“I’m old school,” Ramona Collins said with a laugh when describing what’s in store for her show this Saturday night at Kerrytown Concert House. “I know a lot of singers use a set list, but I don’t always know what I want to sing until I get to the room and see what the room is like, what the crowd is like, what the musicians are like.”
Collins, a jazz singer born and based out of Toledo, is a veteran of the music scene around the state of Michigan. Throughout her 50-year career, Collins has been a regular performer at well-known clubs and venues around the area — including The Elks, the Dirty Dog Jazz Café, Cliff Bells and Baker’s Keyboard Lounge. These are staples in the greater Detroit area.
“Some people think I’m from Detroit,” Collins said. “That gives you an idea of how much I must work there.”
In Ann Arbor, Collins was a longtime regular at Bird of Paradise Nightclub — Ann Arbor’s longest standing jazz club — before it closed in 2004.
“That’s how I got to know Ann Arbor pretty well and meet a lot of people from here,” Collins said, noting that it was one of her all-time favorite venues over the span of her career. “I loved the Bird of Paradise. I like the way the room was laid out, and the way that I was very close to the people. I like rooms where I’m close to the people because I don’t always stay on stage — I go out into the audience. I like intimate rooms.”
Lucky for Collins, and for her Saturday night audience, the Kerrytown Concert House is quite intimate, holding a maximum of 110 seats. Even the seats in the back row are likely no more than 20 feet away from the performers. This gives Collins an opportunity to connect with the audience in ways that may not be as feasible in a bigger venue. For example, Collins will likely give a “set-up” — a little story or monologue that is done prior to performing — to introduce many of the songs she will sing.
“I remember in 1972, I was working somewhere and I remember a singer did a set up before she went into the song, and I said to myself: ‘Aw man, I gotta learn how to do that.’ I was in my early 20s back then, maybe late teens,” Collins said. “Most people who know that story find it hard to believe I was ever shy, but I was.”
Collins began singing professionally when she was just 18 years old, but was exposed to the lifestyle of performing long before.
“My mother was a musician and she used to take me to jam sessions in Lansing when I was about 16 years old because I was very, very shy,” said Collins of her childhood. Collins never had a formal music training and is living proof that it takes more than private lessons to be a successful musician.
“I was doing this before jazz went to college,” Collins said with a laugh. “I’m not formally trained; I never went to school or anything. Over time, I acquired some skills and have mentored a lot of young people, and it’s nice that they go to school to get formal training. But I also tell people that you can’t be so formal and so technical that you’re unable to relate to people. When you’re doing a concert, you want people to feel something. Music has the power to make people laugh, cry, sweat; if you’re not able to make people feel anything, then maybe you need to really analyze what’s going on with you. Because that’s the thing about music: you have the power to use a song as a vehicle to reach people. And if you can’t do that, there’s definitely something missing. And they don’t teach that in schools. It’s something you either have or don’t have.”
This is Collins’s fourth time performing at Kerrytown Concert House. “I’m looking forward to working with the cats,” said Collins. “I love these musicians. I’ve known Sean (Dobbins, Saturday night’s drummer) since he was 17 years old. I’d always see him at the Bird of Paradise, tapping his stick against the table. It’s funny, because I’m going to do a gig in February, and Sean’s son will be playing the drums. It’s funny how time flies and things change.”
For this Saturday’s concert, tickets are 15 dollars for General Admission, 20 dollars for assigned rows 3-5, 30 dollars for assigned rows 1-2 and five dollars for students. Collins will also be performing with Cliff Monear on piano, Kurt Krahnke on bass and Dwight Adams on trumpet.