Arts And Culture

Singer terrified, ecstatic about performing at annual southside jazz festival

July 18, 2012, 1:06 p.m.

Diana Holling and her band are on the roster for this year's Central Avenue Jazz Festival, which has the singer both "ecstatic and terrified." (Rachel Garcia/OnCentral)

Musician Diana Holling says she's finished doing the "mommy thing."

With one child graduated from college and the other almost finished with high school, she's now shifting gears to focus on her jazz career. The job transition seems to be the right move, as the singer will perform along with a slew of talent at the upcoming Central Avenue Jazz Festival.

The free, two-day festival, which takes place at the intersection of Central Avenue and 42nd Street, honors the area's rich musical history. The Gerald Wilson Orchestra and Grammy Award-winning Latin jazz artist Poncho Sanchez are slated to headline the event.

"Poncho Sanchez is a god," said Holling. "I'm getting kind of a late start but my greatest dream is to get to the level of these people."

Holling's five-person band includes Jeff Colella (piano), Ron Eschete (guitar), Kendall Kay (drums), Ben May (bass) and Bob Sheppard (saxophone). She compares playing with them to flying on a magic carpet.

"They're so solid and so good and yet so creative at the same time that they lift you higher and you feel like you're in the air when you're performing with people at that level," Holling said. They plan to perform American jazz standards, bossa nova and a few Spanish-language songs at the festival.

As a child, Holling, who counts Anita O'Day as one of her greatest influences, enjoyed singing numbers from the musicals she attended with her mother. Her parents, who were champion swing dancers, introduced her to jazz through the music they played in the house. Holling graduated from USC with a journalism degree and had successful careers in both public relations and journalism. But jazz is what she really always loved.

"I was happy but I wasn't fulfilled," she said about her previous careers, which included time at local Channel 9 News and a radio talk show.

Holling said she started seriously pursuing her singing career about ten years ago. She went back to school at Santa Monica City College's Applied Music Program in order to better understand the music she could only sing by ear. A student of professional jazz pianist and composer Jon Mayer, Holling gained the confidence to pursue her singing dreams.

"He's a very tough guy," she said. "If you mess up he really yells at you, but you really learn with him."

The former public relations vice president later went on to sing for $8 an hour at a "dive jazz joint" in Toluca Lake called The Money Tree, which is now closed. The piano there was missing keys and always out of tune, but the joint played a central role in Holling's career shift: It was when she was driving home with her family from Oregon, rushing her family back from the greatest vacation they'd ever had so she'd be on time for a show she had that night at the Money Tree, when she realized she was meant to be a jazz singer.

After the Money Tree, Holling found one-night gigs at different bars and clubs around Los Angeles. She currently performs a few sold-out "Jazz on the Roof" shows a year for the Jonathan Club. Without a website or any recordings of her music, she lands most of her performances through word of mouth.

Holling's latest gig will be her biggest one.

"I am ecstatic and terrified. I know it's going to be great but I'm really scared nonetheless because I've never played for 4,000 people," she said about her upcoming performance at the festival. She was invited to perform by L.A. Councilwoman Jan Perry whose Ninth District includes historic Central Avenue.

Holling describes the opportunity to perform at the Central Avenue Jazz Festival as bittersweet. Her 95-year-old father is gravely ill and bed-ridden, and she's not sure if he will still be alive by the time of the festival. Holling says her father is a "Renaissance man," and learned from him that you don't need to have one job for your entire life.

"I would want nothing more than for him to be there," Holling said.

But she'll perform no matter what, she says, because that's what her father would want.

The festival will take place on July 28 and July 29. OnCentral has more on the festival's schedule here.

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