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India's Jazz

[whitespace] India Velasquez
George Sakkestad

Double Vision: Jazz, power pop and promotions--just a day in the life of India, Santa Cruz's new music staple.

The jazz life--and a little Girl Power too--beckons Santa Cruz vocalist India Velasquez

By Karen Reardanz

DIMINUTIVE--barely five feet tall--with a row of razor-straight bangs a la Louise Brooks and a speaking voice that borders on girlish, India Velasquez hardly seems physically capable of belting out a tune like "Blue Monk" with the force of a vocal powerhouse. But then in a flash, India's on stage, and she immediately commands attention. Scatting and growling, elegantly poised before her three-piece cadre of dapper musicians, India morphs into a jazz diva.

It's not really a surprise that the native Santa Cruz singer is now the frontwoman for the band India & Straightahead (with bassist Steve Larkin, guitarist/
arranger Gino Raugi and percussionist--and India's proud papa--Steven Velasquez). India grew up immersed in a rich musical culture. Though her father is now firmly basking in the lush hues of the jazz life, during India's formative years, he was a musical chameleon.

"I grew up going to my dad's shows around Santa Cruz," India remembers. "He was in lots of bands, different kinds of bands--rock, punk--in addition to jazz. So I was exposed to all kinds of music growing up."

Then there's that voice, the one that rolls and swirls around phrases, the one that turns nonsensical words into poetry, the one that is mature way beyond India's 26 years. The range of that voice wasn't discovered until the singer was well into her teens.

"I didn't start singing until I was in high school," she says. "I started with my school's [Soquel High] women's choir and went from there to the Cabrillo Choir and really began to enjoy singing. That's when I started thinking that maybe I'd like to pursue it."

When most teenage girls envision a life of music, they dream of becoming rock stars. But when India Velasquez chose to make music her muse, it had nothing to do with pop-life fascination. India wanted to be a jazz singer.

"I hated jazz when I was growing up," she laughs. "My dad was always playing it, but I was a total Stevie Wonder fanatic. But once I started singing, I started getting into jazz and appreciating it for how complex it is."

Spinning albums by the likes of such female vocalists as Nancy Wilson and Carmen McRae--to whom India bears a striking vocal resemblance--she quickly learned her way around a jazz hook. Now able to add a playful sass, unshakeable ease and a seductively smooth subtlety to songs like "Broadway," "One for My Baby" and "That's All," India has grown into the role of Straightahead's frontwoman--one that she didn't necessarily see scripted into her life.

"I was sort of thrown into the whole thing," she says. "Dad and Gino had played together for years, and Straightahead has been together, oh God, since like 1979. But I used to sing with them at their rehearsals, just for fun. One day about four years ago, Dad joked and said we should start a band. One week later, he told me we had a show at Ideal Bar & Grill, and there it was. We were a band."

WHILE INDIA focuses primarily on her jazz persona, there's a flip side to the young woman that seems more fitting for a 26-year-old. Earlier this year, India teamed up with Eden Fineday of the What-Nots and Miya Osaki from the Muggs for a power-pop side-project trio, the Peggy Hills, that screams Girl Power faster--and by far better--than you can say Baby, Sporty and Ginger.

"I was friends with Eden and Miya before," India says, "and we thought it would be really fun to play together. And we also thought it would great to be three women doing this together on the local scene."

Though the three have only played together a handful of times--at the Santa Cruz Vets Hall, Palookaville and UCSC's Whole Earth--they've achieved a surprisingly cohesive threesome that's instrumentally diverse (it even features India strapping on a guitar), lyrically rich (a good portion of their songs are self-penned) and bursting with energy.

India also flexes her creative muscles with a new local upstart production company, Lollipop Productions. The brainchild of Adam Levin of KZSC, Josh Montgomery of Slow Gherkin, India and friend Michelle Olsen, the company was formed as a way to beef up the live-music scene for Santa Cruz bands.

"There really aren't enough places to play in town," India laments, "especially for certain kinds of bands. There are a good amount of spots for jazz musicians because there are so many restaurants, but for other music, there's really only parties and a few select clubs."

Lollipop Productions also aims to drum up a roster of youth-friendly spots for kids who aren't old enough to get into venues like the Catalyst and Skinny McDoogle's.

"We're trying to pump up the scene and provide places for kids to go," she explains. "All of our shows are all-ages, and we try to expose them to a variety of music. We want to book bands that people might not have heard of and put bands from different genres together in the same lineup."

With three shows already on the docket for August--including performances by Link 80, Champs, Cara Dura and the What-Nots--and a host of gigs already played to enthusiastic response, Lollipop Productions is a successful manifestation of India's belief that music is as important to kids as any kind of education.

"Music's really important to help kids grow individually as well as in groups," she believes. "I'd encourage kids to get involved in any kind of music, and for parents to support 'em in it--even if their kids come home and want to be in a punk band."

THE HIP and young Dickies-clad crowds at the Peggy Hills and Lollipop Production shows are a far cry from the more subdued and refined audiences India & Straightahead finds at its usual haunts. "The crowds we get are always different," she says. "We play a lot of tourist spots--like Severino's, Ideal and Cafe Rio--so there's variety, but we also have an older crowd that knows us, and they're great. They really appreciate our music."

India and her jazzy cohorts adore playing live-- something they do a few times a week--and see it as an outlet for showing just how in tune these four are with each other. "We don't actually rehearse," she says. "If we want to introduce a new song or try something a different way, we do it live. Sometimes we get something we really like, and we'll keep doing it.

"It doesn't always work," India admits, "but even if we miss each other's cue or something's not quite right, it usually sounds fine. We've been playing together for so long now that we know just how to gloss over and keep going."

When asked about the future, India pauses for a moment. "We're working on a new album right now," she says, "hopefully with more original songs, and we're trying to play as many shows as we can. But from there we'll see. Right now I'm just having a lot of fun."

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From the July 30-Aug. 5, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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