Night at Sahara
Soft tings from a vibraphone ring through Dallas’ Sahara Restaurant as jazz singer Judy Chamberlain whispers into her mic. Red lights dimmed behind her and an aroma of cooked herbs and spices lingers from the kitchen as she begins to sing Frank Sinatra’s “A Day in the Life of a Fool.” Chamberlain turns and nods to her vibraphonist, Dana Sudborough, who’s ready to groove with her for the next three hours.
Chamberlain performs with a fellow jazz artist every Saturday night at Sahara, a Persian restaurant with décor resembling an open-air food market, on Alpha Road in North Dallas. Her jazz philosophy stresses interplay between the singer and instrumentalist. Chamberlain’s chemistry with Sudborough highlights a musical ethos she refers to as “the art of the duo,” which she uses to set the night’s tone.
“It’s an evening that’s in the moment,” Chamberlain says. “It’s always going to be different. It’s never the same twice. It’s jazz. The whole evening is the philosophy of jazz. It’s the soul and internalization of the language of jazz in a musical and emotional sense.”
The evening show is one of thousands Chamberlain has performed for more than 50 years. She says she knows 4,000 songs by heart, musical pieces she episodically remembers once the tune’s first notes are struck.
“The songs tell a story,” Chamberlain says. “If you know the story and you have some clues to some of the key words, you can pretty much fill in around them. It’s easy to do, and I’ve been doing that even before I was singing.”
Her extensive repertoire includes hits from the golden age of jazz and bandleaders. More important to Chamberlain, she knows many works from the Great American Songbook, a collection of standards famously covered by her heroes. She sings everything from Nina Simone and Billie Holiday to George Gershwin and Cole Porter, and she urges anyone to request a classic.
A man sitting near the front window requests “All the Things You Are,” a song covered by Ella Fitzgerald. Chamberlain looks to Sudborough as he scrolls through digital sheet music displayed on his tablet. He caresses red mallets over his vibraphone and Chamberlain sings: “You are the promised kiss of springtime, that makes the lonely winter seem long. You are the breathless hush of evening, that trembles on the brink of a lovely song.”
Chamberlain does more than sing; she entertains. When patrons walk in, she greets them as if she were the official hostess, while keeping a cordial conversation with her audience between songs.
After a few tunes, Chamberlain helps owner Sara Rahimi switch off overhead lights hanging above the dining area to make Sahara look more like a nightclub. Converting the restaurant into a jazz lounge every Saturday night is Rahimi and Chamberlain’s brainchild, spawned from their desire to create a nonchalant evening for guests, friends and family.
Chamberlain’s husband, Jim, who is having dinner with their 11-year-old grandson, Trevor, requests Cole Porter’s “So in Love.” She smiles at Jim, who’s been with her for more than 44 years, puts the mic to her mouth and delivers the melody.
She says musical entertainment should echo the intimate ambiance once emphasized in the days of Porter. Chamberlain feels most comfortable singing in a homely place where anyone is free to relax and enjoy good food and drink, an ode to the class characterized in the '20s and '30s.
Chamberlain says she’s grateful for her weekly gig at Sahara. But eight months ago, she spent her Saturdays uninspired and tuned out from entertaining — a lifestyle Chamberlain has known since she was a little girl growing up on the East Coast.
Born an Entertainer
Chamberlain was born in New York City in 1944. When she was 5, her father moved the family to Connecticut, where she spent most of her childhood. A fourth-generation entertainer, she says her earliest musical influences came from her parents. Her father played guitar and her mother would sing and dance. She credits her grandmother for exposing her to iconic American music penned by early-20th century musicians.
Though Chamberlain came from a musical household, her parents hoped she would never become an entertainer. But her aunt Vivian, who was a public relations director for a big NYC radio station and record promoter, encouraged Chamberlain to perform.
At 11, Chamberlain commuted to Vivian’s apartment in Manhattan for singing lessons. Her parents would drive her to the New Haven Line station, where she sat on a 45-minute train ride to Grand Central Station. Once in New York City, she hopped in a taxicab to Vivian’s home in west Midtown, where she drove Chamberlain to her lessons.
Vivian also introduced her niece to a plethora of contemporary music, often bringing tons of vinyl albums to her home in New England.
“She had access to every record you could find, and she’d come up to Connecticut with trunks of records,” Chamberlain says. “I had access to everyone. I had Elvis before any of the other kids.”
By 13, Chamberlain was singing professionally. And in her early-20s, she moved back to New York to play the city’s nightclubs and jazz lounges in the mid-60s. Struggling to earn enough bones singing, she worked a slew of jobs, which eventually landed her back in Connecticut.
A few years later, while visiting a New Canaan restaurant with a friend, Chamberlain saw Jim for the first time sitting at the bar. She initially tried to grab his attention by wadding paper pieces and spitting them at him through a straw. Absent of his contact lenses that night, Chamberlain’s playful antics went unnoticed.
She did manage to bring Jim back to her apartment, where she cooked him dinner. After that night, she says he hardly ever left, and three years later, the two married.
