The daughter of two accomplished singers, Jackie Ryan knew better than most the power of music but never would have imagined that a single song could alter the course of her career and her life.
Bowed vocal cords sidelined the northern California native and while she worked with a speech therapist to rehab her ailing pipes, she flipped on the legendary jazz radio station WJAZZ one night and heard a song that changed everything.
"It was 'Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,' and I swear I'd never heard anything so wonderful in all my life," Ryan said by phone from her home in Mill Valley, Calif. "It was such a different way of singing. I had been doing a lot of gospel and rhythm and blues but jazz singing requires that you use so much more of your range. From that moment on, I felt like 'Now I know my voice.' "
Since hearing that song more than 20 years ago, Ryan has been featured on NPR and performed at Lincoln Center and such legendary jazz clubs as Birdland in New York City and Yoshi's in Oakland, Calif.
Fresh off the release earlier this month of her sixth studio album, "Listen Here," Ryan will perform a pair of sold-out shows with The Bob Alberti Trio on Feb. 15 and 16 at The Jazz Corner on Hilton Head Island.
Ryan discusses her life in music, the injury that nearly ended it and visiting Hilton Head for the first time.
Question. What are some of your earliest memories in music?
Answer. Both of my parents were singend they sung in a choir, and I remember them taking me up into the choir stall and being surrounded by all of those voices. There were these huge, beautiful harmonies, and I remember feeling like I could fly. It felt like the music could actually empower me to fly around the church. Music still makes me feel that way.
Q. When did you realize you wanted to be a performer?
A. The earliest memory that I have is of performing for my parents when I was 4 and I performed this song that I had written about how much I loved being 4. I was very dramatic. I would sing myself to sleep at night, which, of course, my siblings hated. They would always bang on the wall for me to shut up ... I learned how to play guitar when I was 12 and I joined my first band when I was 14 or so.
Q. You lost your voice in your early 20s. What happened?
A. I was doing a lot of gospel music and was playing in these rhythm and blues bands that were really loud. I was young, probably 22, and I didn't know enough about protecting my voice and I would put all of my voice into every performance every night and try to sing over the band. I ended up with bowed vocal chords and I couldn't talk or sing for about two years. The thing that I learned from all of that is how important it is to slow down and relax my voice and really take care of it.
Q. Who are some of your musical influences?
A. I remember making a list of influences recently and I think, by the time I was done, I had about 200 names, but I love Sarah Vaughan, Betty Carter for how adventurous she is, Ella (Fitzgerald), Billie (Holiday), and Anita O'Day. The list really could go on forever.
Q. This will be your first time performing on Hilton Head. What do you hope local audiences take away from the shows?
A. What's most important to me is that the audience can connect with the music through me.
I teach a lot of younger singers and what I try to tell them over and over is that it's not about you. It's about the music.
When you love something as much as I love music, you really get the feeling that you were chosen to do this. I feel that way. I feel like this is my duty.
Follow reporter Patrick Donohue at twitter.com/IPBG_Patrick.