Saturday mornings in Burbank have gotten a lot cooler recently, thanks to jazz singer Perlene Thurston’s free, weekly 11 a.m. gigs at Olive Avenue’s Backstage Café. Teamed with the veteran guitarist Doug McDonald, Thurston’s brand of straight ahead jazz vocals are lush and evocative, fraught with warmth and emotion and communicates volumes of psychic information with an instinctive artistry that’s near mesmerizing.
“I am not a trained musician but some people have called me a natural,” Thurston said. “While I love singers like Sarah Vaughn and Carmen McRae, and while some influence is bound to come through, I am very aware of the difference between imitating and singing from the heart.”
“I sing from the heart.”
The youngest of seven children, Thurston arrived in California from Detroit in the late 1960s, where her musical career was born in a dual state of tenderness and tumult; her first jazz performances came alongside her father, pianist Dick Thurston, as she was reconnecting him with following a painful divorce which had split her family asunder; a subsequent friendship with actress Ann B. Davis quickly led her to a series of international USO tours, and found her performing in Seoul when North Korean forces boarded and captured the intelligence ship USS Pueblo, igniting a Cold War hostage crisis that lasted 11 months.
The following year, Thurston was again too close for comfort in Vietnam when enemy forces hit our Da Nang ammo dump — detonating over $120 million worth of high explosives.
Such high drama provided a wildly unlikely backdrop for Thurston’s creative pursuits: She has alternately and successfully pursued and explored the arts as both a dancer and a gallery exhibited painter, but always returned to singing.
“I was singing R&B and funk when I was a teenager in Detroit,” she said. “But I moved to jazz when I got out here. My father worked in clubs all over Los Angeles, from places on Sunset Boulevard to out here in the San Fernando Valley, and he would often have me appear as a guest with him.”
Thurston’s developed a winning style — a deliberate, measured approach that’s imbued with atmosphere and color — and her warm, intimate interpretations unfailingly resonates with an audience. She also has a singular, richly philosophical attitude toward her avocation, one that extends far beyond mere artistic expression or entertainment.
“I love to tell a story with a song,” she said. “It has to be something I can relate to. I love sensitivity in the delivery of a song, so that more of your own life experiences can come through. If a song can move you, it helps you to escape into a different place, into a moment where you are totally present. That’s what it’s all about.”
“It’s a ministry of beauty and grace.”
What: Perlene Thurston with Doug McDonald
Where: Backstage Café, 2520 W. Olive Ave. #120, Burbank
When: Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
More info: (818) 563-4567, backstagecafeburbank.com
JONNY WHITESIDE is a veteran music journalist based in Burbank and author of “Ramblin’ Rose: the Life & Career of Rose Maddox” and “Cry: the Johnnie Ray Story.”