Women Making Music: Elise Irby Pratt – Bringing On the Next Thing!
By Peggy Ratusz
I met Elise Pratt at a jazz vocal workshop six or seven years ago. I remember the moment she came up to me and introduced herself. Short red hair, statuesque; the epitome of pretty, impeccably dressed with an enthusiasm for what the workshop facilitator, Jay Clayton, was teaching us. With a warm and friendly approach, I watched her meet and greet all the women in attendance, during a lunch break on the first of a two day workshop.
Since then we’ve become close friends, each other’s music mentors and each other’s life coaches. She’s someone who exudes positivity, encouragement and openness, but who’s not afraid to debate her convictions about any topic. Music is Elise’s primary passion these days. While she’s motivated to make her own kind of music, she’s just as passionate about paving roads for other music makers, in particular, bringing Jazz to the town where she resides, Hendersonville.
A long way from her home state of California, Elise has worn many hats in her illustrious life and has lived in five different states and two continents. Her many positions and occupations include Pan American Airlines stewardess, graphic artist for the French Embassy in NYC and Reader’s Digest, French language translator, NYC Jazz club owner, where she hobnobbed with celebrities and shared the stage with an impressive array of heavy hitters, as well as dancer and dance instructor. All this has led to the position she holds now as Jazz singer and music promoter.
Her pedigree is partly the reason she’s come so far. Musically, she was greatly influenced by her father, Eugene Irby who early on in his life played saxophone in several big bands before becoming a family man. Brains, beauty and a strong sense of self enable her to persevere through the challenging times mindful and grateful for all her blessings each and every day. These qualities she and those of us who are friends with Elise realize come from her almost 100-year-old mother, Lucille, who lives in a nearby nursing home and who every once in a while, you’ll see out in the audience still!
Elise has recently experienced her share of loss and sadness, all within a relatively short amount of time; but she hasn’t allowed it to keep her down. Honoring her late husband, Bobby’s, wish for her to pursue her passions, she has not only let her hair grow out since that first year we met, she’s growing from the inside out musically speaking as well. She does so by seeking out mentors, teachers, coaches and comrades who share her aspirations for performing and producing music.
For instance, Mike Holstein is an upright bassist and guitar player with whom she performs most often. She explains, “Playing with Mike is extremely spontaneous. He fills musical holes in our arrangements that invite me to follow suit in the next space or phrase, and in this way we are truly kindred. I love the opportunity to expand the melody and vary the rhythm a little, working the key centers of songs and trying to make some sense of improvising, as opposed to just blurting out scat syllables any old way. It’s always exciting to perform with Mike this way. It’s exactly what I would ever hope that I could do, only to do it better and better, that’s all. It’s right in the pocket, where I love it the most!”
There are several ongoing music projects that Elise spearheaded or co-founded and/or co-funded. These efforts have created a domino effect that continues to touch the lives of artists, musicians, venue owners, low-income families and the elderly. Her efforts have started to fill a void for live music lovers of all ages, but in particular those of the baby boom generation, many of whom live South of Asheville. “It is such a joy to finally, in this space in my life, have the time and the means and the opportunities to be going more deeply into the music, both to make music with other musicians and to create more places for musicians to play. Furthermore, to bring some of our fine Asheville jazz performers to Hendersonville audiences is truly a dream come true.
In the past two and 1/2 years, she brought jazz to Tooley’s in Laurel Park, The Green Room on Main Street downtown Hendersonville, The Horse Shoe Café in Horse Shoe, The Sunset Jazz Concert Series this past summer which was so successful they’re looking at continuing it next summer at The Cummings Cove Golf and Country Club. She was able to donate a fine Perzina Grand Piano to The Cummings Memorial United Methodist Church in order to improve the music program there and to create another good space for fine music concerts on the west side of Hendersonville. They have had two benefit concerts already there: for The Fishes and Loaves Food Pantry and the BEAR Closet (providing baby equipment for families needing help for their children). She says, “I’m very excited to announce the first of a series of Grand Piano Concerts at the church that will take place on January 12, 2014 at 3:00pm and will feature world class jazz pianist and composer Michael Jefry Stevens and Ryan Kijanka another superior string bassist and multi-instrumentalist who has recently moved to our area.”
