Try typing church gospel, rhythm and blues, Lawrence Welk, and Ella Fitzgerald into your favorite streaming music service. If you’re lucky, the results will surround you with the soulful sounds of Jessie Laine Powell. The Lexington singer has garnered wide acclaim for her sultry blend of gospel music with contemporary and traditional jazz.
Powell appeared on KET’s Connections with Renee Shaw to discuss her life, her music, and her latest CD.
The Roots of Her Distinctive Style
Growing up a preacher’s kid in Lexington in the 1960s and 1970s, Powell says she was surrounded by church music, as well as Saturday night TV staples “Hee Haw” and “The Lawrence Welk Show.” When Powell started performing publicly at age 14, she sang everything from country to R&B to pop.
But when she was in her 20s, Powell was invited to perform at a local bistro by the late Lexington jazz pianist Mike Allen. Powell says Allen took her under his wing and introduced her to jazz, especially standards by the likes of Duke Ellington, George and Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen, and others. She admits she was skeptical at first, but as she learned more about the improvisatory nature of jazz, Powell says she got hooked.
“I like the vastness of it because I’m a free-spirited person,” Powell says, “so this just gives me room to grow.”
During this time Powell says she had many mentors even though she never met any of them: jazz legends Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae, and Billy Eckstine, as well as popular singers like Barbra Streisand, Nat King Cole, and Natalie Cole. As she studied recordings by the vocalists, Powell says she at first thought she had to emulate them in her own performances.
“Then when I embraced my own originality and what I had to give and what I had to offer and not trying to be someone else, it made it so much easier for me,” Powell says.
Inspiration with a Groove
As Powell’s jazz career began to take off, she jumped at a chance to move to California and sing on radio and television, and open for Nancy Wilson, the acclaimed jazz, blues, and pop artist. A few years later she returned to her hometown and released her first CD titled “On the Edge” in 2008. Her second CD, “Fill the Void,” came out earlier this month.
Both recordings feature Powell’s smoky and sultry blend of jazz and gospel music. She says she resisted advice from record producers to separate the two genres because she wanted her fans to have songs they could groove to while also hearing selections that are calming and inspirational.
“It’s a ministry in a way to me,” Powell says of her music.
One song on her new album that Powell is particularly proud of is one she composed. “You’re Okay” was written as a gift to her teenage daughter, who was having a tough time in school. Powell says the song is meant as an antidote to the pressures that society places on young women, and a reminder for them to connect with their inner beauty, strengths, and unique gifts.
“I’m just a channel for a greater power that flowed through me to be able to write this song,” Powell says. “Regardless if she’s big, full-figured, small, it doesn’t matter. It all starts on the inside.”
Powell also wants her music to serve as a voice for those who have been sexually abused. She says she survived a rape earlier in her life, so she wants to help bring attention to the problem of sexual violence.
Now 54 years old, Powell is proud of the time and work she’s devoted to her honing her singing talents. She fears that the music business now is too focused on generating a quick profit on overnight successes.
“The industry has changed so very much,” Powell says. “You’ve got YouTube and you’ve got all the social media and anybody can just get up there and be a star without going through what I went through for 30 years.”