Judy Wexler brings talent and arrangements to The Grape

Judy Wexler performs with her band at The Grape in Ventura on May 20. (Photo by Mikel Healey)

Jazz lovers will be in for a treat this weekend. The Grape will be hosting vocalist Judy Wexler on Saturday night, who will be bringing along some fantastic Los Angeles talent, decades of musical history and deep cuts specially arranged to showcase Wexler’s contemporary flavor.

“I don’t do a lot of standards,” the L.A. native admits. “I do off-the-beaten-track jazz arrangements. People may not be familiar with the songs, but I pride myself on introducing [the audience] to really great songs.”

“Always singing”

Wexler didn’t start out as a jazz fan, but she’s been immersed in music since her youth. She started taking piano lessons when she was 5 years old, and continued playing through college at University of California, Santa Cruz, where she studied classical piano. In addition, she “was always singing,” and did a lot of musical theater throughout high school and college.

After graduating from UCSC, she lived in San Francisco and co-founded a theater company. It was known for its variety of material, including improv, musical theater and even circus-inspired acts. The name?

“Caught in the Act: A Theater Collective of Four Short Women,” Wexler says with a laugh. “Not a single one of us was over five feet!” Noting that she herself stands 4 feet, 10 inches tall, she adds that “I’m relatively small, but I have a big mouth!”

North Beach memoir

Wexler caught the jazz bug while living in San Francisco. Her upstairs neighbor, a man named Alan, was a “huge jazz fan” with a massive collection of records. Through him she became introduced to a large repertoire of jazz greats . . . and found romance along the way.

“We moved in together in North Beach,” she explains. “We lived just a few blocks from the famous Keystone Korner.”

The renowned San Francisco club hosted some of the biggest names in jazz, blues and R&B in the 1970s and early ’80s: Elvin Bishop, Boz Scaggs, The Pointer Sisters, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis and many more. Numerous live albums, featuring the likes of Jerry Garcia, Art Blakey, Bill Evans and Stan Getz, were recorded there as well.

“We saw jazz concerts there all the time,” Wexler recalls. “All the greats.”

Despite gaining a reputation as one of the best jazz venues in the world, the North Beach Keystone Korner closed in 1983. Years later, owner Todd Barkan teamed up with Chef Robert Wiedmaier to relaunch the club. The “new” Keystone Korner reopened in Baltimore, Maryland, in 2019.

Southern exposure

Wexler and Alan eventually married, and the couple returned to Wexler’s hometown of Los Angeles in 1982. A firm believer in “continuing education,” she started attending the Dick Grove School of Music in Van Nuys to hone her jazz skills.

“I took all of the jazz harmony classes,” she says. “And I started studying with jazz vocal teachers. I’ve studied a lot — and I’m still doing that.”

She released her first album, Easy On the Heart, in 2005, working with in-demand session and touring musician Alan Pasqua.

“It did surprisingly well,” Wexler said, noting that the record garnered good reviews and even made it onto the jazz charts. Five more albums followed, and Wexler built a career performing around L.A. and, eventually, beyond.

“I’ve had the opportunity to tour and sing at places like Birdland and the Blue Note [in New York City] and play the Tel Aviv Jazz Festival and Montreal Jazz Festival.”

In Ventura, she’ll head up the Judy Wexler Band, backed by some phenomenal SoCal talent. Joining her will be pianist Jeff Colella, the one-time music director for Lou Rawls; Ken Wild (Seawind) on bass; Tom Luer on tenor sax; and drummer Jerry Kalaf. Together the group will perform a variety of music from Wexler’s musical career, which will include contemporary jazz pieces, some indie- and folk-kissed selections, plus songs featured on her 2021 album, Back to the Garden.

“It was songs from the Summer of Love arranged as jazz songs,” she says of that album, on which Wexler covers works from Bob Dylan, Carole King, Stephen Stills, Joni Mitchell and others.

The lineup will be a little unpredictable, with unfamiliar tunes made accessible and familiar songs expressed in a new way. But that’s all in Wexler’s wheelhouse and she’s happy to introduce herself to Ventura County audiences with her far-ranging repertoire.

“It’s going to be a whole lot of stuff,” she promises.

The Judy Wexler Band performs on Saturday, May 20, 8-11 p.m. at The Grape, 2733 E. Main St., Ventura. Tickets are $20 at the door. For more information, visit thegrapeventura.com.