Thursday, September 16, 2010

Definitely Not a Diva—Texas A&M Dean is Music’s Evening Star, Yet Shines by Day

It’s hard for some of us to imagine having two careers and keeping them separate without one interrupting the other. For song stylist Karan Chavis, you won’t hear her even humming in the hallways of the Texas A&M Health Science Center where she works.

An award-winning former Executive Director for Administrative Services at Texas A&M through last year, Aggie grad Chavis this year took on a new role as Assistant Dean of Planning and Evaluation for the TAMU Health Science Center. Daylight hours, she’s a no-nonsense but kind team leader in the fast-expanding outreach of TAMU’s health programs.

If you just knew her professionally, it would be difficult to imagine that her talents as an administrator actually overshadow her gifts as a musical performer and song stylist. On stage, though, her professionalism shines through as though singing were her only vocation. Two talented sides to one very modest person.

Limiting her musical commitments within a calendar year to balance work, home, and family, local audiences were delighted to hear Chavis as a Parisian chanteuse at the American Heart Association gala held in April at Miramont Country Club in Bryan.

No performance in 2010, though, will stand as more memorable, though, than her spectacular turn, saluting the music of jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald for two performances in Austin one recent August evening.

Chavis’ versatility extends beyond work and song. An expert seamstress, she even created her own costume for the annual Texas Reds Festival in downtown Bryan this past June. She’s been called upon to sew costumes for all three of her local backup singers for a special event in less than 24 hours. She does so with the same efficiency and quiet modesty that befits her professional style by day. It’s just her thing. Music. Sewing. Art.

The magnificent, charming setting of Austin’s One World Theatre on Bee Caves Road was the perfect venue for the concert staged by Hart Beat Productions: ‘It’s Ella! A Tribute to Ella Fitzgerald’, featuring Pamela Hart, Karan Chavis, and Willie Nicholson. The three singers took turns at recreating many in Fitzgerald’s vast catalog of ‘Ella’ songs. In highlights of the evening, Willie Nicholson almost stole the entire show with her rendition of ‘Black Coffee’. Exhibiting an effervescent but controlled smouldering voice befitting the song’s lyrics, Nicholson drew the audience in with their ears and eyes and imprinted the memory of the song forever with her smooth delivery. Hart’s top-of-the-mark rendition of ‘Someone to Watch over Me’ should be hereafter known as her personal signature tune.

TAMU local audiences always request Chavis sing a signature favorite tune, ‘Satchmo Blues’, in which Chavis displays her extraordinary talent to alternate between the voices of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong in the same song. Poetry to hear and amazing to watch, Chavis makes you forget she’s the one singing and you just hear the true voices of the original artists she is presenting.

Chavis’ a cappella rendition of ‘Miss Otis Regrets’ stayed completely true to Fitzgerald’s rendition. No small feat, but no surprise either. Chavis mentioned Fitzgerald’s major role in influencing her to study music and perform professionally. Legendary singers have that effect on impressionable young talents.

One special young lady, 16-year-old Shanice McKissick, made her public debut during the evening, and received a standing ovation for her rendition of ‘Summertime’. As well she should have. McKissick, a young talent, absorbed the encouragement and confident stylings of Chavis, Nicholson, and Hart in several weeks of rehearsals, with multiple opportunities to watch the masters at work. For a young Karan Chavis, her mentor was Ella Fitzgerald. For young McKissick, she was fortunate to have three Texas-based professionals to emulate in Nicholson, Hart, and Chavis. Chavis resides in College Station, Nicholson in Temple, and Hart (her mentor) in Austin.

The evening’s two performances were presented by The Women in Jazz Association. Backed by the exceptionally talented William Menefield Band (William Menefield, Piano & Musical Director, Michael Stevens, Bass, Kevin Scott, Drums), and Michael Malone on Saxophone, the singers could not have had more professional accompaniment for their arrangements. Solos filled the air, appropriately, and entertained audiences with their seamless transitions for the talented singers.

The One World Theatre was perfect, an intimate seating arrangement with every seat a ‘good one’. Hartt Stearns (Hartt & Soul Productions) has booked a lineup for this hidden treasure that should make people rush out for season tickets. Premier guitarist Tommy Emmanuel, classically trained pop singer Andrew Heller, jazz prodigy Nikki Yanofsky, classic rock singer B. J. Thomas, songwriter Suzanne Vega, jazz drummer Billy Cobham, guitarist legend Earl Klugh and more will appear there this fall.

Two people should be singled out for their mutual labor of love: Kevin and Pamela Hart, of Hart Beat Productions, two of the primary forces behind the nonprofit jazz group. It takes substantial funding to stage such an undertaking. The evening’s emcee, Jabari Warfield, recognized additional sponsors: the Cultural Arts Division of the City of Austin, IBM, the Austin-American Statesman, The Majestic Design Group, the Mitchie Mitchell Foundation, and a host of volunteers whose contributions are vital to the evening’s success.

The next time you walk down the halls of Texas A&M’s Health Science Center, you still won’t hear Karan Chavis singing, because she’s 100% committed to focusing on her day job. But if you’re very lucky, some evening in Austin, Houston, Dallas, or Bryan-College Station, you can hear this dean sing, with all her heart and soul, and it will be forever a tribute to the memory of an unforgettable song stylist, Miss Ella Fitzgerald.

For more information on future concerts and events, visit and

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