At 14, she's clearly old school

Special to The Times

Last June, a tiny 13-year-old redhead named Renee Olstead walked onstage at the Hollywood Bowl, looking out in wide-eyed wonder at the packed house for the Playboy Jazz Festival. The capacity crowd, fully invested in afternoon schmoozing and boozing, glanced quizzically at this unlikely performer before returning to the social business at hand.

But when Olstead launched into the first notes of "At Last" -- "At last, my love has come along" -- hitting the words "my love" with passionate, blues-driven intensity, the crowd became riveted. And when she finished the tune, accompanied by Bill Cosby's All-Star Band, she was greeted with a rare standing ovation.

"I was amazed," recalls Olstead, "because I was a little scared when I first came out, being up there with Mr. Cosby and all those wonderful musicians. And it didn't seem as though anyone was really paying any attention. So when I got that kind of reaction...."

Eleven months later, she's a strikingly more mature figure than the waif who finished her song at the Bowl with a girlish curtsy.

Taller and stylishly garbed during an interview in a lounge at Warner Bros. Records' Burbank offices, the successful actress and aspiring singer communicates a self-possessed confidence that belies her age. She will turn 15 on June 18, two days before she performs again at the Playboy Jazz Festival, this time with the Gerald Wilson Orchestra.

That youth makes Olstead's fascination with the Great American Songbook, jazz and MGM musicals something of an anomaly. But her talent for the music and her understanding of its subtleties are the real deal, and they are taking her on a rapidly rising career path.

Her debut album, "Renee Olstead," will be released by Warner Bros. on May 25. Co-produced by the team of David Foster (Barbra Streisand, Celine Dion, Josh Groban) and Humberto Gatica, it's a high-profile project, featuring a large orchestra and guest appearances by singer-pianist Peter Cincotti and trumpeter Chris Botti and orchestrations by John Clayton, Sammy Nestico and Billy Childs.

The selections reflect the "old soul" aspect of Olstead's interests. Such songs as "Taking a Chance on Love," "Sentimental Journey" and "What a Difference a Day Makes" have been essential to her repertoire for the last three or four years.

"She's a real purist," says Foster. "I didn't want to take her down the wrong road, because her instincts are so incredible -- not just for her age but for any age."

Where those instincts came from is a good question.

Olstead grew up in Houston, singing and acting from an early age. But the music she heard around the house was largely smooth jazz. And the epiphany that led her into jazz and the Great American Songbook was a 1998 comedy film, "Pleasantville."

"I was watching it on a video, and right in the middle of it they played Etta James singing 'At Last,' " she recalls. "I was so moved by it that I went to the library and looked up Etta James. Well, I don't know who picked the music for our local library, but they had great taste. It was all Etta James and Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong and Thelonious Monk. So I rented some CDs and I was hooked."

Olstead is stepping into her musical career from an advantageous position.

She has been a star of the CBS series "Still Standing" for the last two years, and the day before her album is released, she will sing "Summertime" on the show.

Her feature film credits include "Space Cowboys," "The Insider" and the current "13 Going On 30," and her early career as a performer was the subject of a pair of E! channel documentaries -- "The Making of a Child Star" and "The Making of a Child Star: The Journey Continues."

With acting, as with her music, Olstead is drawn to classic material.

"I love old movies," she says. "I love Marilyn Monroe. I have all her movies, and I could watch them all day long. And Lauren Bacall and Betty Grable. They're classic, because people can identify with them.

"And that's the reason why I'm passionate about the songs I do too. They've been around for a long time because they've had something to say to every generation since they were first composed."

And that, she says, includes her own generation as well. Initially she felt like a loner, but she has begun to attract audiences to her regular shows around town, with a substantial percentage of teenage (and younger) listeners.

"I met this one friend of mine when I did '13 Going On 30,'" she says. "I mentioned the kind of music I liked, and she said, 'Oh my God, I like that music too. Do you listen to AM 570?'

"I have trouble when people don't take you seriously singing this music because you're a teenager. They think you're a novelty, or they think you're a joke. Well the truth is that I'm seriously passionate about this music."

Is Olstead onto something with her belief in the continuing vitality of classic American songs among young people?

She makes a convincing case in both her music and in her perception of what she sees around her.

"I think people underestimate young people in a lot of ways. Young people are ready for this music, for a lot of different kinds of music, including ethnic music too, because we're more diverse, more open-minded, more willing to explore and to accept more things in the mainstream."

Olstead giggles, her little girl surfacing for a moment.

"It's not all the Spice Girls and Britney Spears anymore. I mean, the Spice Girls! That was like the '90s. I remember the Spice Girls -- and it makes me feel old!"

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Playboy Jazz Festival

Where: The Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave.

When: June 19, 2:30-11 p.m. June 20, 2-10:30 p.m.

Price: $15-$100

Contact: (310) 449-4070

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