and he would always take me to see Cab Calloway,” remembers Mack. “He would sit me in a seat, and I would be right there, hypnotized by the orchestra pit rising up to the main stage.”
The eldest of four children, Mack was ahead of the pack and a little more independent.
“Every summer for vacation Daddy would drive to New York and we would get to go to the Apollo for a nominal cost. I could walk to the Apollo from where I was and would go to almost every matinee, every chance I got.”
The close contact with professional showmanship left an indelible impression on Mack and she set her sights on performing with a big band, though her mother was disapproving of music as a profession.
“My mother told my father he had to get a real job, so he worked for the postal service,” says Mack, who didn’t dare announce her intentions in entertainment.
“When I was a teenager, I was sneaking out of the house. I was going to sing; that was my heart’s desire, that’s what I tried to do and that’s what I did.”
Mack’s youth intersected with a time when Cleveland was a great place for stoking an artist’s talent and dreams. The city was a magnet for families with Southern origins, including Mack’s grandfather, during the Great Migration.
“He was born in 1860 and lived to be 103—so he was around from the time of presidents Lincoln to Kennedy,” says Mack, who remembers her grandfather as a teller of tall tales that kept her in stitches. But his work as a Pullman porter is a part of American history. The railroad workers union is credited with labor and civil rights organizing and making contributions toward building a Black middle class. By mid-century, Cleveland was rich with resources.
“It was very seldom you’d go to someone’s house and there wasn’t a piano,” says Mack. “If you didn’t have a piano, it was like not having dishes. And if you didn’t play, you knew someone who could play.”
At Karamu House, a now historic community arts center, Mack found her teachers and like-minded artists.
“That’s where my training began. Acting, singing, dancing and all the arts were taught there,” she says. From tap and ballet to pointe shoes, along with drawing, a practice she’s picked up again recently, Mack embraced the arts fully, though her public debut as a singer was a process. She says, “I was petrified. I remember when I got onstage to sing, I would be so nervous, I’d be shaking from my feet all the way up.”
Then she found a kindred spirit in pianist and vocalist Bobby Few.
“I was 18 and he was 21. He was one of the first people I sang with in Cleveland and he was just a sweetie pie,” she says. Few would eventually move on to New York and ultimately Paris and become known for his work with avant-garde musical pioneer Albert Ayler, among other jazz luminaries.
“I went to high school with Albert Ayler,” says Mack, “Oh my God, I was scared of him. He was a couple of years older than me and he didn’t fool around with us kids. He was out there making money. He had his own car, a Cadillac. And he didn’t dress like a kid. He had a suit on.” The elegance and maturity of jazz style also appealed to Mack.
“That’s also why I liked jazz, the women wore gowns,” she adds. Though as the music and fashions inevitably changed, Mack stuck with the standards and a style that’s timeless, working and raising her own family in Cleveland.
“I always had little gigs, could get a trio together, piano, bass and drums,” she said. But it wasn’t until the 21st century when Mack made her move to the West Coast that she fulfilled her vision of singing with a big band.
“That big band sound, there’s nothing like it,” she said. “I was lucky enough to sing with Jimmy McConnell’s 16-piece big band for a couple of years in LA. It was a dream come true,” she says, still not entirely sure it happened. “I’ve been around musicians my whole life and would always ask, ‘Do you need a singer?’ Water seeks its own level.”
Since moving to San Francisco’s Bayview in 2016, Mack has appeared at local nightspots Geoffrey’s Inner Circle in Oakland and Savanna Jazz in San Carlos.
More regularly, she can be heard soloing with the St. John Coltrane Church Ensemble, which appears in an annual jazz and worship service at Grace Cathedral. Joining Mack, the ensemble and pastors at Friday’s service are musicians including bassist Marcus Shelby, sax players Richard Howell and Salim Washington, harpist Destiny Muhammad, pianist James Washington, drummers Karl Nueckel and Bob Marshall, and guitarist-professor Nicholas Baham.
It is within the church’s hallowed walls that Mack can take a standard like “Body and Soul” or Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” and turn it into a psalm.
“All I sing are standards. I’m talking about listening to these songs since I was four. I really liked the music then, I mean I was really into it,” she said. “It’s a part of me.”
The St. John Coltrane Church Sonic Ascension Service is at 7 p.m. July 21 at Grace Cathedral, 1100 California St., San Francisco. Admission is free; offerings will be collected. For more information, visit GraceCathedral.org.