UW News

August 3, 2011

Shes got that swing: Bethany Staelens sings jazz as few can

UW News

  • And listen to snippets from The Big Band Theory CD at her website
Bethany Staelens sings at downtown nightclub Tula's on the first Wednesday of each month.

Bethany Staelens sings at downtown nightclub Tula’s on the first Wednesday of each month.Josephoto and Design

Bethany Staelens is a lifelong performer, and jazz is her chosen language.

She has sung at New York’s famed Algonquin Hotel and Birdland, in New Orleans, touring Europe and in shows, nightclubs and jazz festivals over many years.

These days, Staelens is an administrative assistant in UW Educational Outreach, capably guiding that office’s affairs — but the first Wednesday evening of each month she still sings and swings away with her husband, Bruce Staelens, and a big band at the downtown jazz club Tula’s.

You could say she’s an example of how you don’t have to cast your dreams aside just to settle down a little in life.

Staelens chatted about her performing career one recent afternoon at her desk high in the UW Tower, a spectacular view of Seattle in the background. Tall and blonde, she’s an alto/contralto who can hit high notes “for fireworks” and a wickedly funny mimic. On stage, she is Bethany Smith Staelens.

Her website says she was “bitten by the show business bug” when first hearing audience applause in second grade. But Staelens took up her own story in the 1990s in New York, where she was a working actress and singer — and things began to change.

“I had booked, like, five commercials back to back — it was like, wow! I’m finally getting my foot in the door.” Then her union went on strike and the jobs vanished, along with many production companies. Afterward, many casting directors she’d known had been replaced by younger newcomers who saw her in a different light. (One, when told Staelens was a “young Bette Davis type,” asked, “Who’s Bette Davis?” Staelens just sighed.)

“I had been the ‘older mom,’ but now I was being sent out for the grandmother role,” she said, laughing. “Mind you, I was in my mid-40s. I’d go for these auditions and there’d be me and two or three people my age, and then a room full of old ladies — and the old ladies would always get the gig! It was like, really? Do I have to put on old age makeup for an audition?”

Getting cast in a production of the 1940s-style musical “Swing Time Canteen” seemed perfect, at first. “About halfway through rehearsals I said, ‘This is fun. And then we opened and I realized: I like rehearsing. And I really just didn’t enjoy performing anymore.”

Still, work kept coming, including an enjoyable European tour in a production of 42nd Street, where she was treated like a star and met her future husband, trumpeter and bandleader Bruce Staelens. They’ve been collaborators in life and music ever since. An experienced jazzman, Bruce Staelens has played for several Broadway shows, including “Chicago” and “Wicked,” as well as in clubs.

Bethany has a great view from her office in UW Tower.

Bethany has a great view from her office in UW Tower.Mary Levin

Staelens decided her “starving artist” days were done and snagged a good-paying regular job — she always had day gigs, even working a while in the office of Rolling Stone Keith Richards — but commuting though Grand Central Station felt “like going through hell 10 times a week.”

The city seemed different, too, angrier since 9-11 (Staelens was 20 blocks away that day). “Or maybe it was that I was aging, or a combination of both. A lot of the jazz clubs were either going out of business or converting to cabaret, so there was less work for both of us.”

There were highlights, though — such as when Bruce gathered together “18 of the most amazing jazz musicians in New York” for a big band to back her singing. They had fun and repeated the event every year for a while, swinging with lush arrangements of tunes like “I Got it Bad and That Aint Good,” Duke Ellington’s classic “It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing” and the hauntingly sad “Here’s That Rainy Day.”

She decided to record the songs, “If only for the sake of when I’m 90 to be able to say, ‘I used to sing really well.” The project emptied her savings but they had a great time (and many of the musicians quietly handed back their checks when she tried to pay them).

Still, they knew it was time to relocate, but where? The answer came when they traveled west to see their friend and mentor, composer Steve Sample in Bellingham. He fell ill and canceled, leaving them in Seattle on a crisp, sunny day. “We fell in love with it. We liked this area culturally and politically, and its beautiful.” She swept a hand toward the splendid view. “I mean, just look at it!” They moved here in June of 2008.

She applied for the job with Education Outreach, run by Vice Provost Dave Szatmary, who saw the famous name on her resume. It happens Szatmary is also a rock and roll historian whose book, Rockin in Time, is still in print. They both recall that he told her, “I figure if you can keep Keith Richards organized you could keep me organized!” He hired her and she flourished, providing, Szatmary said, “a highly professional, extremely organized and upbeat face” to the office.

And so here they were, but they still had a bunch of swinging big band tunes recorded, so decided to press CDs, get a band together and hold a release party. This they did at Tula’s in January 2009. They did good business, the owner offered them a regular spot, and they’ve been there every month since.

“Every month it’s a scramble for Bruce to come up with 17 guys who don’t have another gig,” Staelens said. The results, she said, can be “fabulous … when we get musicians who work well together and really listen to each other, and are in the mood.”

One such musician is UW music major Collin Provence, a pianist with whom the Staelens are very impressed. “Occasionally you find this gem,” she said. “I’ve worked with a lot of the great accompanists out here and they don’t have anything on him. He’s got a great feel.”

Asked her favorite song to perform, she said, “From a lyrical standpoint I think the favorite — one I probably do too often — is ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.” She also loves the songs of Cy Coleman (author of “The Best is Yet to Come”) and confesses a fondness for “Cry Me a River” and other of what she smilingly calls “poor helpless mistreated woman songs.”

Some of the sadder songs cast her mind back to other times and lost friends and family, but singers must deal delicately with emotions. “Sometimes you have to shut off what gets you there and let the technique take over,” Staelens said, “but somehow let those emotions kind of bubble up around the edges.”

What’s next? She has several ideas, and a growing love of gardening, too.

Staelens and a collaborator wrote a gently bawdy, hourlong revue back in New York called “Sex Because it Sells” that she feels might work well in a casino, where people tend to need cheering up. “I’d like to get that musical back on its feet,” she said.

She also appears for pledge drives on the public television station KBTC, which helps her maintain her “on-camera chops.”

Regrets? Too few to mention, really. “All the years I was working my voice wasn’t as good as it is now,” she said. “I’ve finally got the voice I wish that I had 20 years ago. I’ve known singers who have finally gotten their voice when they are 70 years old.”

She even wonders if she’d have survived the nonsense and excess that often accompany a life pursuing stardom. “Another part of me says, ‘Wouldn’t it have been nice to be able to find out?”

But Bethany Staelens is content, and The Smith-Staelens Big Band, their regular gig, continues each month at Tula’s — bringing her, in a very real sense, the best of both worlds.

And for a girl singer, that’s a happy ending indeed.