Written by | Ray Cornelius

Kathleen Bertrand has sung the national anthem for two U.S. Presidents, performed during two Olympic Games [’94 Winter Games and ’96 Summer Games] and has performed not once but three times on the world’s biggest jazz stage, Montreux Jazz Festival.  She has even shared stages with the smooth jazz king Kenny G and the legendary Ray Charles.

However, nothing will compare to the performance she has planned for this coming Memorial Day weekend.  For the first time, Bertrand will headline in her native city of Atlanta at this year’s Jazz Festival; and she’s not taking this moment lightly.  As a matter-of-fact, she still gets nervous and excited every time she thinks about it.

I had a chance to talk with the Spelman College alum and mother of four recently about her career, the lessons she learned from Roy Ayers and “the call” she hopes to get from President Obama.

RC: You are headlining at this year’s Atlanta Jazz Festival, how does that feel?

KB:  Wonderful! [LOL] It’s wonderful.  I’m excited.  I am humbled.  Umm, I run out of words.  I’ve performed a number of times at the Atlanta Jazz Festival; but, to be on the main stage in a headline slot is an honor.  It means a great deal to me.

RC: You have performed during two Olympic Games, what is your favorite Olympic moment?

KB:  Wow!  My favorite Olympic moment was in Lillehammer, Norway for the 1994 Olympic Games.  I went over as a cultural ambassador for the city of Atlanta to give people at the Winter Olympic Games a taste of what it was going to be like in the ‘96 Summer Games in Atlanta.  They had us perform not only in Lillehammer but in various clubs near the venues in Norway, many of them outside of Lillehammer. So we were driving up and there stuck in the snow, on one of those sandwich boards, is this huge poster board that says, “Tonight…the Atlanta Jazz All-Stars with Kathleen Bertrand.”  There was this big picture of me that they had blown up.  It was just a fantastic moment that I will never forget.

RC: What was it like touring with the great Roy Ayers?

KB:  Oh my goodness.  A lot of lessons learned that I apply still in my life today!  Roy was a great teacher. He taught me a lot about being on stage, having stage presence and giving the audience what they paid for.  The audience doesn’t really care that you were caught in a traffic jam before you got there or that you broke your heel or you lost your luggage or whatever it might be.  When the lights come on, you need to ‘come on with it’ and give fans what they expect.  I have kept that as a personal way of operating ever since that time and even in my corporate life.

RC: You have performed for two presidents and have shaken the hand of our current president, what was that like?

KB: And I hope to sing for him too! [LOL] It’s been a blessing.  People have heard me sing and I get asked to perform.  That’s what happened with George H. W. Bush.  I got called to sing the national anthem for him because someone had heard me sing at something else.  The same thing also happened when Bill Clinton came to Atlanta.  I got a call from the Democratic National Committee or GA Democratic Committee…one of the two…and they called and said that I had been recommended to sing the National Anthem and to look for a call from the secret service.  [LOL] so that was quite thrilling.  So now I’m just waiting patiently on that call from President Obama.

RC: What’s your favorite city to perform in?

KB: Montreux!  I’ve been there three times as a performer at the Montreux Jazz Festival.  What I love about the festival is that there is music in every corner and in every building of the city.  Plus, the people are so appreciative.  Also, to be thousands of miles away and have people humming along or to come up to you after the show and say, “you know that song reminded me of Sarah Vaughn.”  And to know that they are talking about the very same music that I sing; it’s just always been such a great experience every time.

RC: How would you define your singing style?

KB: I’m a song stylist!  I learned that from Nancy Wilson who told me that people would say she is jazz and she certainly does that well?  But she said, “I like pop tunes also.”  And when I look back to a Sarah Vaughn, her style was that she was a scat singer but she was also a great interpreter of ballads.  And the songs that she sang were the popular songs which are what we now called the standards.

I love to do the music of that era but I also love to do my music and interpret it however.  For some it might be R&B, to others it might be Bossa nova or it might be jazz to this one.  I just want to be known as a stylist of the music that I sing.

Kathleen Bertrand hits the AJF main stage on Saturday, May 26 at 7pm.

2012 Atlanta Jazz Festival performance schedules are available at www.atlantafestivals.com.