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Best Jazz/Blues Band or Performer

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Olga Watkins Band
www.olgawatkinsband.com

 

After a short stint at Chatham College on a music scholarship in the early '90s, Wheeling, W.Va., native Olga Watkins set out for Chicago to sing opera -- and wasn't particularly fond of the job. 

"I just hated it," she recalls.

She returned to Pittsburgh, then set off on a series of jobs that would take her across the hospitality industry: working on an Air Force base, in restaurants and as a caterer. Music didn't figure as much in her life. But in the early 2000s, Watkins decided to get back into the game.

Having gotten married (to CP readers' choice for best bartender this year, Mark Miller of Monterey Pub) and now raising a child, "I didn't want to tell my daughter about what I did when I was young," Watkins says. "I didn't want to be one of those 'used-to-be' singers. ... I had to get it in gear." 

She began playing with local musicians she met through her brother, Reggie, a noted local trombonist. The band that's now The Olga Watkins Band has taken numerous forms, with musicians dropping in and out. (It's sustained a name change, from Soul Kitchen, as well.) Besides Watkins and Subha Das, the current band includes bassist Jason Hollar and guitarist Jay Weaver.

The band has also gone from playing only jazz standards to writing its own songs. Early this year, the band released Long Time Coming, a CD featuring several originals along with a few classics, including an arrangement of Paul Desmond's famous "Take Five," for which Watkins wrote lyrics. ("I wrote it on a dare, basically, from [local jazz pianist] Craig Davis," she explains.) 

It's not just jazz, and not just blues: The cover of Long Time Coming calls the band's music "original soul, blues and funk," and the opening track introduces some rocksteady to the mix as well. 

Watkins isn't interested in being pigeonholed: "When we sell our music on the web, it's sometimes categorized as 'Adult Contemporary,' but I don't like that. It sounds like a section of the library." Instead, she worries about doing things right. 

"Our primary focus is on performing our show, wherever it may be -- a festival or a bigger venue or a small club, headlining or opening," Watkins says. "We concentrate on our show."

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