PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
February 7, 2006

Charles Darden, With Love

by Jim Newsom

Charles Darden is only 32 years old, yet he’s carving out a musical career for himself singing the songs of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s. It’s only natural to wonder how he was drawn to such music.

“Late in high school,” he told me recently, “I got into it. I just started listening to it---I was starting to get sick of the radio at that point.

“Around that time, Jae [Sinnett] was starting his show and they had the Saturday Night Fish Fry with Neal Murray. So a lot of it was WHRO, really. Also, Harry Connick was just coming out. I saw him on TV and I said, ‘Man, what’s this guy doing?’ I didn’t know anybody that young doing this kind of music, and he was doing it right. It wasn’t just an act.

“After a couple of years of listening to more instrumental jazz, I started listening to Sinatra around the time I was 20. I started off listening to Duke Ellington and then I found Sinatra.”

Since finding Sinatra and his disciple Connick, Darden has made a place for himself in the jazz community, locally and beyond. Last year he released a tasty album of mostly time-tested treats called Sway. Friday night, he’ll emphasize the romantic side of the Great American Songbook in a special pre-Valentine’s performance at the Granby Theater, presented by the Hope House Foundation. It’s a free concert being offered as a “thank you” to the community for all the support the organization receives in its work with adults with disabilities.

Darden is no stranger to benefit concerts. In fact, one of his highest profile gigs came as the result of a charity performance in Washington, DC.

“We had gotten the chance to play for the Starlight Children’s Foundation at the Ronald Reagan International Trade Building,” he recalled, “and some of the people who run the events there saw me and a couple of weeks later they had to put together the inauguration. That was the year where the recount sort of messed things up so a lot of the entertainment was very last minute. They called us up and we got the gig.”

“The gig” was a performance at George W. Bush’s inauguration in January, 2001. At that point, Darden had been singing jazz for less than four years. Yet he’d already made inroads into a marketplace not always friendly to his type of music:

“I think I was 24 when I finally sang publicly for the first time. I was lucky---I got a lot of gigs early on as a singer in different places that normally didn’t have jazz. Within the first year I was playing at Goodfellas, J. M. Randall’s and Hot Tuna---all these places that would never have a standards singer.”

He’s come a long way from the kid who played saxophone in the Bethel High School band, listening to Top 40 radio and growing up with seven older sisters.

“I was definitely into Duran Duran,” he laughed, “and before that I learned all these old Elvis songs. They were all the records we had around our house, so he was my first big influence as a kid.

“As far as saxophone, I got a little education playing in the concert band in high school. We really didn’t have a jazz band; I just basically got into that on my own. I didn’t even have my own saxophone, so when I graduated I lost it all together. When I was about 22, I decided I was going to go out and buy a saxophone with my first credit card. I wasn’t doing anything at that point; I had this little day job working in a department store. I got my first credit card and I went out and charged this saxophone, and I just started messing around with it to see if I could improvise.”

He still plays sax, but it’s his singing that’s captured the ears and heart of many a local lady. But sorry girls, he’s happily married, and he and his wife Tracy have a young daughter, Olivera. While Tracy works with her family’s insurance agency, Charles is one of the few local musicians able to make it without a day job, affording him the opportunity to stay home and play dad.

“I’ve been really lucky,” he said, “We’ve spent a lot of time together the last two and a half years. When I’m not here, she gets upset. Sometimes I’ll call from a gig and I’ll hear her in the background saying, ‘I hate it when Daddy goes to a gig.’ She likes going herself---she’s very musical and she loves to dance already.”

She’ll probably be at the Granby Theater Friday night when her daddy sings with a crack band of sidemen---pianist John Toomey, bassist Elias Bailey, saxman Jeff Smith and drummer Howard Curtis. Bailey is coming down from New York, where he is currently employed with Freddy Cole’s group. Curtis is about to take off for Europe.

As for his future plans, Charles Darden will continue to explore the richness of the jazz vocal repertoire. Though Connick and Sinatra are his obvious points of reference, he’s discovered a few others along the way.

“Louis Armstrong was a big influence early on,” he said, “and then recently, Johnny Hartman. That classic recording of him and Coltrane---it was like a little revelation.

“I also like Sammy Davis, Jr. I didn’t know he was as good a singer as he was.”

copyright © 2006 Port Folio Weekly. Used by Permission.