Life in Los Angeles
In 1980, Chamberlain, now a wife and mother of two daughters, moved to Jim’s native West Coast, where they nestled in the Santa Ana Hills. After growing restless, she sparked her singing career back to life, reinventing herself as a Los Angeles-based performer. For the next few years, Chamberlain refined her style and chopped her way through L.A.’s nightlife. She then scouted out high-caliber musicians living in Hollywood. One afternoon, she called Al Viola, a fellow New Yorker who backed Sinatra on guitar for over 25 years.
She asked Viola if he would play with her band for a society wedding gig at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, to which he responded with a curt remark.
“I called him to do a wedding with me, and he said, ‘I don’t do no weddings.’ So, I told him I would make him an offer he couldn’t refuse,” Chamberlain says, knowing Viola’s music was featured on The Godfather soundtrack.
With the show two weeks away, Chamberlain told Viola if he didn’t dig the gig after one song, he could leave and she would mail him a check. She says Viola was the first to arrive at the gig and last to depart. Soon after, he officially joined Chamberlain’s band and jammed with her across Southern California until his death in 2007.
Jazz Singer in Dallas
In 2011, Chamberlain moved to Southlake and immediately sniffed out DFW's nightlife. She soon discovered The Balcony Club, one of Dallas’ premier jazz venues.
There, she met Tommy Stanco, a longtime Dallas club owner and venue manager, who ran The Balcony Club at the time. Chamberlain already had performed a couple of sets there with pianist Arthur Riddles, who introduced her to Stanco.
He and Chamberlain soon became friends, and impressed with her voice and nightclub hospitality, Stanco wanted her to headline his club. He says the first night he showcased Chamberlain, tons of well-dressed folk packed the club’s stairwell and flooded the sidewalk below. Once inside, Stanco says, a special aura resonated in the Balcony that night.
“Man, the first night she played there, God, the excitement was in the air,” he says. “You could walk in the door, and it was just all eyes on her. Nobody was sitting there drinking their drink and talking to their friends. Everybody was watching her.”
Before Chamberlain arrived, The Balcony Club was clinging to life, Stanco says.
In the early 2000s, Dallas’ taste for jazz started to wane, especially after the loss of notable musicians, such as Big Al Dupree, who once habituated The Balcony Club, he says. Years following, the venue began to decline and started losing money. Once Chamberlain and Stanco became close, she used the showbiz knowledge she acquired in New York and L.A. to help him, along with others who cherished the club, keep one of Dallas’ main jazz hubs afloat.
“She was largely responsible for me deciding to keep the place open those last two years,” Stanco says. “If she hadn’t shown up, things very well could have just continued to spiral down. I never would have seen this bright light of potential in the tunnel. It’s like, she really sort of saved it there at the end.”
Chamberlain has touched other Dallas clubs with her form of jazz expression. She’s teamed with local artists such as Riddles to play shows at The Crescent Club, SoHo and The Free Man, serenading crowds with her more conversational approach.
“Most of the audiences here in Dallas, their eyes will glaze over after a couple minutes,” Riddles says. “When they have someone, who is more of a storyteller like Judy or Big Al, then that resonates a little bit deeper with an audience. That’s something that brings you into a different kind of more nostalgic, more touchstone feeling where you’re really taking that person deeper into a … I really don’t know how to describe it. It’s just more emotional and more personal.”
One More Encore
Earlier this year, Chamberlain strolled into Sahara looking for a well-prepared kubide, a lamb or beef kebab-like dish. She met Rahimi, whose kubide Chamberlain found delectable, and the two talked food. Over a glass of wine, Chamberlain mentioned she was a jazz singer, whipped out her iPhone and played her music for Rahimi.
Impressed, Rahimi asked, “Where can I come hear you sing?” to which Chamberlain replied, “Nowhere.”
A huge jazz fan, Rahimi told Chamberlain she couldn’t find a local spot where she could comfortably have a drink and listen to live music like the Sinatra days. Rahimi immediately invited Chamberlain to perform in her restaurant and soon designated a spot by the kitchen for her to sing every weekend.
“Friday and Saturday, I want to be somewhere to just sit down and have my wine and listen to jazz,” Rahimi says. “I said, ‘Your voice is beautiful. Do you want to start [singing] in my restaurant?’ and she said OK and I said, ‘Yes, we’re going to do it next week. I can bring you here, and I won’t have to go anywhere else.'”
Rahimi and Chamberlain hope to recapture an aesthetic at Sahara, where casual loungers sip drinks and nod their heads to the classics — something they plan to keep doing every Saturday night.
“It’s not L.A.,” Chamberlain says. “It’s not big-time, but it’s what I want to do because I love what we’re creating here.”
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She rings out her last lyric, and Sudborough lightly taps one final note, ending the evening’s musical conversation.
After playing tons of clubs, lounges, bars and restaurants, a night at Sahara is one more Chamberlain spends under the spotlight. And after decades of entertaining in New York, Dallas and L.A., Chamberlain’s glad she did it all her way.
“What’s success?” she says. “Is success fame? I’m not sure that it is. Maybe success is doing what you want to do and being paid well to do it. For me, my ambition a long time ago was to be able to work with really great musicians, and I got to work with the greatest musicians in the world. So, to me that was a success.”