Northern California Jazz Chanteuse Valerie V Drops a CD
“IntimateLee” features 11 classic American Songbook faves
By Ed Goldman
If you’ve heard that jazz is a vanished art form, you haven’t heard, “IntimateLee,” the new CD from singer Valerie V and her one-man/multi-piece band Chet Chwalik.
Recorded live at the Midtown Vanguard Jazz series in Sacramento, the album—available at her website—features 11 songs from the Great American Songbook (a never-disputed descriptor, by the way), interpreted syllable by syllable in V’s singular, surprisingly versatile voice. That voice can be sultry, childlike, husky and teasing, sometimes within a few bars of the same song.
Valerie V’s off-mic name is Valerie Weinberg. She was born Valerie Lee (as in “IntimateLee”) but eventually, because of a complicated, though not terribly compelling, series of events, she took her current stage name.
I’ve known V and her sound for almost a decade. While she discovered her true calling earlier, at the very inconvenient age of “about 50”—when she was married, had three kids and a home in one of Northern California’s tonier enclaves, Granite Bay—she decided it was “now or never,” and began auditioning at local venues. The patrons were jazz fans but were not, as you might imagine, all members of AARP. Baby Boomers, Gen-Xers and Millennials were among the increasing crowds at her performances, which started out at bars and restaurants (and still includes them) but found their way to private parties, weddings, political fund-raisers and Northern California casinos (she played New Year’s Eve at Thunder Valley and has scored numerous bookings at Cache Creek, among others). She also was a featured performer at the opening of the now-celebrated Harris Center for the Arts in Folsom.
Valerie V in Mid-Trill. Photo by Rob Rabiroff.
In the beginning of her career, her husband, a wealth-and-finance consultant, strongly objected to her desire to start accepting some of the invitations she’d received to perform once eatery and tavern owners, and other musicians, had heard her sing. She says she can still hear her husband derisively yelling to their children, “Mom can’t have dinner with us tonight. She has a giiiiig.”
“He made ‘gig’ sound like a social disease,” Val says.
So she left her physically comfortable McMansion and rented a place not far away to stay in contact with her kids—twin sons Corey and David, now 31, and daughter Lauren, now 27. They were 19 and 15 when she’d left. “It was rough going for them and me for a lot of years,” she says. “For someone like me with lifelong abandonment issues, I felt awful doing what I did. But I felt that if I didn’t follow my dream, I’d literally die.”
Instead, and not surprisingly, the marriage did the dying. But in the succeeding years, V—who turns 68 on Sunday, May 17—and her children have managed to draw “closer than ever.”
She lives in a modest condo in Campus Commons, a vast condo development built in the 1960s by the late builder Robert Powell, whose other signature creations include Gold River, a custom-home community, and the upscale Pavilions Shopping Center.
V’s filled her walls with some of the other art she creates: intensely vibrant acrylic and, sometimes, acrylic-and-collage paintings that jump from genre to genre: abstracts, impressionist pieces, even sentimental portraits of people’s pets. In fact, her painting of Osborn the Magnificent, my 17.75-year-old tabby, sits above the piano in my living room. For his whiskers, Val used picture wire that gives the piece a 3-D effect (and for all I know, can embezzle my neighbor’s cable or internet signal).
She’s also a relentless fashionista. In addition to the fingerless gloves she wears both on- and off-stage—which on her seem elegant and on me would evoke memories of Red Skelton’s Freddie the Freeloader—she has closets jam-packed with dresses she rarely refrains from modifying (a cut-out here, a sew-on there). Very few people, and certainly few audience members, have ever seen her in the same ensemble twice.
“I truly think I’ve been living my life in reverse,” she says. “I’ve been working on my music and career with the same energy I’d have given it, maybe more, when I was in my 20s.” To hold “body and soul but mainly soul together,” she also works several hours each week at senior citizen centers (though the coronavirus has put that gig on hiatus).
Mainly, though, she spends her time deepening her act. She thinks singing is in her DNA: One of her cousins was the Oscar-nominated songwriter Sammy Fain, who wrote the music for such hits as “Let a Smile Be Your Umbrella,” “You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me,” “I’ll Be Seeing You,” “Secret Love” and “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing.”
“IntimateLee,” V’s new album, includes “Nice and Easy,” “I Fall in Love too Easily” and everyone’s favorite song whenever February 14 rolls around, “My Funny Valentine,” which was actually sung to a guy named Valentine in the Rodgers-and-Hart show, “Babes in Arms.”
I know this only because in my exaggerated youth, I co-starred in a production of it. It did not make me a Broadway star, however. I probably should’ve worn fingerless gloves.