The voice: it’s not tautly classical, not wispy and ethereal, and thankfully not the hormonally nasal sound that infiltrates current pop music. It’s a voice that makes you comfortable, like the girl next door or your best friend — who just happens to sing really well.
The voice belongs to Jebry, and if you encounter her around Naples, she will probably be crooning in a jazz mode. She is a performer who loves her craft, and her music is also her life and her life style, life philosophy and world view.
Born in Beverly Hills, Calif., as Judy Branch — Judith Eleanor Branch, or J.E.B., the initials became the origin of her stage name — “Jeb” was the nickname she got from her father, which eventually turned into the unique Jebry.
“They say I sang Ella Fitzgerald songs when I was about 2,” she quips; she is thankful to grow up in a family that was into jazz, allowing the early exposure.
Singing was always part of her life, as she graduated high school and entered the University of Southern California.
A demo recording was made, given to a well-known agent who heard it and said, “You need experience!” It led, ultimately, to an opportunity to work with the legendary Harry James for the next two years. James, well-known as a popular band leader and trumpeter, graced the budding Jebry with the solid experience that she needed.
After two years, she formed her own band. Yet another fortuitous relationship was formed; Bobby McFerrin was her first pianist. Although best known for his 1988 hit, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” McFerrin was popular in jazz circles for decades prior to that recording.
With her own band, traveling and touring naturally followed. “I was a road rat for 20 years,” she says. She performed in hotels and clubs across the country and abroad. “I would say that wherever I hung my bra was home,” she chuckled.
Then, in 1979, she suddenly and mysteriously decided to form an “outlaw band” and pursue a career in country music. Although horrified gasps from jazz aficionados would barely be heard over the “Yahoos!” of enthused country fans, the conversion was successful. When asked why she made such a major style change, Jebry just says, “I wanted something different.”
For the next six years she traveled all over, performing at country festivals and opening for well-known groups like Alabama, George Jones and Lee Greenwood.
She was also offered a label, lots of studio work, and got her first recording contract as a country singer.
It was during this time that Jebry recorded her first album, “Jebry,” and her recording of “Let Your Fingers Do the Walkin’ ” was on the top 100 Country charts for 16 weeks. Even as a country singer, she claims, “I still had to get in my jazz licks,” causing her country musicians to pause and ask, “What was that?”
When her label experienced financial troubles, Jebry regrouped, returned to the Hollywood-area, and “went back to my roots.”
Rejoined to the musical form that was most natural to her, Jebry had already broken barriers between musical styles, and says, “It made me a better singer. I don’t believe in snobbery; I love all kinds of music: Bluegrass, country, some heavy metal, ACDC, Audio Slave. I always keep my ears open.”
For the next many years, Jebry traveled and performed with many of the jazz era icons. “Real jazz people are fun,” she claims, and adds, “You have to have fun while you’re working. The jazz players I worked with had a great sense of humor.”
Recording with the Reprise label, Jebry got to meet the great “Ol’ Blue Eyes” himself. What was Frank Sinatra like?
“He was larger than life; loved to party, very gregarious. He was quite a man — took no prisoners. I was young and in awe.”
Although she enjoyed the life of a jazz singer and all the merriment that went along with it, she was always careful to protect her voice and her livelihood. “I just never wanted to look silly,” she explains.
Jebry talks with great passion and abounding enthusiasm about her craft. Mourning the great jazz era and the classic jazz clubs of the past, she says, “Jazz should continue. It’s a type of music that takes creativity and skill. You don’t sing the melody; you sing within the chord structure. It takes passion and hard work. As a music form it clings to mystery and holds its freshness, never presented exactly the same way twice.”
In the fall of 1986, a friend invited Jebry to Naples for a little vacation and to work during the season. She told the folks back home she’d be gone for a few months, and came to work at the Marco Lodge with Bobby Gideons, a local pianist and entertainer.
She soon made good friends in the area, and also met her future husband. Naples became home, and drummer Bobby Phillips became her husband. Over the course of the next couple of decades, Jebry worked just about every place that offered entertainment, and developed a select following of jazz fans that always knew where she was appearing.
Presently she appears at the Island Pub on Monday and Capri – A Taste of Italy, on Thursday. Sunday night, Jebry and friends are hosted at Norm’s, an intimate dinner house that goes all out for entertainment.
The present band consists of Phillips on drums; Jean Packard — an experienced pianist who played in the Broadway Cabaret — on keyboards; Frank Begonia, who played with Frank Sinatra, rounds out the band on base, with Don Nelson filling in during his absence.
One would think that the musical couple would at least have a favorite song, but not so; their combined repertoire is just too large. Usually, a couple chooses a song that played when they first met or during their first date. But, with two entertainers working together, the choices are endless.
Now the couple travels together during time off, and spends a great deal of time at home.
“Musicians are out all the time, so we love being home; make a great big dinner and rent a movie.” Over the years, life has had a way of interfering with well-made plans. In 1995, Jebry had a bout with lung cancer and lost a portion of one lung. Breast cancer struck once in 1985 and again in 2006. Jebry now says, “I’m clean at this point, but you’re never out of the woods.”
Phillips was a great support to Jebry during the difficult time. “He was great support, 100 percent of the time. Our attitude was, ‘get it taken care of and get on with your life.’”
In a private moment she expounds, “I am a survivor. Music kept me alive. Humor and a positive attitude. God answered my prayers lots of times.”
To this day, she ends every show with a “Good night, God bless, and ladies’— get your mammograms.” Passing on the mammogram word is now a passion for Jebry.
Life passions help to make the music real. She laughs, “People think we are just about music, but we do have a life.”
Visit www.jebry.com or call 775-0710.