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."
Walking home from a rehearsal session in San Francisco at the age of 29, she was caught in the midst of a random shooting that left her paralyzed from the waist down. I ask how she dealt with the realization that she'd never walk again, and she confesses that initially she didn't, that after a year of depression and deep despair she made a serious attempt to end her own life. "But the most wonderful thing happened next," she says. "They put me in what I refer to as the Ha-Ha Hotel. For five weeks I was locked up in a 15-bed ward surrounded by people who were just really nuts! The counselors there slowly got me to realize that trying to kill myself was nuts, and eventually I saw that my job was to figure out how to live my life in a new way."
Whitfield says she came to understand that the only thing she had lost in this misfortunate event was the ability to walk, that in fact she was still possessed of her most valuable asset—her mind. "Everything important is in here," she says, pointing to her head. "The only real disability in life is losing your mind." When I ask wasn't she angry about what she had lost, she says, "I knew early on that anger would only make things harder for me." She admits to being frustrated occasionally, "like when everybody's dancing, because I love to dance. But when that happens I just remove myself so I can focus instead on what I can do."