Women Making Music: Sharon LaMotte, Asheville’s Jazz Bird!
By Peggy Ratusz
She gave me a job when I was between jobs. What I learned working in her office and alongside her in the yard is that Sharon LaMotte cultivates ideas and creativity by presenting opportunities. She’s a tireless promoter and a dear friend. Plus she’s one heck of a chef!
Coming up, her family moved up and down the East Coast for two decades. Listening to music was central in her life which grounded her despite the transience. Her father, Frank, is a retired Naval Officer who was reared in New York City and studied piano. He traveled the globe six months of the year and brought home reel-to-reel recordings of music from around the world. He still plays the piano every day.
When she was four years old she heard a friend’s older sister playing acoustic guitar and singing. She ran home to tell her dad she wanted to be a musician. He purchased a ukulele and songbook for her and told her that if that was true, she could read the book and learn how to play.
She lived in Newport, Rhode Island, from 1965-1974 and during that time she’d visit her maternal grandmother in Red Bank, New Jersey where her mother, Carol was raised. The radio or record players blared no matter where she lived or visited. And like millions of families, the LaMotte’s tuned into the weekendnight television variety shows. She absorbed popular Jazz, Pop and Rock music from New York and Philadelphia, Boston and Newport.
Subsequently, sailing was the pastime for most naval and coastal families and Dad taught her to be an expert first-mate. Red Cross Safety, taking and giving directions, gauging weather and wind patterns and how they change the motion of the ocean was an education that would come into play in musical ways more than she imagined. Swimming lessons led to summer jobs as a lifeguard. She was given the responsibility to protect and oversee the safety of the beach or the pool and it’s populous. For those of us who know her, this explains a lot!
“Tuning into ‘Kasey Kasem’s Top Forty Countdown’ and spending every summer on the beach or sailing on Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod, Key West, Florida and Virginia following my father’s ships around, my friends and I listened to music constantly. As a teenager, concerts and festivals were the goal. To hear bands we loved perform live was fantastic… Led Zeppelin, The Allman Brothers, Lynrd Skynard, Aeorsmith, America, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
Her desire to learn an instrument didn’t translate into disciplined musical training because she couldn’t sit still long enough indoors to do anything. The outdoors, basketball and softball were her passion. However, her Aunt Joan, an early childhood educator, stepped in to teach her to calm down long enough to learn to draw and paint. She supplied her with the tools needed and advised: “to learn to draw you must practice every day.” The more she practiced; her desire to learn to do it better grew.
Consequently, she focused on Fine Arts in college. “Even in college I never stopped moving.” She studied art for five years at three separate institutions. Her jobs during college varied. She worked at a Photo Mat, managed an apartment building and was a bank teller while attending night classes. During that time she met a singer songwriter named Michael Fitzgerald out of Red Bank.
LaMotte liked his music so much that she became his promoter. She grew tired of working at the bank where everyone was older. She followed Michael around on gigs where she’d schmooze with younger and more identifiable audiences, talking him up and selling his single 45 record. She helped organize a fundraiser for The Hunger Project for his band at the Count Basie Theater in Red Bank.
“Remember there was no email back then, so I’d go around taking names and numbers and call people to get them to come to his next performance!” The fantastic turnout at CBT was the result of her promotional tenacity.
After college and while living in New Jersey she met ex-husband, Dr. David Graham, a chiropractor and horticulturist. They attended the birthday party of a mutual friend who was her chiropractor’s wife. “It was love at first sight, but we were both with other dates! We ended up talking to each other all night. We had so much in common. A few weeks later my chiropractor asked if David could call me to go out. I knew from that first date, that we’d end up spending significant time together.”
Four years after they wed, they spent four months on sabbatical traveling cross country, in an attempt to find the right place to settle and raise a family. They had friends who had come to Asheville to fulfill their dreams too. Compelled to do the same, they arrived and hit the ground running. They opened a chiropractic office in May of 1984 and soon after had two children, Laura and Keenan.
