Jazz vocalist Karla Harris has made a career within the art form she loves for more than three decades, captivating audiences from Portland to Provence. Her performance credits include events such as the Sarasota Jazz Festival, Portland Jazz Festival, Oregon Coast Jazz Party, Nantucket Arts Festival, Siletz Bay Music Festival, Atlanta Jazz Party, Atlanta Jazz Festival, and a TED Talk. She has performed for the John F. Kennedy Center for thePerforming Arts as part of the Arts Across America live performance series, and in 2022 was awarded a distinguished Jazz Road grant through the South Arts foundation.
Karla’s art lies not only in expansive vocals but also in tapping into the emotion of a tune and delivering it fully. Bringing dynamic diversity and sophisticated nuance to the music, she remains respectful of a song’s roots. “She lends her pulse to be a part of the heartbeat of the entire process, vocals and instrumentals,” writes AXS.com, “and the strange meandering force that lies between.” Critical Jazz says, “Rich, full-bodied and with a slight buttery finish, Karla Harris has mad skills – a vocal artist with impeccable phrasing and the innate gift to have the band play with and not around her.”
Karla’s love for singing started first with a love for words and the power of their expression. As a young girl growing up in the suburbs west of St. Louis, she often would spend Saturday mornings writing little stories. Many afternoons would find her listening to favorites in her parents' eclectic album collection, singing along. Attracted to the stories told, she transcribed lyrics sung by Nancy Wilson, Billie Holiday, Barbra Streisand, Sammy Davis Jr., the Fifth Dimension, Aretha Franklin, and more. At family gatherings, she and her cousin put on shows. Her first taste of performing for a “real” audience came at age 10, when she sang a solo during a grade-school choral concert.
While in college, Karla began singing with Gateway Jazz Ensemble. The venerable St. Louis band featured beloved jazz vocalist Jeanne Trevor, an early mentor. Karla soon began working regularly with other top groups in her hometown. In the early 2000s, she was lead vocalist in combos led by internationally acclaimed bassist Tom Kennedy, whose credits include such greats as Rosemary Clooney, Freddie Hubbard, Mike Stern, Lee Ritenour, Ben Vereen, Dave Weckl. An invaluable experience, it helped pave the way when a 2005 move to the Pacific Northwest landed Karla in Portland, Oregon’s, celebrated jazz scene.
In Portland, Karla began working with players such as Randy Porter (Diane Schuur, Gino Vanelli, Madelaine Eastman), Bobby Torres (Joe Cocker, Etta James, Tom Jones), Steve Christofferson (Nancy King), Todd Strait (Kevin Mahogany, Eldar, Karrin Allyson), Mark Simon (Leroy Vinnegar), Mike Horsfall (Chuck Redd, Pink Martini, Rebecca Kilgore), and more. She became a regularly featured artist at the city’s jazz rooms and performed at events such as the Oregon Coast Jazz Party, Cathedral Park Jazz Festival, Bite of Oregon Festival, and Portland Jazz Festival.
Of her live shows, WSIE Radio says Karla is “a powerful singer at ease in any setting, a singer for all seasons who makes any song memorable.” Clubscene writes, “Vocalist Karla Harris tends to take the stage by storm and doesn’t let go till it’s all over. … She engages us and makes us happy to be spending the evening with her.”
Karla released her first CD, Twice As Nice, a collaboration with Tom Kennedy, in 2007. Featuring Kennedy’s arrangements, the recording is a collection of standards, including two songs each from favorite songwriters Jimmy McHugh, Cy Coleman, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mandel, Richard Rodgers and Burt Bacharach. Of the project, Jazz Scene Magazine wrote, “Always respectful of her American Songbook choices, Harris has superb intonation and a contemporary, appealing approach to the songs.”
In 2012, Karla relocated to Atlanta, where she works with many of the city’s top artists. She has performed at a TED Talk, opened for Grammy-nominated jazz singer Kate McGarry, and performed at the city’s premier jazz venues and festivals. Through her work in Atlanta, Karla met Los Angeles-based pianist, composer, arranger Ted Howe, producer of her 2015 recording, Karla Harris Sings the Dave and Iola Brubeck Songbook. The CD spotlights vocal versions of 11 Dave Brubeck compositions with lyrics written by his wife of 70 years, Iola Brubeck. It features Karla with Ted Howe, bassist Tom Kennedy, drummer Dave Weckl and saxophonist Bob Sheppard. The project, released on Summit Records, received multiple reviews praising its conceptual approach and execution:
“She makes these seldom-heard lyrics come alive.” — Jazz History Online
“A work of sheer elegance and distinction.” — Jazz da Gama
“The Brubecks would have been pleased.” — Jazziz Magazine
Karla’s versions of Brubeck classics such as “Take Five,” “Far More Blue,” and “Trav’lin Blues” are heard on jazz radio internationally.
A new album released in early 2019, Certain Elements, introduces Karla as songwriter. The project, which reached #44 on the prestigious Jazz Week chart, is a suite of original tunes alongside covers of songs written by Michel Legrand, Marilyn and Alan Bergman, Bill Withers, Jim Hall, Terry Kirkman and others, arranged especially for Karla by some of her closest colleagues.
Certain Elements brings together Karla’s past decade musically and features a sparkling roster of musicians from both coasts and the midwest. The project, like the artist herself, is a blend of backgrounds, and joins contemporary jazz, Latin, swing, and blues influences. The album’s first single, a remake of the ’60s hit “Cherish,” is heard on contemporary jazz stations across the globe. Legendary smooth jazz artist Dave Koz featured the song on his SiriusXM radio show, The Dave Koz Lounge. O’s Place Jazz writes of the album: “Karla Harris is a jazz vocalist with exceptional talent that surfaces like a beautiful ballet dancer on Certain Elements.”
In 2020, two of Karla’s original compositions featured on Certain Elements, "Interlude" and "When Michael," achieved semi-finalist status in the International Songwriting Competition.
Karla is a proud graduate of the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where she earned a degree in Speech Communications with certification to teach speech and drama. She was instrumental in the development of The Land of Music, a multi-disciplinary music curriculum for young learners. In addition to performing, writing and recording, she is an artist-in-residence with the Jazz Studies department at Kennesaw State University, teaching Applied Vocal Jazz to aspiring singers passionate about this uniquely American art form.
Karla is based in Atlanta, where she lives with her family and one sassy poodle.