Bobbie Burrell wasn’t always a jazz singer, nor was she also an actress and a playwright.
Before she retired six years ago to Sarasota, Burrell, 66, worked as an accountant for nonprofit organizations in Washington, D.C., where she lived with her husband and raised two sons.
Sure, she grew up singing alongside her mother in a synagogue chorus and, later, in hootenanny folk jams as an undergrad at the University of Miami, but she was always too terrified to stand alone behind the microphone.
Friendly and easygoing, Burrell spent her 20s hanging out with singer/songwriters who had fled New York City for Miami’s laid-back folk-music scene, singers such as David Crosby, Vince Martin and Fred Neil.
Even as she traveled in these circles, wistfully strumming her guitar with friends and listening to jazz records in her apartment, Burrell never had the confidence to take it further. Like many of us, she remained in her comfort zone, secretly wishing she was on stage.
Then, in 1996, she was diagnosed with breast cancer — and everything changed.
“It was like this catalyzing event,” Burrell says. “I said, ‘Well, now wait a minute. If this is what’s going to happen, then I’m going to do all the things I always dreamed about.’”
After undergoing six months of chemotherapy and 11 hours of surgery, Burrell signed up for classes at the Elliston Studio for Jazz Studies, in Washington, D.C., where she studied a variety of styles and grew comfortable with scat, improvisation and vocal licks.
By her eighth week, she was singing onstage in D.C.’s Twins Lounge accompanied by legendary jazz pianist Ron Elliston. The performance was the final step in the Elliston program and a sort of reawakening for Burrell.
She began singing at other clubs around Washington, D.C., and at the East Coast Jazz Festival, in Maryland.
“In my experience, I’ve always needed to get sick or do something big before I could quit a job or move on,” Burrell says. “Cancer was the biggest 2-by-4, smack-over-the-head that got me to move on.”
When she was going through chemo, a friend encouraged her to see a Chinese Buddhist master who specialized in Eastern medicine. Though there was no guarantee that the master — a highly sought-after alternative healer in California — would meet with her, Burrell went for it, anyway.
To her delight, the master asked to see her for two sessions. So, Burrell purchased a plane ticket and rolled with it. At the end of the two days, when she asked the Buddhist master why he agreed to meet with her, he told her they knew each other 10,000 years ago.
“The experience,” says Burrell, “was transformational.”
But, 10 years later, the cancer came back.
By then, Burrell was living in Sarasota, where she underwent another six months of chemo. Rather than dwell on the reoccurrence, the singer contacted local jazz pianist Mike Markaverich, who played regular gigs at Caragiulos. The two went into the studio to record 14 jazz tracks for Burrell’s first album, “Undecided.”
She was bald and struggling to maintain her breath control, but the distraction, says Burrell, was “the best medicine ever.”
Around this same time, Jeffery Kin, The Players Theatre’s artistic director, had issued a call to local playwrights for his first Got A Minute 60-Second Play Festival. The proceeds from the show would be donated to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. The e-mail was forwarded to Burrell.
“I’d never written a play before, but I figured I could do a minute,” Burrell says. “So I wrote two. One was related to my breast cancer and the other was about life. I had no idea they would accept them.”
Now in its fifth season, the popular summer play festival has raised more than $75,000 for cancer research. Burrell, who has been involved in every show since, is also on this year’s bill. She’ll sing a Ray Charles tune before intermission.
The festival opened other doors for the singer.
In 2008, she played the overbearing Mae Peterson in The Players’ production of “Bye Bye Birdie,” followed by a tough-talking restaurant owner in Kin’s “The Spitfire Grill.”
“Bobbie is such a beautifully balanced person,” Kin says. “Her dark times have given her great perspective. She’s able to step back and not let the minutia make her crazy.”
Burrell does indeed sparkle with inner peace, the root of which could be any number of things, starting with the fact that after spending years as an accountant in a singer’s body — an existence she jokingly calls “schizophrenic” — she’s finally followed her passion.
“I told Jeffery once that inside I was a wuss, but that I was an empress, too,” Burrell says. “And he looked at me and he said, ‘That makes you an ‘empuss,’ which pretty much said it all. I don’t look back and wish I had done this sooner, because when I sing now, I sing from a place of absolute freedom. It’s a spiritual thing. My voice comes from a place of wholeness.”
GOT A MINUTE?
The Got A Minute 60-Second Play Festival is at 8 p.m. Friday Aug. 27, 8 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 28 and 2 p.m. Sunday Aug. 29, at The Players Theatre. Tickets are $20 to $30. All proceeds benefit Moffitt Cancer Center Foundation. For more information, call 365-2494 or visit theeclectictheatrecompany.com.