Sequim jazz singer Sarah Shea is pictured on stage before a windy set at Lake Chelan Jazz and Wine Festival on May 17. (Sarah Shea)

Sequim jazz singer Sarah Shea is pictured on stage before a windy set at Lake Chelan Jazz and Wine Festival on May 17. (Sarah Shea)

Jazz singer perseveres through life’s changes

Sarah Shea pushes through injuries for jazz career

SEQUIM — Sarah Shea recalled her son had his first birthday party at a picnic table by a large pond at Carrie Blake Community Park.

Now 6½, Liam is a cellist and a soccer player. After he picked up his cello from near the park’s bandshell, Shea and her son returned to the park later in the day for his soccer game.

“I was having a lot of gigs when I was pregnant and the saxophone player was playing right into my stomach, so he’s been hearing music all his life,” Shea said.

“He’ll say, ‘Don’t you know who my mommy is? She’s a jazz singer.’ He thinks I’m kind of famous.”

A Sequim native and popular jazz singer who has been performing in the area for many years, Shea has worked with a rotating cast of musicians, recorded several albums and performed in local musical theater.

Her musical partners include the Stardust Big Band and Chez Jazz Trio.

Shea is having a particularly busy month.

She traveled to New York City to participate in her graduation ceremony at Teachers College of Columbia for her Master of Arts degree in music.

She also flew back home and performed at the sold-out Chelan Jazz and Wine Festival on May 17-18 with George Radebaugh (piano), Milo Peterson (drums), Todd Fisher (bass) and special guest Dmitri Matheny (fluglehorn), who’s played his own sets at the festival.

Known in Sequim for her smooth and open vocals, Shea was almost surprised to receive an invitation to the Chelan festival, noting she did not apply and that many of the festival roster included heavy hitters in the Seattle jazz scene.

Shea’s singing career has at times been anything but smooth: She has experienced a number of injuries affecting her ability to croon. She broke her back, broke a rib and suffered an injury that impaired her jaw’s motion.

“I’ve really had to retrain myself as a vocalist,” she said. “I kind of had to use the back space of my soft palate more. I had to make sure I wasn’t raising my larynx, keeping it in a neutral spot. For about two months, I couldn’t talk.”

Now she’s dealing with a cyst on her vocal cords.

Following her trips to New York and Lake Chelan, Shea sent an update: “I actually fell down an escalator in New York on Thursday and fractured my sacrum, so I was singing in Chelan the whole time with a fractured sacrum. It’s been crazy!”

In addition to the physical challenges, she has shouldered a fair amount of emotional burden as she’s gone through the process of being a single mother.

However, she said it all contributes to having a closer connection with the music.

When she discussed her 2011 recording of “Cry Me a River,” Shea said she would sing it differently now, with a rawer vocal interpretation.

As she matures, she is less interested in vocal acrobatics and more tuned into the words’ meaning and the expression of their underlying emotion.

Adapting and changing

Known by fellow musicians for never rehearsing before shows — something some improvising jazz musicians appreciate about her — Shea said part of her motivation for avoiding rehearsals is that it creates a more open space for authentic musical experiences.

She said she is more interested in genuinely connecting with audiences than performing or entertaining.

She will often have meaningful interactions with audience members after shows about the feelings that her music brought out in them.

As an exception to her normal process, she decided to rehearse for the Chelan festival, and she confessed it was helpful, recalling this “epiphany” through laughter.

Lately, however, music has been on the back-burner for Shea. She speaks openly — if not with a detached and dry humor — about how life has been somewhat hazy of late. She said her friends joke about her melancholic outlook.

As the sun beat down across the Carrie Black park lawn, she also noted she is happy to be out taking photographs, talking about her music and gearing up to bring it to the people.

Shea plans to join the ska-punk band Mort Crim All Stars at the Summertide Solstice Art Festival on June 15 at the Port Angeles Fine Arts Center, 1203 E. Lauridsen Blvd. Their set begins at 4 p.m.

For more local show announcements, follow Shea’s Facebook page at


Elijah Sussman is a reporter with the Olympic Peninsula News Group, which is composed of Sound Publishing newspapers Peninsula Daily News, Sequim Gazette and Forks Forum. Reach him at

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