Ada Redd Austin has come a long way since the days of singing songs from Dionne Warwick, Sarah Vaughan and Nancy Wilson into her hairbrush.
The Tucson jazz artist is looking forward to packing the house on Saturday, Sept. 10, at The Dunbar Pavilion when she’ll perform the R&B songs that made her famous in a concert titled “An Evening of Beautiful Music.”
The event is a fundraiser, produced by Jennifer Davis-Paige, the founder of Boom Goddess Radio, Tucson’s top Black woman-owned podcast company. The beneficiary is KRDP Radio, a public station of Desert Soul Media.
The two women have a lot in common. Both have blazed trails for women of color and pursued their dream with passion and perseverance. They met a year ago when Davis-Paige was doing a podcast on Juneteenth. Austin, in addition to being a musician, is a retired schoolteacher with plenty of knowledge about the holiday celebrating the day the last enslaved people in Texas got word of their liberation.
“When I was looking for people to interview to talk about it, her name came up,” Davis-Paige said. “I have a four-part interview and that’s how she and I met. At that time, she told me she was a singer. I went to a couple afternoons that she was performing, and I loved her voice. Then COVID came and nobody could go anywhere or do anything.”
When the opportunity came up for this fundraiser both jumped at the chance to make it a concert featuring Austin.
KRDP Radio is Arizona’s first Black-owned radio in more than 20 years and they are raising money to pay for their FCC licensing. While they are based in Phoenix, they have plans to expand to Tucson and people can listen to the station online.
Davis-Paige’s podcast is carried on the station every Sunday from 6 to 6:30 p.m. Her podcasts are also broadcast in Tucson Sundays at 3:30 p.m. on KXCI.
KRDP launched after years of effort on the part of the founders, Kaja Brown and Calvin J. Worthen, who are also the top executives for Desert Soul Media. They recently secured their FCC license.
“I would like (Tucson residents) to know how important it is that there hasn’t been an African American-owned and -operated radio station in Arizona for over 20 years,” Davis-Paige said. “These two young men have been working on getting a station for four years. This has been their goal and their dream.”
The benefit evening will have two parts and patrons can buy tickets for either just the concert or the concert and VIP event. The concert will be $30 in advance and $35 at the door and the VIP event is $250. The VIP event starts at Urban Grove at 4 p.m. with wine and hors d’oeuvres.
The Tucson Jazz Institute is sending over African American twin brothers who are in 11th grade. One plays the sax and the other the bass and they have agreed to donate their music for the VIP reception. The president and vice president of KRDP Radio will talk about the studio’s history and goals.
A luxury van will then take participants to the Dunbar where the concert will take place from 7 to 9 p.m.
The concert will feature about 18 songs that are jazz and R&B classics and standards. Austin said she will likely sing songs from Billie Holiday, Bonnie Raitt, Nancy Wilson and even some stylistic interpretations of Marvin Gaye.
Austin has a long history in Tucson. She began singing as a child with Mount Calvary Baptist Church choir. Then, when she was 11, she competed in a talent contest at the Dunbar — the site of this month’s event. She took first place.
In the 1980s and 1990s, she sang jazz and R&B at jazz festivals, benefit concerts and community events. She’d pack the house at the former Obsessions night club. She even performed at the Apollo Theater in Harlem and was filmed for the series “Showtime at the Apollo.” She and the band she sang with performed for the NAACP and the Urban League.
“We got top-notch gigs,” Austin said. “Never enough, they were few and far between and they didn’t pay a lot. We did it because that’s what I loved to do. It’s a gift that God gave me.”
She even sang twice for then-governor Bruce Babbitt.
“He came up and shook my hand and said, ‘If I ever make president, you’re going to sing at my inaugural,’” Austin said. “That was a great compliment.”
Then family needs called, and she moved to Houston to live with her son for several years. Upon returning to Tucson, she landed her first gig within a week when the president of the Tucson Jazz Society heard she was in town and wanted her to sing for a Valentine’s Day gig at the Tucson Museum of Art.
However, for the next couple years she struggled to find the number of gigs she wanted, despite her series of sold-out shows. It was then she decided to take a different track with her career.
“I decided maybe I can produce my own show,” Austin said. “I had never thought of doing that at this late state in my life. I prayed about it, and everything just started falling in place.”
She approached Doug Martin, her longtime bandleader and pianist, and he was on board. His wife, Cheryl Martin, helped to publicize her first self-organized event that took her back to the Dunbar.
“The night of the show — it was standing room only,” Austin said. “It was packed. I was so grateful for the community. I’m a people person, I’m a retired schoolteacher. I taught kids in sixth grade and love to interact with the audience. I have them singing. I talk to them and serenade them. I love on them.”
It was the start of her launching her own series of concerts, often as fundraisers or celebrating events like Juneteenth.
Like Austin, Davis-Paige grew up listening to the great female jazz stars such as Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald.
“Ava reminded me of those women’s voices,” Davis-Paige said. “She’s got wonderful followers in Tucson. This will be her first concert since COVID.”
The Dunbar has been remodeled since Austin last performed there in 2017, but she said it will build a smaller stage for her designed in a crescent so that she can be closer to the audience.
“I don’t like to be way up,” Austin said. “I don’t want to be looking down at the audience. I want to be looking at them the way they’re looking at me. I like that intimacy.”
An Evening of Beautiful Music with Ada Redd Austin and musical director Doug Martin
WHEN: 7 to 9 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 10
WHERE: The Dunbar Pavilion, 325 W. Second Street, Tucson
COST: $30 in advance; $35 at the door