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Sixty-eight-year-old vocalist and actress Mary Jefferson doesn’t let anything get her down. In March, she was preparing to tape a TV appearance in North Carolina when she suffered a heart attack and underwent extensive surgery. Unable to perform and unsure of how she would care for the two grandchildren in her charge, “Washington’s First Lady of the Blues” soon found her LeDroit Park home without gas, water, or electricity. Falling behind on her property taxes, she was threatened with repossession. And she found herself $15,000 in debt for her operation. Nonetheless, Jefferson insists that she is “blessed.”
On June 11, Jefferson was the subject of a benefit featuring a lengthy roster of Washington jazz musicians at Shaw’s H.R. 57 Center for Jazz & Blues. Although there was little advance publicity, the concert—which featured such local stalwarts as drummer Jerome Allen and pianist Bill Washburn—raised enough money to help Jefferson pay off many of her bills. Better still, Jefferson recently received word that she will soon be able to sing again—provided she wears a heart monitor.
A Washington, D.C., native who’s been performing in the area for 50 years, Jefferson’s vocal style is described by benefit organizer Gail Dixon as “brassy in a deep- rooted, earthy way.” Growing up in a home adjacent to the Howard Theater, Jefferson closely watched the careers of such legends as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Sarah Vaughan. “I ran around behind them like a little watchdog,” Jefferson remembers. In the ’50s, Jefferson appeared onstage at the Howard as both a singer and lead dancer in the chorus line; in the ’60s, she was a fixture on the U Street nightclub scene. She spent most of the ’70s and ’80s working at Howard University, and in recent years she performed regularly at Cafe Lautrec and began an acting career, appearing in the movie Suspect and TV’s Homicide.
Despite her strong local following, Jefferson has never released a record. “I was content to take care of my kids, do my little gig, and help out anybody I could,” she says. Helping anyone has meant not only singing backup for the Drifters and countless others, but also belting out the blues for schoolchildren and senior citizens. Now, after years of helping others, Jefferson needs assistance. “It’s still tight for her,” notes performer and WPFW DJ Nap Turner, who helped organize the initial benefit.
Turner, Dixon, and the H.R. 57 Center—a nonprofit organization named after the 1987 House of Representatives resolution designating jazz a national treasure—are trying not only to help Jefferson, but to set up a long-term protection plan for local musicians. The Artists’ Emergency Relief Fund will be modeled after the New Jersey program founded by Dizzy Gillespie and the Jazz Foundation of America. As for Jefferson, she’s “ecstatic” about the benefit and plans to sing at H.R. 57 shortly: “I will return, I promise you that.” Mary Jefferson/Artists Emergency Relief Fund, c/o H.R. 57 Center for the Preservation of Jazz & Blues, 1426 9th St. NW, Washington, DC 20001. (202) 667-3700.