When Molly Hammer takes the stage in front of people who haven’t seen her, their first reaction may be curiosity.
Hammer is small, with a shock of bright red hair styled into a pageboy, her face serene under glaring white stage lights. In a venue where people know her, such as the Green Lady Lounge, her commanding presence creates an air you could manducate, and everyone in the cozy, dark booths seems to perk up a titch in anticipation.
That's what happened on a Monday afternoon in March at the Green Lady Lounge, when Hammer was accompanied, as she often is, by the talented pianist Mark Lowrey.
Hammer’s smile is as brilliant as the stage lights when she counts Lowrey in. Her vocal performance is a tennis match of grace notes as she makes seamless transitions from alto to soprano with digging swings at the end. Her face is bright and full of expression, taking us through the joys of a crisp love in "At Last" before laying a dead romance of "Never Will I Marry" at our feet.
She is confident and humble, telling odd tidbits of history before nodding at Lowrey to tickle the keys into another obscure, fast-paced delight or a sultry, anguished ballad.
Most of all, you can tell Hammer feels completely at home, that she’s having a great time.
But she wasn’t always a jazz singer. She spent five years in Iowa essentially living as Patsy Cline, playing the character almost every night in a themed show. It got to be that “Patsy” followed her everywhere.
“I’d be in the grocery store, at the doctor’s office, and I’d hear ‘PATSY!’ being screamed at me,” she says. “It did wonders for my identity. I wasn’t Molly, I was Patsy. It took over my whole life.”
One day someone suggested she could have a stellar career in Branson.
“Maybe I need to start re-thinking this,” Hammer realized.
She went the opposite direction, deciding to open the door on an idea that had been fermenting in her mind for a while. Secretly, Hammer wanted to move away from the theater entirely. She yearned to be a jazz singer.
Idolizing Peggy Lee, the singer-entrepreneur, and Dinah Washington, the self-titled “Queen of Blues,” Hammer hoped to develop a similar independence.
“I always admired Peggy Lee for being in complete control of her career," Hammer says. "I wanted to do something like that.”
But even for an experienced stage singer, Hammer found the transition wasn’t going to be without challenges.
“Jazz is serious,” she says. “You can’t just walk in and start doing things.”
For Hammer, that meant intense study with her mentor, Kansas City’s Joe Cartwright. She met with him once a week, maneuvering her way around be-bop and searching out the most obscure and difficult tunes to perform. By last year, Hammer had earned a nod from The Pitch as Best Jazz Singer (Critic’s Choice).
Difficult music wasn't her only challenge during those years.
In 2016, Hammer was diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time. Like many independent artists, she had no health insurance. After having been through chemo, Hammer sought alternative treatments. Last September, she sang the national anthem before a Royals game at the Komen Kansas City Night at Kaufman Stadium, wearing a pink heart KC shirt and that bright smile.
She’s also spent the past five years building up her repertoire in anticipation of her debut recording, the Cartwright-produced "Out of This World," named for the title track by Harold Arlen.
“I wanted something that would come out and say, ‘Here’s me,’” Hammer says of her first record.
She often saves Arlen’s song for last, letting the last bars linger softly in the air above the audience: “So let me fly out of this world/And spend the next eternity or two/with you.” And Hammer pulls out all the stops in “Doodlin’,” the Horace Silver song made famous by no less than Judy Garland, where Hammer easily transforms her voice into distinct characters.
The rest of the tracks are those jazz songs that feel most personal to her, the ones that have stayed with her, even when she found herself looking over an edge she’d seen before.
More recently, she took a break with friends in Europe.
Which brings us to those audiences who don't know her. One of them, visible in a video posted on a friend's Facebook page, is half a world away at Gregory’s Jazz Club, a popular whisky-dinner-jazz joint in Rome, Italy. This audience looks curious about the flame-haired American in front of them. It’s open-mic, and Hammer, in her flowered dress and green belt, is in front of a full jazz band belting a multi-lingual medley, her hands punctuating the air.
As she finishes with a deep tremolo to wild applause, it’s obvious she can’t stay away from the mic for too long.
Molly Hammer's "Out of This World" CD release party, 6-8 p.m. Thursday, September 14, at the InterUrban ArtHouse, 8001 Newton Street, Overland Park, Kansas, featuring Joe Cartwright, Steve Rigazzi, Todd Strait, and Brad Gregory.
Monique Gabrielle Salazar is a Kansas City freelance writer, artist and producer. She can be reached at email@example.com.