I'm sitting one winter night with a friend in the nightclub Le Jazz Au Bar in New York, waiting for the singer Wesla Whitfield to appear. The houselights are low and the mostly middle-aged audience, seated at small tables, are eating dinner, chatting happily, sipping drinks. The stage lights go up and the pianist and the bassist toss out an up-tempo prelude. In a moment Wesla Whitfield wheels herself onstage in an aerodynamically streamlined wheelchair.
You will suspect me of exaggerating when I say that within 50 seconds of listening I have clean forgotten the wheelchair. I am not, however, exaggerating. Whitfield's voice bathes the room with an intimacy powerful enough to render the wheelchair invisible. She sings, "I've had happiness, but it ended one day…," and in the course of this one song she manages to sound as languorous as Peggy Lee, as clear and wide-eyed as Judy Garland, as hazy and rasping as Janis Joplin after a three-day bender—yet though it alludes to past greats, Whitfield's style is entirely her own.
At 57 Whitfield is petite and as pretty as a schoolgirl—a sort of teenage Clara Bow. She is witty and self-deprecating, modest and philosophical. When I note that she has been described by some critics as the best jazz singer in America, she draws herself up, raises a hand at me in protest, and says with a laugh, "Oh, that's bull----! And anyway, I'm not a jazz singer. I'm a classical singer trying desperately to move as quickly away from that as I can…but it's going to take me the rest of my life."
Raised in central California in the town of Santa Maria, Whitfield began performing in public at age 18, when she took a job as a singing waitress at a Shakey's Pizza Parlor. "The light dawned," she says of that experience, "and I knew that this was what I wanted to do. Not the waitress part, of course, but singing for people. That was where I wanted to be." After studying classical music in college (not out of a particular love of the genre but because it was the only music allowed on the curriculum), she moved to San Francisco and went on to sing with the San Francisco Opera Chorus, a job she eventually abandoned because, she says, "Opera is all about the voice and the singer, not the song or the story, and that bored me."