Locally, Elise appears regularly at the aforementioned Green Room on Main Street which is located in downtown Hendersonville. The owners, Ben and Sue Green, noticed her one morning well over a year ago, working on charts as she sat at a table with her morning coffee. The Greens had wanted to start showcasing live music but hadn’t gotten around to following up with the notion, so this turned into an opportunity the three of them would see through, with great enthusiasm and in fairly short order. Not only has the venue’s menu expanded, so has their support of live musicians. Because of Elise Pratt, The Green Room now has acoustic music every Friday and Saturday evening ranging from singer songwriter, folk, jazz, blues and more.
In addition to Mike Holstein, you may have heard her enjoy making music with guitarists Jonathan Pearlman or Marc Yaxley, Geary Moore or Aaron Coffin. Pianists she works with include Bill Gerhardt, Michael Jefry Stevens, Pavel Wlosok and Patrick Boland. More recently she’s laid down some groovin sounds with none other than vibraphonist, Jason DeCristofaro at The Phoenix Lounge in Brevard and with The Bill Gerhardt Trio at The Isis Upstairs Lounge in West Asheville.
The Art Of Jazz In-Home Concert Series is another way that Elise is involved in making jazz available to audiences by bringing it into people’s homes. She plans and produces the series with Michael Jefry Stevens (musical director) and Nancy Holmes of Tryon and they book five to six concerts every year. These concerts are by invitation only and feature fine artists from all around the country. Art of Jazz Concerts take place in homes where grand, fine, concert pianos are available or made available. Communities that support the series are Hendersonville, Tryon, Brevard, and Asheville. Elise says, “It is a lovely way to present music in an intimate gathering so that those present can enjoy the best listening experience right there in someone’s living room. Wine and hors d’hoeuvres are shared during intermission which gives those invited guests the opportunity to visit with each other and to ask questions and converse with the artists. A win-win for everyone concerned.
“I am forever grateful to Sharon LaMotte and Peggy Ratusz for creating so many fine learning and performing opportunities for singers. Studying piano and music theory with Bill Gerhardt and Michael Jefry Stevens should qualify as a doctorate program for me someday, and they should each be given a Medal of Honor for patience above and beyond the call of duty.”
Elise enjoys singing at retirement homes also, especially at Spring Arbor where her mother Lucille resides in nearby Laurel Park.
Summing it all up, Elise tells me: “My life journey here in the Western North Carolina Mountains has been an amazing synchronization of events happening in a perfectly fascinating time signature: the magical reunion with the love of my life which brought me here, and then the process of caring for him, then losing him all too soon to Parkinson’s’ Disease leaves me here now, on my own. It’s the energy and opportunities and the teachers that allow me to pursue other passions, including the clear message being given by my dear mother Lucille who said to me recently: ‘I spend no time bemoaning what I used to be able to do, but rather I say, ‘bring on the next thing.’”
The next thing as far as shows go for Elise are as follows:
Saturday, Jan 18th, The Green Room in downtown Hendersonville 536 N. Main St. from 6:30pm-8:30pm with Mike Holstein on upright and guitar.
Mirroring the Thursday Night Barley’s Jazz Jam that happens in downtown Asheville each week, the hosts of it are bringing their swagger to The Green Room 536 N. Main St. downtown Hendersonville on Sunday Jan 26th from 4:00pm-6:00pm. The core group consists of Jonathan Pearlman on guitar, Chuck Lichtenberger on keys, Zack Page on upright and Ben Bjorlie on drums. Some of the retiree jazz players living in the area will be coming to join and hold their own court with these younger cats from Asheville!
Peggy Ratusz is a songstress, writer and vocal coach. firstname.lastname@example.org and reverbnation.com/peggyratusz