Ada Redd Austin will probably experience a bit of déjà vu on Saturday, Sept. 16, when she and her band take the stage at the Dunbar Pavilion.
She might flash back to her youth, back to the time the now-retired schoolteacher was 11 or 12 and competed in a talent contest at John Spring Junior High School.
It was the first time the Tucson native ever sang before an audience outside of her Mount Calvary Baptist Church choir, and if she was nervous that day she hid it pretty well; she won the contest.
Her concert at Dunbar brings her full circle in a way, back to where she started. It also marks the first time Austin has produced her own headlining show, from assembling an all-star band to booking the space, selling the tickets and marketing the show.
“It’s hard getting gigs,” she explained. “I consider myself a professional singer. I’ve taken CDs around, my little demos. I thought you know maybe I can do it myself, produce my own show.”
Austin assembled an all-star Tucson band, headed by her longtime bandleader/pianist Doug Martin, with whom she has worked since the late 1980s. Bass player Mike Levy, drummer Carl Cherry and guitarist Steve Smith round out the band.
“I am so excited and I’m nervous as heck because this is something that Doug and I are doing. Folks are wanting tickets. My church on Sunday, folks are like ‘Ada I want a ticket.’ I am so nervous,” Austin said of the show, which will be her biggest gig since she moved back to Tucson from Texas, where she lived and helped her son from 2010 to 2014.
Back in the 1980s and ’90s, when she was making a name for herself on Tucson’s jazz and R&B scene, Austin was a marquee favorite at jazz festivals, benefit concerts and community events. She had a regular standing gig for two years packing the house of the old Obsessions nightclub, a hotspot for sizzling jazz back in the late 1980s. She was featured on “Southwest Sounds of the Season,” the 1996 Christmas CD that benefited the Arizona Children’s Home, and performed at New York’s storied Apollo Theater in Harlem; the performance was filmed for the popular “Showtime at the Apollo” series.
“When Ada gets in front of an audience, the thing that is really striking for me is that not unlike Ray Charles she takes control,” said Martin, who played trumpet for Charles when he was in his early 20s. “She takes a deep breath and says, ‘Here I am and we’re going to do this together.’ She brings people in and she’s adorable and she’s present.”
But the gigs have become fewer and further between since she got home three years ago. She’s played a couple Tucson Jazz Society events and has a standing yearly engagement at Harlow Gardens, the plant nursery that hosts a half dozen or so concerts a year at its covered pavilion.
“It felt good. That house, even though it’s a nursery, they have an area for performances and I guess they can sit up to 200 people,” said Austin, who won’t tell you how old she is except to say she’s “well-seasoned.”
Austin’s shows often feel like fireside chats with musical accompaniment. The singers said she sits on a stool and pulls it close to the audience and in between songs ranging from originals to Great American Songbook standards, she recounts growing up in Tucson and singing in her church.
“A dear friend of mine told me you tell stories through your songs. And that’s what I do,” Austin said. “I want to make hearts smile through my music. It’s a gift from God and I give him all the credit. ... Everything is just falling in place. It’s going to be a fun night.”