Claudia Acuña was born in Santiago, Chile, and grew up with aspirations to be a singer. As a child she sang native folk songs as well as the pop music of the day. It wasn’t until she was fifteen that she discovered Jazz. “I didn’t even know there was a style of music by that name, she recalls. I was performing and a couple came up to me and told me I was a natural Jazz singer. They had a huge record collection, so they invited me to their house to listen”. Not long after that she formed a friendship with a bebop fan and pianist, linking up with him once a week to learn tunes. Soon she was seeking out the Jazz community in Santiago, visiting the one major Jazz club in town and sitting in with musicians.
Though the local Jazz scene was small, it worked in Acuña’s favor because she began to receive a lot of attention. Even though she couldn’t speak English at the time, she met and performed with such visiting Jazz stars as pianist Michel Petrucciani, trumpeter/bandleader Winton Marsalis, tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, and Panamanian pianist (and now Verve label-mate) Danilo Perez. «Danilo and I could speak the same language, so that was inspiring», she says. “But he never told me to pack my bags and move to New York. He warned me how hard it was to make in there. It was the same with Joe. He gave me his phone number and told me to call him if I decided to come, but the also said that it wasn’t easy and couldn’t promise me anything”.
However, Acuña realized she needed to move to The Jazz Central to take her singing career to the next level. In 1995 she took the plunge. And, just as everyone had cautioned her, it wasn’t easy. I cried a lot those first two years of paying my dues, she admits. But I had a lot of strong creative energy as well as a couple of angels looking out for me. Acuña moved in with her father’s cousin in Brooklyn and began to try to make contacts with musicians. «I basically jumped into the ocean without knowing how to swim. I started calling people, but everyone was so busy. A few people called me back, but there really wasn’t anyone who had the time to show me around and get me started».
However, in her first week in town she visited Cleopatra´s Needle, the tiny Jazz club on the Upper West Side, and sat in with a friend´s band. Not long after that she was introduced to the jam sessions at Smalls, the 10th Street club in Greenwich Village. But I was very shy at first because I didn’t speak English, Acuña says. Plus the musicians didn’t know who I was, so I often had to wait until five or six in the morning to get my chance to sing. But I was so anxious and so passionate to sing that no matter how bad the vibes was nothing was going to deter me. After a while, the guys at Smalls started to let me sing.
Acuña points out that unlike many musicians who come to the U.S. to try to make it on the Jazz scene, she didn’t have the luxury of attending music school, which is often an invaluable means of making acquaintances and getting started. «Actually I auditioned at a school, but I couldn’t afford it», she says, noting that the Chilean government only gives scholarships for Classical music studies, not Jazz. But the person who I sang for said that my audition was one of the best she had heard. She told me that I didn’t really need school. I walked out of her office and told myself that I was going to make it. That’s when I threw myself into making my own school, doing it the old fashioned way at the jams, fighting to be one of the cats.
Even though she was forced to make ends meet by taking a series of menial jobs (babysitting, walking dogs, and late-night dishwashing at restaurants), Acuña´s perseverance began to pay off. She became a Jam session regular, sometimes gigging in as many as four sessions a night. “I didn’t know any other way to get into the mix”, she says. “So I’d go to jam at the Blue Note, then to Visiones, St. Mark´s and end up early in the morning at Smalls, where I got to know everyone. Friends started helping me with my pronunciation of lyrics and my phrasing”.
Acuña started performing with Jason Lindner´s big band at Smalls each Monday night. She also hooked up with veteran pianist Harry Whitaker (whose credentials include being musical director for Roberta Flack and a touring musician with Miles Davis) for a regular Sunday gig as a duo at Arturo´s. Soon, Acuña was putting together her own dates and performing at Smalls, the Zinc Bar, the Metronome, and Sweet Basil. That led to her working with Cohen on a demo tape of her music. Verve’s A&R VP Richard Seidel took a listen, which set into motion her signing with the label.
Still in her twenties, Acuña admits that she has a lot of ground to cover in learning her voice. Yet she makes such an impressive showing with her debut recording that Wind from the South promises to be the first of many an invigorating outing from a vocalist who has embarked on an exciting, Jazz committed career.