Katt Hefner is running late for her Thursday night gig at The Loft Ristobar. She’s stuck in traffic and getting over a cold, the tail end of which has not affected her voice: a honeyed, four-octave purr that Sarasota jazz-lovers have swooned over for years.
By the time the singer walks into the east Sarasota lounge, a crowd of friends has already gathered to see her. Her keyboardist, Kenny Drew Jr., and bass player, Joe Porter, have set up their instruments on stage.
Her son, Todd, whom Hefner lovingly refers to as “her right arm” and unofficial road manager, has assembled music stands and sound equipment.
Not only does the singer have groupies, she has an entourage.
Dressed in a black trench coat, black dress, long gloves, leggings and thigh-high boots, Hefner is the picture of seductive cool, down to the glittery ring on her gloved pinky finger.
Even the people at the bar who were oblivious to the commotion 10 minutes ago turn their heads as the singer passes.
“Oh my gosh,” gushes one Hefner groupie. “Look how good you look, baby!”
It’s hard to believe the singer just came from work as a surgical technician at Sarasota Memorial Hospital’s Cape Surgery Center.
She reaches out to hug the man. Her layers of beaded necklaces jangle in the embrace. A moment later, she saunters over to the bar, where the bartender hands her a ginger ale with ice — her usual.
“It’s wet and soothing,” Hefner says, sipping prissily from the glass. “I don’t drink until I’m done performing.”
She steps on stage, removes her ruffled scarf, adjusts her microphone and begins swaying to Porter and Drew’s music.
As she starts to sing a slow mesmerizing jazz song, the entire restaurant is cast in a warm dark glow.
“There are so many facets to jazz,” the singer will later say of her performance. “I love the melodic feeling, the way you can express yourself with words. I’m a romantic when it comes to songs. With jazz, it’s not like there’s a pattern, or one single way to sing it. You put your own phrasing in there. You put different rhythms to it.”
Hefner likes to make things her own — especially songs.
A Pennsylvania native, Hefner grew up in a small town outside of Pittsburgh, where her father sang bass in doo-wop band called the Pacers and her mother still serves as the music director and pianist at her hometown church.
“Music has been around me since I was a little girl,” Hefner says. “But it wasn’t until I became a teenager that I could really see the love and good vibes people felt from it.”
She used to spend hours dreamily rummaging through her mother’s record collection, enamored with the stacks of vinyl and how just one song could transport her to a different place.
She discovered her idol, jazz singer Nancy Wilson, this way.
“I didn’t realize Nancy was singing jazz,” Hefner says. “To me, she just sang love songs that told a story.”
It’s no coincidence that three songs into her first set at The Loft Hefner breaks into the schmaltzy Wilson ballad “Call Me.”
The lyrics slide off her tongue in a familiar and artless cadence.
“At a concert once at Ruth Eckerd Hall I personally thanked Nancy for teaching me how to sing,” Hefner says. “I waited until her show let out.”
The singer, who has four albums to her name, has been covering Wilson tunes since she toured with a six-piece show band in the 1970s — a gig that eventually landed her in Sarasota, where she’s been a fixture on the Sarasota jazz scene for more than 20 years.
“She always engaged the crowd,” says D’Arcy Arpke, owner of the Longboat Key restaurant Euphemia Haye, where Hefner had a five-year residency in the early 2000s. “She was a virtual wealth of jazz and show numbers. So many years later, people still ask about her. She’s got that sultry, swanky presence.”
Like all entertainers with presence, Hefner, a former model, knows when to turn the swank factor on and off.
“Believe it or not though, there’s a bit of shyness about me,” Hefner says. “I’ve got friends who come to my shows and they tell me, ‘Katt, you’re the best. You can pack a place,’ and all that, and you know, it doesn’t go to my head. It goes to my heart.”
Case in point: Hefner saved a cocktail napkin on which one Euphemia Haye patron scribbled a thank-you note for a performance she gave nearly eight years ago.
“I will probably keep it forever,” she says.
IF YOU GO
The Katt Hefner Trio performs from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. every Thursday at The Loft Ristobar, 5911 Fruitville Road. Next month, she and her brother, Stan, join the lineup for the 31st annual Sarasota Jazz Festival.
Catch the duo performing “Two Jims & A Nancy,” a tribute to jazz singers Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff and Nancy Wilson, at 3 p.m. Feb. 2, at The Players Theatre. For more information, call 316-9207 or visit www.jazzclubsarasota.com.
Hefner’s top three songs by beloved jazz singer Nancy Wilson
‘When Did You Leave Heaven?’
“It reminds me of the first time I listened to my mother’s vast record collection. The way she delivers it, it’s like you’re really there. It’s like you’re wondering the same things: ‘When did you leave heaven? And how could you?’”
“It’s a soft-spoken song, but it pulls you in and takes you down.”
‘Save Your Love For Me’
“It was one of the first songs I sang of hers. It was the 1960s, and I was still a teenager. There’s so much artistry in it. You’re holding notes. You’re dropping down and coming back up. You’re playing with the words. It’s sensuous.”
Contact Heidi Kurpiela at [email protected]