Jazz Profile: Nancy Simmons

Nancy Simmons  Photo: Frank Zipperer
Nancy Simmons Photo: Frank Zipperer

by Eddie LeShure

“Nancy Simmons is a veteran singer whose impressive technique and command of a wide range of styles have made her a respected member of the Asheville music community. Her skills as a songwriter, pianist and leader of church choirs make her one of the most versatile vocal coaches in the area. From opera to soul, Nancy brings a wealth of knowledge, commitment and personal experience to the table.” ~ Dr. William Bares, UNCA Jazz Studies

Nancy Jackson grew up in Canton, Ohio in a home filled with the sounds of Nancy Wilson, Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand, Tony Bennett, Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page and the Beatles. She dislikes being pigeon holed by style or genre and points out, “If you eat your favorite food every day, eventually you’ll lose your taste for it!”

Nancy made her debut in second grade, placing second in a county talent competition singing Someday My Prince Will Come — and apparently he did when Phoenix bassist Jim Simmons changed her name to Nancy Jackson Simmons. Nancy received her Voice Degree from Arizona State University in 1980 and while there sang opera in seven languages, moonlighting in several jazz combos, plus the Arizona State Big Band.

While at ASU, Nancy applied for and won a coveted position in a national talent search, allowing her the opportunity to study for a month with the industry’s best arrangers, managers, record execs and performers of that time, which opened the door for a guest spot in an Andy Williams show at Phoenix Symphony Hall.

“Nancy’s approach to music embodies the concept that music defies categories. She draws upon a wide variety of styles and influences in her creative arrangements, and with her vocal command, she claims her chosen material as her own.” ~ Bill Gerhardt, pianist/composer

Because of Nancy’s ability to sing many styles, she quickly became one of the Phoenix area’s top vocalists. Nancy and Jim then opened what became the nationally known concert club Chuy’s in Tempe, AZ. They took Chuy’s through three expansions, starting with 2,500 square feet and ending up with over 15,000 and exclusive rights to the Hayden Square Amphitheater.

Due to the popularity of the club, Nancy and Jim were put in touch with the nation’s best musicians on a daily basis, and Nancy refers to this experience as her “live classroom.” Because of its reputation, many larger touring acts began playing Chuy’s and it became where musicians would go following their own shows, knowing they’d find a great act, as well as possible after-hours jamming.

“Jaco Pastorius, Mike Stern and I played every Joni Mitchell song we commonly knew until 4 a.m. after one of Jaco’s shows. They were like a harmonic machine, while I hung on piano as best I could. I just kept on singing and thinking, ‘I’m singing with Jaco Pastorius, don’t pinch me! Jaco taught me the most valuable lesson in music that night when he told me to always ‘remain childlike’.”

Nancy brings an irrepressible soul to all she sings. She is known for her vocally playful and passionate approach, which is evident in her original material too. “A lot of times musicians can get up in their heads, or throw chops at you, but that fun factor HAS to be there for me!” Her four-octave range makes for a sizable playground for both inventive phrasing and a sultry, pure tone that drives the emotional content of her songs. Nancy’s band name Green Eggs & Nan comes from her favorite childhood book, always reminding her of its greatest lesson in music.

“Nancy’s beautiful music has a true artistic voice — crossing many styles including Jazz, R&B, Pop and Soul. Her music making is definitely compelling, moving… her soulful renditions of jazz classics to pop and her musical artistry is truly captivating to the spirit. What an amazing talent — a must see for all!” ~ Joe Lulloff, Distinguished Professor of Saxophone, Michigan State University