Oklahoma City blues vocalist Chanda Graham will be writing a new chapter in her history of performing in Norman.
Past shows here have included appearing in three musical productions at the Sooner Theatre. It takes a lady with epic pipes to play Motormouth Maybelle in “Hairspray.” That’s exactly what Graham brought to the Main Street stage for one of those productions.
Next up for her will be an outdoor performance showcasing that same vocal virtuosity. She will be opening the 2022 Summer Breeze season at 7:30 p.m. Sunday in Lions Park, 450 S. Flood Ave. Graham will be fronting a five-piece band performing from the American jazz and blues songbook with her signature gospel élan.
“Frankly I don’t do a lot of original material because I feel like there’s so much unexplored, under-appreciated, never-heard-before music in the jazz and blues genre I perform in,” she said.
Graham started singing gospel music as a child. Elders sometimes chided her for throwing too much jazz into the sacred sound. She started singing in a junior choir at age 5 in Oklahoma City’s 5th Street Missionary Baptist Church. Vocal parts were taught even at that tender age.
Graham adores gospel, and still sings in church. Since youth, she’s sung back-up with rock, country and R&B outfits, along with doing studio work. She had a great experience as a “Clash of the Choirs” TV show (2007) contestant singing in Blake Shelton’s choir.
Graham took her Juris Doctorate at the University of Oklahoma in 1998 and is currently in private practice specializing in entertainment, labor and employment law. An online presence recognizes these multiple talents as a “Lady Music Lawyer.”
“I was in a gospel trio for years,” she said. “Then I started doing my own research on jazz. Digging into the songs, I found so much great material that no one pays attention to anymore. I like to pull out those kinds of tunes. I’ll be singing jazz, blues and arrangements of popular songs such as ‘Jolene.’ We’ve got a jazzy version of that, which is just so cool. Reimagining popular tunes in jazzy and bluesy ways.”
Graham also performs material in traditional and foundational styles. Her Summer Breeze band will include personnel on keys, drums, guitar and saxophone.
Graham has learned patience working with others in the music community. She doesn’t perform solo with a guitar, singer-songwriter style.
“Sometimes pulling a band together can be like herding cats,” she said. “I like to work with very talented people because I’m not fully secure in what I do, so I like to be backed up by people who are going to kill it no matter what. When you work with that caliber people, of course they’re going to be booked all the time, because they’re really good at what they do and highly sought after.
“You have to have a plan A, B, C and D when booking people. There’s plenty to do right now in the live music scene. I’m not always successful at it, but I try to be patient.”
Graham curates her set list with an eye toward the times we live in. Blues music is uplifting and inspirational. Often the songs are humorous and bawdy.
Graham is following in the footsteps of a great Oklahoma City blues vocalist, the late Dorothy “Miss Blues” Ellis. The two only crossed paths around a year and a half before Ellis’ death.
“She had that hybrid personality like I have,” Graham said. “She had a Master’s degree and worked in the medical field along with being a performer. Miss Blues provided some mentorship although I didn’t get a lot of time with her.”
Graham is looking forward to Summer Breeze on Sunday.
“The best thing about singing is when you make a connection with the audience,” Graham said, “and the ability to influence the atmosphere with the music. Making that connection is what I enjoy most. You can feel the shift in the environment when that connection has been made. I love when that happens. It’s tragic when it doesn’t.
“I hope that happens in Lions Park. The expression is cool, the creative process is cool, but the best part is bringing the audience onto that same wave length.”