US singer Brenna Whitaker is latest artist to take residency at Q's Bar and Lounge
For five nights a week, Whitaker and her three-piece band can be heard performing songs that provide a different aspect of the genre
The sound of jazz’s underbelly is alive and well in Dubai this summer, courtesy of US singer Brenna Whitaker. She is the latest resident artist at Dubai’s Qs Bar and Lounge, the intimate music venue curated by music producer Quincy Jones.
For five nights a week, Whitaker and her three-piece band can be heard performing songs that provide a different aspect of the genre, one that is removed from the glitter and the fame. From Fever by Peggy Lee and Ruth Brown’s I Can’t Hear a Word You Say, Whitaker’s setlist is made up of songs by artists who lived and played hard. “That music until this day really speaks to me. I hear their voices and what they are saying, which is full of hope and despair, and I think, yes, these are my people,” Whitaker says. “Jazz does have a history, I guess, of performers being more or less broken. Now there are a lot of cases where artists are alive today and lived to rebuild their lives. But a lot of the tragic cases is down to a lot of things, one of which is the hustle is really a grind and to go on stage and bringing that emotion and energy every night is like selling a little bit of your soul.”
Whitaker’s appreciation for these artists is not morbid fascination. Her career has in fact followed the well-trodden path of her heroes. Raised in rural Kansas City where she began performing in a theatre troupe at the age of 11, Whitaker took off to New York City and Los Angeles where she struggled and eventually made a name for herself as a specialist in jazz’s torch-singer tradition.
This came from helming successful jazz parties at Los Angeles’s trendy W Hollywood in 2012. Running weekly for three years, Whitaker transformed the lobby into an intimate 1960s jazz club – with its sleek curtains, moody lighting and vintage beverages – where she performed with a ten-piece band. It didn’t take long for the word to spread, and a range of music stars, past and present, were in the audience.
“Justin Bieber was there,” Whitaker says. “He was really cool, he didn’t make a fuss. He just came with his friends and listened to the music.”
I like to consider myself a hard-working professional but I am not polished. I am not a fan of certain filters they put on the vocals and there was a few pop songs in there that I had to do.
While there are plenty of jazz venues in Hollywood – including Sunset Boulevard’s Catalina Jazz Club which hosted the likes of masters Dizzy Gillespie and Chick Corea – it was Whitaker’s song selection that stood out from the pack.
It was enough for singer Stevie Wonder and pop-producer David Foster to make low-key appearances at the shows.
Foster got her a record deal and produced her 2015 self-titled debut album, a selection of uber-polished covers which included Lesley Gores’s You Don’t Own Me and Kermit The Frog’s signature tune It’s Not Easy Being Green.
While ultimately satisfied with the record, Whitaker admits it didn’t capture the emotional heft and grit of her live shows. A lot of that is due to Foster’s smooth and radio-friendly production that made stars out of Michael Buble and Josh Groban.
“Maybe I was a little bit too dark for the label,” she says with a laugh. “I like to consider myself a hard-working professional but I am not polished. I am not a fan of certain filters they put on the vocals and there was a few pop songs in there that I had to do. I had to emotionally adjust myself to doing that.”
After Jones’s talent scouts confirmed to him that Whitaker’s industry buzz was real, he offered her the opportunity to perform in Dubai.
Whitaker sees the delicious irony in performing these emotionally fraught songs, originally performed in US dive bars of old, in the plush comforts of a five-star Dubai hotel. “I am not going to lie, it is beautiful here,” she says. “But I am living my dream, not because of performing in beautiful places, but from the fact that I am out there on stage singing every night. This is what my heroes taught me and that’s to keep going.”
Brenna Whitaker performs at Q’s Bar and Lounge at Palazzo Versace Dubai, Tuesdays to Saturdays, until August 17
Updated: July 4, 2019 12:14 PM