Seattle–Kobe jazz audition unites sister cities

By Zachariah Bryan
Northwest Asian Weekly

From left: High School winner Sofia Smith, High School runner-up Claire Demorest, Adult runner-up Melyssa Stone, and Adult winner Leah Natale (Photo by Zachariah Bryan/NWAW)

Despite what the naysayers may say, jazz isn’t dead. It’s alive, and it thrives both in Seattle and its sister city of 56 years, Kobe, Japan.

This was no more apparent than at the 9th Annual Seattle-Kobe Female Jazz Vocalist Audition on Monday, Feb. 25, where five high school students and six adults battled on stage in front of an audience of over 300 at Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley. The prize? A trip to Kobe to explore the city and sing at their jazz festival as part of a cultural exchange program of the Seattle-Kobe Sister City Association.

Billed as an “audition” rather than a contest, the competition was fierce yet friendly that night. In the high school division, the teenage girls sang with mature, rich voices and exuded the same confidence as any adult. Nicole Rinne’s rendition of Frank Sinatra’s “Cheek to Cheek,” which included an aggressive scat solo, would have made “Ol’ Blue Eyes” himself blush.

While the high school students sang like they had something to prove, the adult singers brought subtlety. Runner-up Melyssa Stone brought all of Jazz Alley to a hush during her performance. Audience members could hear every whisper and breath she made.

Singer Sofia Smith and Pianist Carolyn Grave (Photo by Zachariah Bryan/NWAW)

In the end, there could be only two winners. In the high school division, junior Sofia Smith won the judges over with her bold performance. She attends the Academy of Arts and Sciences and also happens to be Seattle Deputy Mayor Darryl Smith’s daughter. In the adult division, Leah Natale took the prize.

Runners-up were Claire Demorest in the high school division and Stone in the adults division. In addition to being alternates for the Kobe trip, they received a $150 gift certificate to Jazz Alley.

After seeing their competition, neither winner said they had any idea if they were even in the running. But their lifelong commitment to singing and jazz was apparent.

When asked how long she had been singing, Smith, typical of any dedicated singer, answered, “Like my whole life, I guess.” Then, when asked what inspired her, she said, “My mom. She’s a singer. When I was little, she would sing me jazz lullabies and that’s when I fell in love with singing.”

For Natale, it was jazz specifically that attracted her to music.

“It’s mostly jazz which drew me. It’s when I discovered jazz (that) I found my genre, my music,” she said. “When other kids were going to rock concerts, I was going to jazz concerts. I was the weird one.”

The Seattle-Kobe jazz exchange began in 2000, as a response to the Jan. 17, 1995 Kobe earthquake, or “Great Hanshin Earthquake,” which caused a great amount of devastation, resulting in approximately 6,500 deaths and 220,000 people being displaced from their homes. Jazz was a small way to help build back up a hardy arts community and regain a sense of pride and excitement.

Kobe, which has had the “Kobe Jazz Street” festival since 1981, is considered to be the birthplace of jazz in Japan. Speakers said Kobe is similar to Seattle in that it’s a port city, has natural views, and shares some cultural elements.

“It’s very much like Seattle,” said Nancy Ericksen, last year’s winner. “They got the hill right there, the water. It felt like home and people were very welcoming.”

The jazz exchange started on Kobe’s side, with them sending over jazz singers for a festival in Seattle, the annual “Sister City Jazz Day,” now in its 14th year. In 2004, Seattle–Kobe Sister City Chair Karin Zaugg Black and Vice Chair Mari Carpenter decided that they would have an audition in Seattle to send singers over to Kobe.

Winning the contest isn’t just a nice self-esteem pat on the back. It’s a chance to share and experience music in a different culture. For Smith, it’s a unique opportunity not granted to many high schoolers. And for Natale, who had been to Kobe once before on her daughter’s 5th grade field trip, it was a chance to revisit a place she fell in love with.

Natale had competed twice before in the vocalist audition, losing out both times. Last year, she was the runner-up.

“My advice to other singers out there: keep trying, keep giving,” she said. (end)

Zachariah Bryan can be reached at

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