Standing in the wings of D.C.’s Sylvan Theater, where he was sharing the bill with the Air Force’s Airmen of Note, the late jazz great Joe Williams marveled at the orchestra’s vocalist. “This little child can sing,” he said to his accompanist. “I don’t know who she listens to, but she’s from the old school.”

It doesn’t take Joe Williams’ ear to recognize that Juanita Williams is a phenomenon, one of the finest jazz, blues, and gospel singers of her generation. Listening to her reminds you of Aretha Franklin’s passion, Mahalia Jackson’s spirituality, and Dinah Washington’s self-assurance, but her powerful, keen-edged voice, uninhibited yet scrupulously controlled, is wholly her own.

Williams, who lives in a high-rise condominium in Alexandria, has attracted a devoted cult following from her international tours with the Airmen of Note, the U.S. military’s premiere jazz ensemble, and in appearances at jazz and gospel festivals, but she has yet to gain the wider public recognition that her talent deserves. With any luck, her new CD, It’s Who I Am, the debut release of the Head Quarters (“HQ” for short) Records label, based in Fort Washington, Md., should remedy that situation. Williams transforms a program of familiar blues and ballads into a series of startling, soul-stirring affirmations, backed by a driving big band composed of musicians handpicked from the ranks of past and present military orchestras.

Williams’ earthy, daredevil singing would seem to emanate from an old-school diva—brassy, temperamental, and more than a bit intimidating. But offstage, the Miami-born vocalist is a soft-spoken, rather shy, and studious woman, more inclined to discuss the relative merits of different schools of behavioral psychology than relate salty tales about life on the road. “In school, I was a study nerd with a 4.0 average,” she recalls. “I threw myself into everything—English, chemistry, history, and sports.” Her thirst for learning has not diminished; she’s currently working on a B.A. in psychology at George Mason University and thinking about pursuing a master’s degree.

Music, though, is Williams’ inheritance. Her grandmother, Bertha Baker, played piano and sang opera arias on trans-Atlantic ships. Her mother, Doris Williams, who toured the East Coast with a gospel group, the Southland Singers, served as her daughter’s first vocal coach, teaching Juanita classical techniques for the proper use and protection of the voice. The Williams home resounded with sacred music as well as recordings by Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, and Carmen McRae.

After high school, Williams had to turn down an academic scholarship to Mount Holyoke College because her parents could not afford to underwrite her living expenses. Instead, in 1972, she enlisted in the Air Force, planning to combine military service with the chance to continue her education. She began as a drill instructor in Texas. (“I never yelled, because I didn’t want to ruin my voice,” she says. “There are better ways to motivate people than yelling.”) Then, she was transferred to a desk job at Beale Air Force Base in Marysville, Calif., where she auditioned for and subsequently joined Tops in Blue, an entertainment unit featuring singers, dancers, comics, and instrumentalists drawn from the Air Force’s enlisted ranks.

Her eight-month tour of domestic military bases with Tops in Blue led to assignments with other traveling shows, capped by Serenade in Blue, an extravagant revue with production numbers featuring singing and dancing choruses and a full string-and-brass orchestra. The unit traveled with seven vocalists. “I was lucky if I got to sing one number each night,” Williams recalls with some frustration. In 1989, she successfully competed for the slot of featured soloist with the Airmen of Note. This position, which she held until leaving the service in 1996, put her in front of audiences throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia.

Instrumentalists tend to disparage singers, often dismissing them as a waste of time, but Baltimore-based pianist-composer Fred Hughes, Williams’ current musical director, unstintingly praises her musicianship. A veteran of the Army’s Jazz Ambassadors ensemble—currently represented by two of his own CDs, The Fred Hughes Trio—Live and Out of the Blue—Hughes relishes working with her. “She’s shy and humble, and trusts people to take care of her, but musically she knows exactly what she’s doing. She has a tremendous instrument and puts her whole heart and soul into her singing. She pulls energy out of me that I didn’t even know existed. When she sings a gospel set, she can move an audience like you can’t believe. I’ve seen her reduce football players to tears.”

