Jazz Baby: 12-year-old virtuoso impresses at Grand PlazaWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
When you see Lauren Smith take the stage, you’re not sure what to expect. She looks mature for her age — that age being 12 years old — but still, she looks like what she is: A kid. Light curly hair framing an innocent, somewhat shy countenance, eyes covered by glasses. She looks like the kind of girl who should be gossiping with her friends about One Direction, not standing in front of an audience at a Jazz club.
Then she opens her mouth. And the voice that comes rolling out seems not of this world. Her vocal talents seem possible from someone double, triple her age — not this pre-teen. As Lauren belts songs from the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Etta James, you get the sense that you’re seeing the birth of something very, very special.
Indeed, every Wednesday night for the past five weeks or so, attendees at the weekly Jazz on the Maumee events at the Best Western Grand Plaza Hotel in downtown Toledo have witnessed something wonderful and wholly unexpected. Since her first performance, Lauren has become a staple at the Aqua Lounge on the lower level of the Grand Plaza, singing every week with the musicians who swing by — simultaneously sticking out like a sore thumb and fitting right in.
“Well, I guess I really enjoyed it,” Lauren said in an interview with Toledo Free Press Star. “I guess it just kind of felt like my calling, and I just really like to perform in front of people.”
JUST A KID
In person, Lauren comes across as shy, self-conscious, kind of quiet. She doesn’t really like talking about herself, even in an interview such as this. She doesn’t want to seem egocentric. Her attitude toward her vocal gifts is one of matter-of-fact amazement — she can’t believe people think so highly of her talent.
“I guess when I sang for talent shows for my school, and a lot of people came to, like, my parents and I and asked, ‘Oh, do you go with a vocal coach?’ And we just said, ‘Oh, no, I just rehearse at home.’ And we kind of thought, ‘Wow, maybe this is something I could do.’”
“She liked to play dress-up and get in front of the mirror,” Craig, Lauren’s father, said. “And it seemed like we always, in our free time, we always had music playing in the background. And she just was electric.”
Though Lauren began singing when she was three, she really got serious about vocal training in the past few years, taking lessons with the legendary Jean Holden, Toledo’s First Lady of Song. Lauren credits Holden with her growing poise onstage — which anyone who has seen her perform over the past few weeks has watched grow.
“I saw her perform at this benefit for the School for the Arts, I just about fell through the floor,” said Kay Elliott, executive director of the Art Tatum Jazz Heritage Society, the group that runs the Wednesday events at the Grand Plaza. “And I went up to her dad and said, ‘We should…’ And a couple weeks later, here they were, walking through the door.”
“I used to be very, very scared onstage,” Lauren noted. “Like, I didn’t want to do any emotions or smile or anything like that. But now after I’ve worked with Jean, I’ve become — like, my voice has become louder, people can hear me, I can project.”
HEART OF JAZZ
She hasn’t expanded into musical theater or school plays yet — she’s only in the seventh grade — and said she’s thought in expanding into that kind of performance on occasion. But really, her heart is performing classics from the immortals of jazz and blues.
“I think I might be the only person who is around my age who really actually knows who they are,” Lauren said with a smile. “Most people are, like, talking about newer singers, like pop singers. But I think that it gives me, like, more unique [feel] to a lot of the other new artists.”
So, how does Lauren learn the songs she performs at the Aqua? “It depends. Like, I sing some songs that I’ve heard before, like, with Jean. But a lot of the jazz songs, I haven’t heard before, and it can be hard sometimes. Like, as I’m learning them, I try to listen to the artist and then I kind of learn by ear. And then, it takes maybe a few times if it’s harder. But if it’s not really hard, it pretty much comes naturally.”
She’s also comfortable tailoring her performance to the situation, as she will on December 18 for the Grand Plaza’s Christmas Show. “I’m doing some traditional Christmas songs, like ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,’ and ‘The Christmas Song,’ and then maybe incorporating some of the other songs that I already sing, like ‘At Last’ or ‘It’s Only a Paper Moon.’”
But don’t get the idea that Lauren’s performances are straight-up emulations of her heroes — which would still be remarkable to hear coming from a 12-year-old voice box. No, this is jazz, after all — there has to be room to experiment a bit.
“I like to go mainly the traditional way, but maybe at some parts which can be changed a little bit, so maybe I can improvise,” she said. “And I try to listen to a bunch of different versions of the song so I know what I can do, what’s outside the boundaries.”
Over the past month, Lauren’s voice and growing stage presence have caught the eye of her fellow musicians and special guests at the Wednesday performances — everyone from local bass virtuoso and the Aqua’s self-proclaimed “house band” Clifford Murphy to 92-year-old jazz legend Jon Hendricks.
“She’s fantastic! She reminds me of when I was twelve years old and fantastic,” Hendricks said.
“It just makes me feel like I’ve done something right,” Lauren said of all the praise being sent her way. “It feels that, it’s just great to see people enjoying the effort that you’ve put into something, and being able to show what you’ve done.”
Her father, Craig, said he gets similar joy as Lauren performs. “I enjoy watching the audience reaction, just for … the joy that she may bring to someone through a performance. If we can enlighten someone’s life, even for a moment, to provide some good — I think that’s a wonderful gift.”
Beyond everything, though, Lauren is still a young woman of 12. She loves to draw and write, does extra-curricular activities, hangs out with friends. That last factor is a big part of what has kept her grounded as her musical career has begun to bloom. “They’re usually like, ‘Oh, yeah, you have a good voice. Now, let’s talk about something else,’” Lauren says of her friends, with a laugh.
Not that her talents are a complete non-factor in her social circles. “She was on a cross-country team this year, and they would travel to meets on the bus,” Craig said. “Well, [it’s the] technology age, so her friends like to watch her on YouTube. And they all talk about it on the bus. Well, now it’s a tradition — when they ride to these meets they ask her, ‘Would you please sing?’ So she sings a capella on the bus, on the way to these meets.”
Lauren’s dad acknowledges that his child is still growing into her amazing talent — but he can’t help but feel that it’s just the first step on a much grander journey for her.
“Her mother and I, we know her capabilities. We know that she’s just in the infancy stage. And I do, I definitely see that she’s got much more room to grow in the field and much more to learn. And we’re thrilled that she’s able to spend time and have these experiences with these wonderful musicians.”
Lauren herself, meanwhile, is clearly excited for whatever her musical talent may bring her in the future — but she still wants to take time to grow up and be a kid, too.
“It’s kind of like a mix of both. I mean, I really think singing is my passion and I’d like to do it in the future, like, as a career. But I also want to keep things going, keep going up on, like, what I’m doing with it.”
In the meantime, though, Lauren still will be taking center stage at the Aqua every Wednesday, belting out classics with whatever local music names happen by, impressing scores of audiences and garnering even more compliments that she can blush at.
“I can’t even put it into words. It’s so surprising to me. I can’t — it’s like, ‘Really?’ It just feels so nice, and sometimes I feel like I don’t deserve it. But really, I guess I do, but I don’t know.”