When she was 12 years old, jazz singer and Brooklyn native Charenee Wade heard a recording of the legendary jazz vocalist Sarah Vaughan singing "My Funny Valentine." Wade instantly fell under the spell of Vaughan's lyrical voice, and she has been singing ever since.
"What I liked about Sarah Vaughan's voice was that it was warm, soulful," Wade said. "I felt like I connected with her."
Twenty years later, Wade is steadily gaining a following. On her latest album, "Love Walked In" from 2010, her stirring voice runs the gamut of expression. The spirited tunes are playfully rendered, each syllable animated. Then her voice is washing over a ballad like a wave with a delivery so intimate it makes listeners feel as though she's right next to them, crooning in their ears.
Wade is making her Spoleto Festival debut at 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday in the Cistern Yard.
Wade first came to the attention of the jazz world in 2004 when she was a contestant in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition. The contest has been known for launching the careers of up-and-coming musicians since its inception in 1987. Wade placed fourth.
Six years later, she competed again. This time, she placed second. But perhaps even more important than her ranking in the contest was the friendship she formed with the winner, Cecile McLorin Salvant, who made her Spoleto debut in 2012.
Salvant said Wade's talent struck her immediately, and she remains a fan.
"My favorite jazz singers are the ones that sing with authenticity, that have a sense of humor, deeply interpret songs and are surprising," Salvant said. "Charenee does that."
Wade's slot in this year's festival is due in part to a recommendation Salvant gave two years ago, said Michael Grofsorean, director of the Wells Fargo Jazz series.
"I make a practice of interrogating all the musicians I bring to the festival because it's a great way for me to get ideas for future festivals," Grofsorean said. Salvant gave him Wade's name in 2012, and jazz vocalist Gregory Porter also recommended her when he performed at the festival the following year. Grofsorean said that was as good as it gets as far as recommendations, because both Salvant and Porter are great singers.
Wade will be performing at Spoleto with four other musicians: Oscar Perez on piano, Dezron Douglas on bass, Alvester Garnett on drums and Bruce Williams on saxophone. Perez has been playing with Wade for 10 years. He said what keeps him on board with the singer is her honesty as an artist, which was evident the first time he heard her.
"When I listened to her, I realized there was a different path to her, a more pure path," Perez said. "I met somebody who came up listening to jazz. That's so rare now. It's in her DNA."
Wade started singing jazz when she was 12, but it wasn't until high school that she realized she wanted to make her living as a singer. Her newfound dedication to music came when she attended the New York State Summer School of the Arts program in Albany.
"I just remember one day having an epiphany that, 'Oh, I could do this. I could sing all day,' " Wade said.
Singing jazz from a young age has given Wade that intangible quality that goes beyond talent or skill: authenticity. Grofsorean said aside from hearing her name from other great musicians, Wade's sincerity in her singing reeled him in.
"I won't consider an artist that doesn't strike me as honest and authentic," he said. "There's a richness about everything she does: the range, the tone, the expression, the dynamism of it. Hearing her is reminiscent of Sarah Vaughan."
And there's that name again. At 12, Charenee Wade hears Vaughan for the first time. Today, Wade's got the mic, and she's making jazz her own.
Jessica Cabe is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.