I asked her “When did you discover your voice and love for Jazz?”
“I didn’t know I could sing. A friend I made while doing a healing seminar here in Asheville, Pattiy Torno, who owns a clothing business in the River Arts District, heard me singing a little bit one day and she complimented my voice. She invited me to come to her studio where she housed an amp and a microphone. As I stood at the mic, I remember she shouted ‘just sing – make some noise, girl!’ Ten years later, I was at church with my kids during the time David and I were divorcing. Laura was 15 and studying music with Gary Bradley and Keenan was 11, taking piano from Chuck Lichtenberger. As I sang the church hymns with the congregation, they both turned and said to me ‘Mom, you have such a pretty voice.’ I trusted their opinion and succumbed to the desire to be a musician. I remembered the promise I made to myself when listening to that neighbor girl back when I was four years old. A light bulb went on and I decided to find a voice teacher!”
She found Amy Rae Stupka at Asheville Music School. Amy encouraged her to sing in an upcoming recital and Sharon was on stage for the first time three months later. Rae’s encouragement and instruction initiated her musical path.
Her affinity to songs Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn and Blossom Dearie made famous was and is evident. She made it her mission to study the songs, the singers, the writers, the players and the arrangers of The Great American Songbook both vocal and instrumental. “It expanded my brain to latch onto these tunes and it increased all my senses musically. The reason I focused on Jazz alone was because Mike Holstein (upright bass/guitar) came up to me at a jam and said I had a voice suited to the genre. He invited me to work with him. He knew I was just learning. Along with Mike, Sam Macy, Taylor Davis and Phillip Whack—who were all part of a group called The Taken Back Quartet—were my Jazz mentors. Because I started late in life, Jazz was a perfect fit. I know I won’t lose interest because there’s always something to learn! I need to focus on one thing, to be good at it.”
In 2001 she opened her own booking agency. Through her collaborative effort with The Taken Back Quartet, they started a non-profit for Jazz composers. The work she does with mentors, other vocalists and band mates has had a tidal wave effect on the Jazz Community and she is to be commended and credited for helping put Jazz on the map in our community through these efforts.
Her relationship with Bill Gerhardt, a piano player whose stellar chops and exquisite timing and feel have been revered from here to New York City, gave way to more education in life, love and the pursuit of learning Jazz. Gerhardt came to Asheville for a week to play and sit-in with The Taken Back Quartet. Hearing him with them changed her. It was the best music she’d heard in her life. Gerhardt and LaMotte soon began a romantic and magical music partnership that altered her course in ways she didn’t see coming.
Though their relationship ended a few years ago, it was not before she incepted the “Monday Night Vocal Jazz Sessions” with Bill on piano. The series ran successfully for nearly three years at Tressa’s Downtown Jazz & Blues. They recorded and played in New York City at places like The Metropolitan Room in Chelsea.
She’s moving and shakin’ once again! Last month she moved to Greenville, South Carolina and in with longtime band mate and friend (now partner in life), the incomparable Jazz drummer Sonny Thornton. She tells me that it was remembering Sonny’s late wife, Sandy’s, smile when she’d come to every performances in support of her husband, that evoked a second look at this tall, dark and handsome man. These years after her passing and now years into their friendship, she’s been a shoulder and he’s been a good listener. This is someone she trusts with her heart without hesitation.
Of course she’s already cultivating and creating opportunities for Jazz bands in The Upstate! But she’s not gone from Asheville completely! She works part time at UNCA helping with special events. Also, local residents Janice and David Sapp have invited her to perform monthly at their house concert series at Kenilworth Inn. They’ve dubbed the series Sharon’s Jazz Club! These will happen the last Saturday of every month and features the ‘Sharon LaMotte Quartet with Special Guests.’ For reservations contact David at the Kenilworth Inn 828-318-7849.
Peggy Ratusz is a songstress, writer and vocal coach. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.