Her tale has unfolded like a jazzy ballad — unpredictable sidetrips, intermingling sadness and joy, and an overarching air of spontaneity. And indeed, Anna de León’s nine-year stint as the owner, namesake, and dueña of a jazz club — its latest incarnation, Anna’s Jazz Island, opened last summer in downtown Berkeley — is only the latest persona in a life richly lived. As an underage singer in the adult choir, Berkeley School Board member, attorney/activist, single mom, and unabashed “chick singer” in a jazz combo, de León has always drawn the limelight, but she learned how to handle the attention, and the controversy, early on.
De León grew up in postwar Los Angeles — specifically, in the first desegregated public housing project in the United States. She found a vibrant cultural life there, including a theater that featured a Monday Night Community Sing. “I heard all kinds of music there, stuff like ‘Ballin’ the Jack’ and lots of country music,” she recalls. Blues standards from Bobby Bland caught her ear, as did the gospel of Mahalia Jackson and the Staples Family. Young Anna made her own public debut at the age of six, singing “Springtime in the Rockies.” “I came from a musical family — we sang pretty much anything,” she explains, spinning a list from Johnny Ray to her dad’s favorite, Nat King Cole. He favored the blues and jazz of his native Chicago, while mom and Anna harmonized in the church choir, among other places. “We held church in the community center theater on Sunday, so we’d be kneeling in the popcorn from the night before!” she remembers. Her own talent was obvious — as a fourth-grader, she joined the adult choir.
Yet being the child of an Estonian father and a Puerto Rican mother left Anna and the de León clan feeling somewhat isolated — her father died when she was a child, and the European side of the family wanted little to do with them. “Racism is a funny thing,” rues Anna, who inherited her father’s fair hair but was still rejected by his kin. “But culturally, being an outsider, maybe it threw me more into music.”
Although de León completed degrees in art and philosophy at UCLA in the early ’60s, the siren song of the stage was never far away. While working as a cashier at Los Angeles’ famed Ash Grove folk club, she met her first husband, bluesman Taj Mahal. Together they had a daughter, Aya, and though they divorced years ago, he remains a strong presence. “Me and Taj aren’t a couple anymore, but we’re family,” she explains. In fact, Taj hangs out at the Jazz Island when he’s off the road, and dueted with Anna for two standards on her 2004 CD The Sweet and Bittersweet, recorded in a scant two afternoons at Berkeley’s Fantasy Studios — no song took more than two takes to get down. A sympathetic lineup (including pianist Kenny Barron) breezes through eleven of de León’s favorite songs, including the Beatles’ “Yesterday.”
Furthermore, Mahal’s sandpaper growl accompanies de León on Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill” and the Latin standard “Besame Mucho,” which became a bit of a family affair. Daughter Aya was watching from the control room as Mom and Dad recorded, and was quick to point out some flaws in their pronunciation of the Spanish-language lyric. “She said, it’s not ‘Bessie Mae’ like the cow!” Anna laughs. Both Mom’s talents and politics rubbed off on Aya, a politically active teenager who has matured into a respected spoken-word artist in her own right.
Anna, meanwhile, now primarily concerns herself with the Jazz Island. Its decor and menu pay homage to her Puerto Rican island roots with faux palm trees and frilly drinks, and the music ranges from singer and player open jams to Cuban and Brazilian-inflected jazz. Her hands-on presence is unmistakable — she greets patrons at the door, hustles back to check on drink orders, and naturally, when the drums get too loud, she’s none too shy about letting the percussionists know it.
And of course, she jumps onstage herself now and again. On this particular Tuesday night, she joins a gang of talented and semitalented crooners testing out their chops at Anna’s weekly Singers Open Stage. After Sabrina and Matt vamp through “Route 66,” pianist Ellen Hoffman announces de León and the owner glides up, reminding Hoffman that the first number is in B-flat (she has written it in Magic Marker on her hand). She then soars through “Blue Skies” and “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah,” her powerful voice ranging from a husky whisper to an arm-stretching belt, reaching the couples huddled in the farthest corner of the club.
No doubt, though, that while she commands the audience’s attention, she also has one eye on the bartenders and kitchen help. Now as then, Anna balances business and pleasure. After graduating from Boalt Law School in the early ’70s, she spent more than two decades taking on the cases of civil rights activists, and then, as a member of the Berkeley School Board, faced ominous death threats from Soldier of Fortune magazine’s readership after suggesting the city replace military education in its schools. And though she retired from her law practice in 1997, she still doesn’t back down from a good fight, recently taking on the Jazz Island’s landlord, Patrick Kennedy, for allowing another business to serve alcohol on the premises — she contends her contract allows her exclusivity in this area.
But her life is mostly pleasure now. This is all Anna ever wanted, to emulate Billie Holiday’s dream of “A little place where I could serve good food and sing whenever I felt like it,” as Billie put it. She gets to share her culinary skills, like the Puerto Rican confection besito de coco. And when there’s a lull in the onstage action, Anna is happy to regale the crowd with a rousing rendition of “Bessie Mae Mucho.”