By Bill Thompson
With her rich, expressive interpretations, Charleston chanteuse Leah Suárez joins sister vocalists Ann Caldwell and Quiana Parler in a celebrated triumvirate of Holy City voices, as distinctive in style as they are in personality.
Singer, musician, composer and entrepreneur, Suárez is back on her own following a decade as co-founder and executive director of Jazz Artists of Charleston and co-producer/ lead singer of the Charleston Jazz Orchestra.
That experience broadened her repertoire and deepened her passion to excel. On and off the stage, it also girds her role as director of the production company De La Luz.
A graduate of the College of Charleston, Suárez began formal training at the tender age of 10, first as a musician and later spending summers at the respected Brevard Music Center while also studying at George Mason University. But it was not until an illness forced her to abandon her horn that she found the voice that has made her one of most admired and popular performers this city has produced.
Celebrated by Charleston magazine in 2015 as one of the city’s “40 Movers & Shapers,” Suárez currently is at work on her debut solo album.
Your years as a founding member of Jazz Artists of Charleston and the Charleston Jazz Orchestra were memorable ones, were they not?
It was an experience of a lifetime. I am very proud of the work we accomplished with JAC and the CJO. I dedicated a large part of a decade of my life to the mission and it will always be a part of me. There was exponential growth for the organization, our community and especially for me, personally and professionally. [But] it was time for a change, time for me to explore some of my personal goals. I made the leap in June of 2015, leaving a position, but never the mission. [Going solo] has been challenging and exhilarating. But it feels good to use my wings.
How have you grown as an artist over the past year?
It has been a wonderful year of both challenge and success. I have mostly spent this year realigning my life in many ways, with my art at the forefront. I have taken my time in finding the right balance and integration for me in discipline, creativity, improvisation and rest. I am very grateful for the opportunities I have had this year, especially to travel and perform, with meaningful projects and freedom of expression.
As a vocalist you straddle numerous genres. Is jazz closest to your heart?
They all make me who I am and are a part of my ever-evolving voice. Jazz is its own language and is most definitely my foundation, but the joy for me is combining all of these influences, traditions and loves.
Are you a fearless performer, or is there something that you have yet to attempt?
Music is actually my sanctuary, so performing feels natural and safe to me. The vulnerability in sharing so freely is the ‘scariest’ part, but I am learning to embrace it, transcend it and channel that energy from fear to joy.
Your influences are many. Who have been your major mentors?
I am fortunate to have been influenced by many people: formal teachers, strangers, family, friends, leaders, writers, musicians, artists and athletes. I could name so many for so many different reasons. But (the late) Jack McCray was one of the most influential people in my life, personally and professionally.
Did your recent visit to Mexico ignite some new creative fires?
You could say that. It had been 28 years since I had been back to Mexico. Two years ago I made the (first) return. I was literally chasing a dream of having frequent visits from my grandfather—whom I had never met—in my dreams. Since then, I have been in a steady rhythm of returning. It has been a beautiful awakening and is certainly a place of great inspiration for me.
Tell us about your production company, De La Luz, and its emphasis?
De La Luz literally translates to “of the light.” The motto for De La Luz Global is “where light meets life,” so my intention is to create, present, promote and produce in settings where these intersections of light/life occur. I believe the arts are an important tool to bridging communities and making positive change around the world.
Who are your principal collaborators at the moment? Just how many pies do you have in the oven?
I have the pleasure of working with many talented musicians all over the world. My principal partners for this year include Michael Bellar, producer for my debut album, and Alex Collier for a Charleston-based world premiere of Sacred Ground, a project that came to life in Berlin this past summer. I am also working with the Gibbes Museum of Art, The Citadel, the Halsey Institute, the College of Charleston Women’s and Gender Program, and Circular Church. There are also a few more “to-be-announced” projects on the burner.
Earlier this year you led an ensemble in A Celebration of Women in Jazz concert at The Citadel to honor Women’s History Month. Are there plans for an encore in 2017?
That was a very special collaboration with The Citadel and specifically Tiffany Silverman, the director of the Fine Arts Department. There are plans for an adapted version of this project for the spring. I have several projects planned for 2017 that will be equally as groundbreaking. Stay tuned!
Bill Thompson is the author of Art and Craft: 30 Years on the Literary Beat.