Northeast Ohio’s Ava Preston is rising the ranks as a jazz singer-songwriter
Singer-songwriter Ava Preston is making a name for herself in jazz, most recently performing in front of 4,000 attendees at the 2023 Monterey Jazz Festival in California.
She had the opportunity to play a smaller gala for some of her musical heroes, including Herbie Hancock, Christian McBride and Dianne Reeves, before the main event.
Preston sang with the prestigious Next Generation Jazz Orchestra at the festival, which has a tradition steeped in supporting student musicians and presenting young rising stars to thousands of listeners.
“It's like a handoff to the next generation, that's what they were telling me,” Preston said. “They were excited to see where jazz goes.”
Preston was also named a 2023 YoungArts Finalist and Silver Award Winner for Jazz-Voice this year.
She has performed at jazz clubs throughout Akron, Cleveland, New York and Nashville and is gaining momentum both in the local music scene and the broader jazz community.
“The most important thing is: You do it for the music. That's what I learned,” she said. “Everything is for the music. It's not for the ego.”
Finding her voice
Preston, who is 19 years old, was first introduced to jazz as a child in Cleveland by discovering Canadian pianist and singer Diana Krall on an iPod.
When Preston was a toddler, she sang along with songs on Disney DVDs, and a piano teacher noticed she had perfect pitch.
“I could hear the notes and understand what they were and name them no matter what pitch it is,” Preston said.
She began listening to jazz vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae, and she tried to emulate their distinct voices.
“It was difficult at first, I mean especially the scat singing,” Preston said. “But now I feel like I've really improved on that front.”
When she became interested in honing her skills as a jazz singer, Preston attended various songwriting camps and started collaborating with combos and big bands around Northeast Ohio, like the Joey Skoch Trio, Swing Time Big Band and Swing Era Big Band.
“Jazz is a very small world, and music in general is a very small world. You're going to run into people again and again and again,” she said.
She attended a songwriting camp with Steve Bogart, who penned songs for country stars like George Strait and Rascal Flatts, at the Akron Civic Theatre.
“Everything is for the music. It's not for the ego.”Ava Preston
Preston wrote her first original song during this camp, then traveled to Nashville to meet several mentors who have helped her refine her songwriting skills.
“It sparked something in me,” she said. “It's like, ‘I’ve got to write. That's what I have to do.’”
While noted for her jazz sensibilities, Preston incorporates blues, ballads, pop and indie-rock into her sound.
Her original songs are inspired by heavier themes throughout history, along with modern issues like bullying and the opioid crisis.
“I was bullied heavily for about seven years. It was by everybody. I've found for a lot of artists and creatives, you just don't fit in, you don't fit the mold,” she said.
Learning from accomplished mentors
Preston credits the Tri-C Jazz Fest Academy as pivotal in helping her navigate her music career when she was just getting started.
“Everything I've learned about being a leader and figuring out how to do gigs, figuring out how to balance my schedule, how to just, you know, get through life in general, I've learned from there, and I've learned from my mentor, Dominick Farinacci,” she said.
“He’s like a second father to me sometimes,” Preston said. “Like we call him ‘the jazz father’ in our circle of friends.”
Farinacci graduated from Julliard in New York, which Preston said is a contender on her list of music schools she would like to attend after finishing her studies at Kent State.
Although Preston has performed on large stages, released her own original music and won several awards for her singing, she is still eager to learn and become a more skilled musician.
“There’s just so many great schools, and I just want to throw my name in the hat and just see what comes out, see who wants to teach me,” she said.