Throughout her early high school days in Portsmouth, a teenage Sharon Jones was a highlight of the music department’s annual student showcase.
But in her senior year in 1961, Jones ignored her cue and refused to walk onto the stage as the introduction to the finale in the “minstrel” themed show played. She had decided not to perform another time with a choir of students in blackface makeup behind her.
“I went to that show that night feeling differently than I had in previous years. I was really seeing what was going on in back of me, and to me it was demoralizing. I thought a lot about my mother and father and family members who had come to see the show and the standing ovation. Yet I was being disrespected at the same time that I was being uplifted.”
When approached by the music director, whom Jones calls a beloved teacher who helped shaped her love of music, she finally told him how she felt about performing under such “awful circumstances.”
“They were putting me out there as the main event and yet bringing me down at the same time by having me sing with all of these people in blackface. All their lips were painted bright red.”
This time, she wouldn’t sing the finale until that racist caricature was gone.
“He had the choir go back and wash their faces. It all happened so fast,” Jones said. “When I heard the applause before and after I made that decision, I thought, ‘This is where I belong for the rest of my life — on stage.’”
Today, Jones is a beloved fixture in the Seacoast’s music scene. She’s a storyteller not only on stage, where she’s adept at pulling crowds into the ebb and flow of each jazz, R&B, swing and soul number, but in her everyday life as well — a spirited performer whose words both bubble with enthusiasm and sting with ache.
Jones (who also uses her married surname Jenkins off stage) is one of five speakers who will share stories of overcoming adversity and finding joy at New Hampshire Theatre Project’s annual Storytelling Festival at the Music Hall, 28 Chestnut St., at 8 p.m. Saturday. The theme of the program is “What Are You Waiting For?” Jenkins will be joined by Simon Brooks, Diane Edgecomb, Pat Spaulding and Maya Williams in a program hosted by Genevieve Aichele and woven together with music by world-fusion artist Randy Armstrong.
Jones is one of 13 children born to parents who moved from Seneca Falls, N.Y., to Portsmouth, where they first lived on Islington Street. But Jones’ most cherished memories are years spent in a big rambling mansion on Maplewood Avenue. One of her older sisters, who was in the U.S. Army, used a G.I. loan to buy the grand 1805 home built by sea captain Edward Cutts.
The Cutts Mansion was a place where she would curl up in sun-warmed window seats with a book or venture with her doll up into the cupola above the third floor to look out over the city.
“Summer just seemed to feel different back then. The breeze that blew into the kitchen on a warm morning — it caught the curtain and would blow it in toward the table. I’d go out into the yard and collect berries to put on my cereal,” she said.
Jones is working on a book of those early days, including magical Christmases.
“I had so many siblings that were older than I, and they wanted to make sure that my younger sister and I had everything — every toy they never had. I have pictures of my father at the end of the day in a big chair, sound asleep. He used to love watching us all open our presents.”
The mansion in recent years has been converted into condominiums, but in Jones’ mind, it’s still filled with music. Her parents — a mother who played classical piano and a father who played bass and trombone — hosted afternoon jam sessions that drew musicians from throughout the region.
Jones, meanwhile, was trying out her own voice, using her patient grandfather as a sounding board.
“(He) grandfather built me a little stage of a box. I’d knock on his door, go in and stand on that box with a make-believe microphone and sing. The look on his face sometimes — I know it was painful,” she said, laughing.
Carrying the weight
There were also some challenging times, from various family members’ bouts with whooping cough and pneumonia to dealing with the realities of racial and cultural divides in the community. She credits Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Portsmouth for being a grounding presence, both when she was growing up and later when she returned from Los Angeles to make her home here.
Jones says she’s still “making friends of audiences” and heeding her father’s advice to never take a performance for granted.
But throughout her music career, there are moments she’s had to take a stand.
One that sticks out is a show in Newport, R.I., at a club in the early 1980s. Legal teams in town for the high-profile trial of Claus von Bulow on charges of the attempted murder of his heiress wife, Sunny, were staying in the same hotel as Jones and wound up at one of her shows.
“There were noisy. I had a band behind me — four or five pieces — and I stopped the whole group. I told them very softly that we had come there to entertain them, not to amuse them. They quieted right down, and the show went on no problems,” she said.
The next day, she found a rose outside her door, along with an apology note and an invitation to lunch. She accepted the apology but declined the lunch.
Moments like that remind her why she stands her ground.
“I keep in the back of my head all of the Black performers who went before me — Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughan. All of (them) weren’t even allowed to sit in the same room (as audience members) after they performed. They would scoot them out the back door and into an alley.
“I think I carry a little bit of that anger and bitterness about all of these wonderful performers. Louis Armstrong’s biography is heart-wrenching. It’s hard for me to even fathom. That they still had enough heart and soul and energy to get back on that stage.”