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New Orleans jazz singer feels spirit, keeps tempo in Utah County

SHARE New Orleans jazz singer feels spirit, keeps tempo in Utah County
Debra Bonner sings with the Frederick James McCray Trio last week during "All That Jazz" at the Showtime Utah in Pleasant Grove.

Debra Bonner sings with the Frederick James McCray Trio last week during “All That Jazz” at the Showtime Utah in Pleasant Grove.

Jason Olson, Deseret News

PLEASANT GROVE — The Lord kept his part of the bargain, so now Debra Bonner is keeping hers.

"If that means singing in Pleasant Grove, then so be it," said the 55-year-old vivacious jazz and blues singer who has sung as a soloist with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and on the Strip in Las Vegas. (She was also the voice of the Barren Olive Tree in Michael McLean's CD of "The Garden.")

"Well, you know, I guess it started back 25-26 years ago when my fourth child was born with spinal meningitis," Bonner said. "I prayed to the Lord to help us. I told the Lord I would do whatever I needed to do if he would save her. Right after that prayer, she started getting better and I heard the spirit say, 'Be a good mom and sing!' I feel like I've done the good mom thing and he kept his part of the bargain so I'm just going to do it."

The child with spinal meningitis, Clotile, is grown and the Bonners' youngest child, Oba, is now 14. So it feels like a good time for the Cedar Hills mom to pick up her microphone and get back on the stage.

"I've been teaching voice for the past 30 years. Now I'm getting up there again and finding the more I sing, the stronger my voice gets," Bonner said. "It just comes out of me."

She's singing with another star on the local jazz scene — Frederick James McCray, a local jazz pianist known for his versatility and comfortable, upbeat and unique style.

"I don't use written music," he said. "That's like trying to kiss a significant other using a map."

He performed for the International Olympic Committee during the 2002 Winter Games. He's released two CDs of his music — "Spiritual Intrigue" in 2003 and "Congo Cruise" in 2005.

He currently performs at the Embassy Suites Hotel five nights a week and keeps busy performing in a number of venues, including television and movies.

"I enjoy what I do," McCray said. "I tell my neighbor I'm going to therapy when I go to work."

"My mom told me he's amazing," said Zachary Coddings, a Timpview High School student waiting for McCray to sign his CD during a break at one of his performances at the Grove Event Center. "I love (his music)."

Bonner and McCray are trying to create a musical buzz in Utah County by presenting a two-hour jazz show every Thursday night, with Bonner as the lead vocalist and McCray backing her up with his jazz trio.

The two got acquainted 10 years ago when McCray was asked to play at the funeral of Ruffin Bridgeforth, who was the first president of the LDS Genesis Group.

"We clicked," Bonner said of when she met McCray. "He said he's never found anyone he could play with before."

"We have a feel for each other," McCray said. "Maybe because we're both from Louisiana."

"Jazz is innately an all American-born music which incorporates practically all the diversity of U.S. roots," said Harry Bonner, Debra's husband and the producer of "All That Jazz" at Showtime Utah in Pleasant Grove. "When played authentically, it can excite and move you to the edge or your seat or to tears, even happy tears. … What Utah has right now is a trio grounded in New Orleans."

Debra and Harry Bonner were Baptist missionaries in Liberia when they said the spirit told them to leave Africa and come to the United States. They met a pair of Mormon missionaries when Debra was seven months pregnant and they were homeless with two small children in Las Vegas.

"We were kind of hard nuts to crack," Debra Bonner said. "Two years later when Clotile was born, I was still praying to Jesus when I realized, 'I'm a Mormon. I need to pray to my Heavenly Father.' When I talked to my Father in heaven, I knew Christ was pleading my case and the Holy Ghost spoke to me. That confirmed my testimony of the Godhead.

"I don't know why I'm doing jazz in Pleasant Grove. But I feel like I'm supposed to sing jazz for the church," Debra Bonner said. "I really feel like there's more than one reason we're supposed to do this. We can't really afford to pay a band every week but we do it. We're used to just going by the spirit."

The jazz night sessions will not only feature the McCray trio and Bonner but offer opportunities for local musicians to get involved.

Musicians will try out in advance and, if selected, will perform with Bonner and McCray.

Currently, the music has a holiday feel and is appropriate for families and for people who feel like dancing to a lively beat, Bonner said.

"We've had good audiences," Harry Bonner said, "but we need more."

"All That Jazz" nights run from 8 to 10 p.m. at the Grove Event Theater at 20 S. Main in Pleasant Grove. Snacks and soft drinks are available. Tickets are $7 each, sold at the door.

E-mail: haddoc@desnews.com