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The postmidnight hour's when jazz clubs hit their groove. Aficionados huddled near the stage at O'Hara's Pub in Fort Lauderdale, drinking from long-necked beer bottles and brandy snifters, know that.
Singer (she says "jazz vocalist" is too confining a description) Juanita Dixon prefaces a ten-minute-plus rendition of Marvin Gaye's classic, "What's Going On," by dedicating the song to the current crop of youth growing up in troubled times. When the song was first sung a generation ago, the lyric "Brother, brother, there are far too many of you dying" referred to young people being killed in Vietnam. When Dixon sings it today, the context is different but no less fresh. "This is dedicated to the young people of today who have so much to offer and are so often misunderstood," she says to the attentive audience. "There is so much to learn from them, and we need to give them our love."
The generational theme couldn't be more appropriate for Dixon, who has been singing professionally for 35 of her 49 years: She has sung "What's Going On" for the children of yesterday and today.
A native of the Bahamas who moved to South Florida at age five and later studied music in Canada, Dixon began her career singing gospel music in her church choir. She spent three years doing the Harlem shuffle in the late Sixties, jamming with such jazz giants as guitarist George Benson. "When I was in college, I decided I really wanted to sing," Dixon recalls. "I started singing in Canada for carnivals, believe it or not A I did singing and dancing and slapstick comedy. That taught me a whole lot of things. Then I came back to the United States, got married, and raised a family, singing on weekends and that type of stuff, then finally got out of the marriage and started working around Broward in the local clubs, like the Elks Club, the Out of Sight....
"This was in the Sixties, singing rhythm and blues. My repertoire now is mainly jazz and blues. I like to be classified as a singer, because once you get in that category (of being classified as a jazz vocalist) you're forced to do that type of music only. I like to be known as a singer, because I think I can sing anything: gospel, rhythm and blues, pop, jazz. I love all of it. It's my life A it's what I do."
Dixon, who visited Europe for the first time last summer, performing in Berlin, currently takes the stage in South Florida three or four nights per week A primarily at O'Hara's Pub and the Ocean Manor Hotel and Resort.
She admits to having a profound love for the music of Dinah Washington (the influence is at times obvious) and she is currently working on new arrangements of old Washington standards such as "What a Difference a Day Makes."
A recent Saturday night at O'Hara's: Dixon is fronting a band called Just Jazz, starring one-time Pub fixture Bob Vandivort (trumpet and flute), the ever-beturbaned Dr. Lonnie Smith (organ, piano, and vocals), local skins stalwart Danny Berger (drums), and Don Miller (bass). The group is joined by saxophonist Bobby Tynes of the band Majenta and steel drum legend Othello Molineaux. Molineaux's performance reveals that the steel drum, an instrument associated more with Calypso than Coltrane, can indeed be very jazzy when in the hands of the right musician.
During the first set, the sextet has the place rockin' A Vandivort blowing away and spicing the affair (as he always does) with frequent acknowledgements of the performers. Miller, Tynes, and Smith live up to the bandleader's hype with stellar solos while Berger works the drums like he's going to send traps and cymbals flying throughout the place. Dixon knocks the crowd out with renditions of "On Broadway" and "Route 66," the latter with vocal contributions from Vandivort.
O'Hara's Pub's name doesn't bring to mind "shrines to jazz" clubs such as the Village Vanguard or Sweet Basil in New York City, or the old Keystone Korner in San Francisco, but it's about as good as it gets in South Florida.
After she opened the club on Las Olas Boulevard in 1989, Kitty Ryan progressively slid the format into jazz A against the protestations of the then-manager, who insisted it would attract "the wrong type of customer." What began as a few hours each week has progressed into jazz every night, and if you're walking down Las Olas Boulevard when one of its live acts is hitting a good groove, you're likely to think you're in Manhattan, Chicago, or San Francisco (outdoor Pub patrons sipping coffee drinks on the patio also lend to the sense of deja vu).
Ryan said Dixon fits right into the style she's after at her club.
"Juanita exudes a very warm feeling," Ryan said, "and she welcomes interaction from the customers. Her style is what a lot of people expect to hear from a jazz singer. She's very robust and she can be very melancholy and she has a lot of different emotions. Very exciting. The experience she has of playing with so many different musicians really gives her a lot of credibility."