The Local “Lady Day”
The Jazz Singer with the Flower in her Hair
By Jane Schmidt
Kerensa Gray credits Billie Holiday with helping her find true bliss as a successful jazz vocalist. In 2009 the Waynesboro, Pa. resident and gospel singer of 15 years participated in the 20th Annual Billie Holiday Vocal Competition to see what feedback she would garner singing jazz. She was called back twice and ultimately named competition winner. “To this day I always wear a flower in my hair as a personal homage to Billie Holiday. I don’t know if I would have delved into jazz from gospel if I didn’t have this wonderful experience. It’s my ‘thank you’ to Lady Day,” Kerensa recalls.
“I wanted to see if I could perhaps spread my wings and take my voice somewhere else. I basically jumped into the pool to see if I could swim. I love the freedom in singing jazz. The jazz and gospel musical genres are from the same root system and share the same history. Jazz truly speaks to me. It is American music that’s organic and of the soil.”
Kerensa always knew her vocation was music and she grew up surrounded by many music styles. “My father always sang,” she reminisces. “He loved every genre of music out there and my mother loved classical music. I always knew music would be my calling ever since I was a little girl.”
Kerensa traversed many musical paths on her way to becoming an accomplished jazz vocalist. “I was quite sick with asthma as a child. I wanted to sing but found it difficult given my health circumstances.” Not to be thwarted, Kerensa followed her musical ambitions by learning to play violin. “I didn’t need to have great breath control doing so and I could still enjoy music.” Kerensa continued her journey learning violin through high school and she continues playing nearly every day.
During high school, Kerensa’s musical interests expanded to reintroduce singing. “My high school choral director was pivotal in helping me get back into singing. He taught me how to breathe correctly. With proper breathing techniques, I was able to rediscover music through song. It was a challenge finding my own voice. And while it took me a bit longer, I think the long process helped me become comfortable to develop my own musical voice.”
The smoky-voiced singer embraced gospel for 15 years before songwriting. As she developed songwriting techniques she noted her original compositions leaned toward jazz. Kerensa imparts her musical style is influenced from memories of listening to The Great American Storybook and her love of songs performed by Betty Carter, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughn.
In 2009, Kerensa released her first album “Let Me Be Me” produced by contemporary jazz guitarist Drew Davidsen. Her latest album, “Bliss,” was produced by Eric Copeland in conjunction with Creative Soul Jazz, Nashville, Tennessee and recorded at the historic Dark Horse Studio. “Bliss” features a potpourri of standards, original compositions, and new jazz tracks. She is completing a gospel track she co-wrote with Copeland for a compilation album released by Creative Soul, sister label of Creative Soul Jazz and is working on her third jazz album.
Kerensa also performs live at 170-plus public and private venues of all sizes. The “home base” for KGJazz is Gourmet Goat in Hagerstown and The Comus Inn on Sugarloaf Mountain in Frederick, Md. every second Friday each month. “I really love the intimate settings of smaller venues as I can talk and joke with audiences. Every night is a different, new adventure – it depends on the audience. Larger venues are great also as they are more rehearsed and offer a chance to reach more listeners. I love being able to help people recall fond memories as well as help them create new ones.”
Kerensa Gray’s local August performances include:
- First Friday’s Greencastle, Center Square, Greencastle, PA — Fri., Aug. 1 at 5 p.m.
- Gourmet Goat, 41 N. Potomac St., Hagerstown, MD — Sat., Aug. 2; Sat., Aug. 9; and Sat., Aug. 23. All performances 6 p.m.
- The Comus Inn, 23900 Old Hundred Rd., Dickerson, MD — Fri., Aug. 8 at 6 p.m. (second Friday each month)
- Red Heifer Winery, 24606 Raven Rock Rd., Smithsburg, MD — Sun., Aug. 10 at 5 p.m.
- Pop a Cork for the Capitol, Capitol Theater, Chambersburg, PA — Sat., Aug. 16 at noon
- Destination Arts, Main St., Waynesboro, PA — Sun., Aug. 17 at 2 p.m.
- The Orchards Restaurant, 1580 Orchard Dr., Chambersburg, PA — Fri., Aug. 22 at 6 p.m.
- Christ UMC, 100 S. Church St., Waynesboro, PA — Sun., Aug. 24 at 10:45 a.m.
For Kerensa’s complete performance schedule or album details, visit kerensagray.com.