It's a long way from studying classical flute at age 9 to becoming established as a professional jazz singer by one's mid-twenties, but that's the journey that Jamie Broumas has made. Born in Princeton, N.J., she attended Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School and Vassar College. Since then, her way stations have included Blues Alley, Charlie's, Mr. Y's and other jazz clubs from Baltimore to Miami. She is featured at One Step Down Sundays through Dec. 30 and will perform with the swing-era-style vocal quartet Mad Romance on Dec. 18 in the Basin Street Lounge of the 219 Restaurant in Alexandria.
Broumas, who received a degree in musicology and voice from Vassar three years ago, chose the 120-year-old institution because she had heard it was "a campus of individualists." She studied medieval music history and trained in German lieder, Italian opera and English baroque music "in order to have my instrument work to my best advantage."
Her dormitory room was well stocked with the albums of Charlie Parker, Sarah Vaughan, Miles Davis and other modern American jazz masters, however, and some evenings found the fledgling jazz vocalist working a local club. "I was definitely an anomaly," she says with a chuckle. "In the music department I was shunned, that's for sure."
The 25-year-old vocalist finds herself leading a dual role these days as a soloist and a member of Mad Romance. "I really love singing close harmony," she explains, "and it was sort of like a dream come true to do it, but there's very little room for interpretation. You have to tailor your voice to those around you, and the arrangements are by somebody else. On the other hand, when I do a solo performance most of the arrangements are my own, and I can do whatever I want with them -- my personality can come through and I can use my voice as I want to use it."
Broumas' solo attack leans toward contemporary, and she insists that she is influenced by almost everything she hears. "I listen to music constantly," she says, naming vocalists Sheila Jordan, Betty Carter and Shirley Horn, saxophonists Jackie McLean and Ricky Ford, and "the young players working with Ira Sullivan" as favorites.
"It requires a lot of preparation before you get up there and sing," says Broumas, citing as an example a date she did for the Richmond Jazz Society. "I had posters printed up, and I went down with some friends and put them up. I made sure that my press got there, and I got myself an interview on the air. It's an enormous amount of work preparing a place for a first appearance for someone that's unknown like me."
That's not the half of it. "There's nothing you can do about stage fright," she says. "It happens to me on virtually every appearance, whether it's out of town or not. I'm really incapacitated before the first song. And then after that, I'm just fine. It's just something that helps get the music going -- it actually helps because it puts you on the spot and it makes you more alert and more aware of what you're doing. It brings out the best in you. I would be afraid if I didn't have it.
"Sometimes you can have an off night, or it might be a full moon or something," Broumas muses, "and there is just nothing you can do. It can be the most terrible thing in the world. But when things are going well and the audience is with you, than there's no greater feeling, and it seems that all those weeks of preparing are all worthwhile. That's what it's all about. That's why we continue to do it."