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Tammy McCann the ultimate jazz ambassador

Jazz vocalist Tammy McCann headlines shows Friday Sunday Jazz Showcase.

Jazz vocalist Tammy McCann headlines shows on Friday and Sunday at the Jazz Showcase.

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♦ 8 and 10 p.m. March 22-March 24 with Music Institute of Chicago faculty; 4 p.m. March 24 with Reunion Jazz Orchestra

♦ Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct.

♦ Tickets, $20-$30

♦ (312) 360-0234;

Updated: March 20, 2013 6:45PM

Jazz singers don’t just spring into being. It can take years to hone a singular style and sound.

That’s a lesson Tammy McCann learned six or seven years into her professional career during a tour in Italy when she was practicing a take on “You Don’t Know What Love Is.”

Like many budding interpreters, she started out emulating such esteemed vocalists as Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington, to whom the South Side native is still often compared. But that day, she was excited to suddenly hear phrasing that was distinctively new and all her own.

“It takes time and a real sense of yourself to find your own voice,” McCann said.

Now solidly established as one of Chicago’s most respected jazz singers, she returns this weekend to the venerable Jazz Showcase. But this engagement, which runs through March 24, comes with a twist.

For all but one performance, she will be appearing with noted members of the jazz faculty at the Music Institute of Chicago — Jeremy Kahn, piano; Stewart Miller, bass; Ernie Adams, drums; Audrey Morrison, trombone and Victor Garcia, trumpet.

Since September, McCann has served as artist-in-residence at the school, doing some teaching but mainly acting as an ambassador for its growing 2½-year-old jazz studies program.

Although classically trained with experience in gospel, R&B and other musical styles, she has no doubt who she is now — a jazz singer who mixes in a few original tunes but primarily focuses on the time-tested standards.

“One thing I know about myself is the music that I sing,” she said. “I see myself as an ambassador for straight-ahead jazz — not pop-jazz, not soul-jazz. It’s the purest form of this amazing American masterpiece — jazz-music.”

McCann’s career has undergone several phases, including tours in Europe in the 1990s and a stint in 2000-02 as a back-up singer — a Raelette — to legendary vocalist and pianist Ray Charles.

After settling back in Chicago to devote time to a new husband and family, the singer returned to the stage in 2006, catching the attention of Alyce Claerbaut, the niece of famed jazz composer Billy Strayhorn.

Claerbaut became something of a mentor, opening doors for McCann to make her New York debut in 2011(she returns next month to perform with noted tenor saxophonist Houston Person) and the singer’s career has been on an upswing since.

“She essentially got everything going for me a couple of years ago,” McCann said. “She kind of re-introduced me to Chicago and really took me to New York City and helped me plant my flag.”

Also with the encouragement with Claerbaut, McCann has put an increasing emphasis on big-band music. She performs regularly with the 18-piece Reunion Jazz Orchestra, which will accompany her Sunday afternoon at the Jazz Showcase.

“Now I’m completely addicted,” he said. “Over the last nine months, that has been my laser focus — working on new music and just really being engulfed in the big-band genre.”

Kyle MacMillan is a local free-lance writer.

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