In 1994, Big Mo Records, then based in Rockville, cut an album with Williams’ gospel choir at the Mount Olive Baptist Church in Arlington. Company representatives were so impressed with her singing that they signed her as a solo artist. While Introducing Juanita Williams, with its stark, rather sinister midnight-blue cover, plainly demonstrates the singer’s talent, it doesn’t represent her tastes. Big Mo chose the monochromatic repertoire—R&B, soul, and blues compositions—as well as the arrangers and musicians. Williams was not satisfied with the result, except for one cut—”I’m Still in Love With You.” She arrived at the studio unaware that the producer had hired master jazz guitarist Joe Pass to accompany her on that track—an experience she still remembers with pleasure.

Williams enjoyed far greater artistic participation in the production of It’s Who I Am, as underscored by the album’s title. This time out, she had approval over the material, arrangers, and musicians. Her liner-note comments reinforce her personal investment in the project: “God has blessed me with a talent for singing and I want to share his gift with all who care to listen. It’s Who I Am is a compilation of songs that are a portrait of my life. They reflect my thoughts and experiences, my dreams, disappointments, aspirations and a reality check of just who I really am.”

HQ Records has a specific mission that reaches beyond a quest for profit. “I started the company with the express purpose of giving military musicians the opportunity to continue their careers beyond their enlistment points,” explains founder Bobby Black, a former member of the Air Force vocal group the Singing Sergeants. “Musicians who choose to serve their country forgo many artistic and professional opportunities they could have otherwise enjoyed in order to contribute to the military services.” By providing a showcase for their talents, HQ aims to help outstanding Air Force and other armed forces instrumentalists and singers move from military to civilian life. Black estimates that “counting family members, the military presents a potential market of between 3 and 5 million people that nobody has targeted,” and believes that “this audience knows and hopefully will support the artists we plan to record.”

Black’s other business ventures include Roblin Productions, which packages Broadway-style industrial shows for corporations. He employs former and current military instrumentalists, singers, and arrangers to staff the 55- to 65-piece orchestras featured at these events. (He has invested some of Roblin’s profits in HQ, which projects upcoming releases by pianist Wade Beach and country-pop vocalist Anita Pave.) Black chose Williams to inaugurate the label because he considers her “an incredible artist with a magnificent gift,” he says. “Not many vocalists can sing what she can sing. I’ve heard her work with all kinds of ensembles, from trios to full orchestras. No contemporary singer can swing with a big band like she does, which is why I wanted to record her in that context.”

It’s Who I Am kicks off with “Every Day I Have the Blues,” the Joe Williams signature song that Juanita includes as a heartfelt tribute to an artist who inspired and personally encouraged her. (The unrelated Williamses perform a soulful duet, “America the Beautiful,” on the Airmen of Note CD Legacy, which, unfortunately, is not available for sale to the public.) Joe Jackson’s booting arrangement, sparked by Rich Haering’s canorous trumpet solo, pays homage to Count Basie without aping the classic Basie-Williams recording. Juanita’s clarion voice soars above the hard-punching brass section, asserting that, even though she’s had her share of “bad luck and trouble,” she will emerge triumphant.

Williams regards ballad singing as her forte and picks It’s Who I Am’s “So Good” as her favorite cut. (“I’m no goody-goody,” she confesses. “I’ve had my share of romances and heartaches, and put all of those experiences into my ballads.”) But each of the remaining eight tracks, from the cynical “God Bless the Child” to the saucy “Evil Gal Blues” to the cuddlesome “I Just Found Out About Love,” demonstrates Williams’ breathtaking vocal range and mastery of various moods and tempos. The album’s most likely contender for AM radio airplay, Stevie Wonder’s jaunty “Until You Come Back to Me,” instantly takes residence in your brain and refuses to budge. The closer, “What a Wonderful World,” serves as the singer’s loving benediction, an assertion of her belief that “We are all safe in his arms.”

All Williams needs now is enough exposure to attract a bigger following. With jazz clubs and radio stations in decline, she realizes that she’s facing a daunting struggle. She wants to work more, secure a major-label deal, cut a gospel album, even appear in a Broadway or Hollywood musical. (She loves Evita and “knows” she could sing the title role better than Madonna did.) While waiting for these opportunities to arrive, she continues to study and sew and maintain her chops. “All I need is to get out there,” she insists. “Once people hear it, they’ll want more, and that’s all I want.”CP

More details about Juanita Williams’ releases are available at www.juanitawilliams.com, www.fredhughes.com, and www.hqrecords.com.