Local jazz singer Marlena Studer celebrating new Christmas album with Kerrytown Concert House show


By Kevin Ransom
AnnArbor.com Freelance Journalist

You might say that Marlena Studer  is a bit of a Renaissance woman.

She's certainly versatile and multi-talented. She has a PhD in sociology, she worked as a sociology professor for 10 years at Tulane University in New Orleans, she’s a wine importer / entrepreneur, and she runs a non-profit group.

Oh, and, she’s also a talented, expressive, seductive jazz singer who’s worked with some of the top jazz musicians in the Ann Arbor / Detroit area since returning here in 2001. (After leaving New Orleans in ’99, she also worked as a professor at American University before coming back to Ann Arbor—she did a previous stint here when she earned her PhD from the University of Michigan in the late 1980s.)

Studer has released three outstanding albums since returning to Ann Arbor and deciding she wanted to devote more of her time to making music.

One of those, the very appealing “A Jazzy Little Christmas,” is released this month, and to celebrate, she and some of the area’s top players will perform at Kerrytown Concert House on Sunday. The show is also a CD release party, and copies of the disc will be for sale at the gig, where she’ll be backed by George Benson  on saxophone, Cliff Monear  on piano, Paul Keller  on bass and Scott Kretzer  on drums.

A silent auction will also be held at the concert, with proceeds going to the Michigan Ovarian Cancer Alliance.

Studer’s two previous albums were the equally stellar "Crazy He Calls Me" in 2004, and "Sip It Slowly" in 2006. Studer says that, “by popular request, I'll probably also do some other jazz tunes” in addition to Christmas songs.

Prior to returning to to Ann Arbor, Studer had performed with the Jubilation big band and the Jazz Barristers quartet, both in Washington. Before that, her public performing was mostly in church choirs, a capella choirs, and some musical theater.

But it was while she was living in New Orleans that she “really got bit by the jazz bug,” she says.

“That’s when I really began to listen to jazz, and feel what jazz has to offer, which is more of an improvisational dialogue between the singer and the musicians. I discovered how it had a whole different feel, compared to singing classical pieces in choirs—it allows for music to come out in unstructured way, and gives you an opportunity to create the music on the spot, and to make music based its feel and emotion.”

When Studer came back to Ann Arbor in ‘01, it was because her then-husband had been offered a job at the University of Michigan. But she got divorced in 2005, and by then, she had been off of the academic “tenure track” for several years.

So, she pondered what direction to go in, and eventually decided to start her wine business, and created a label, Solterra, which imports wines from Chile and distributes them in Michigan and various other states.

Importer Marlena Studer: Quarterbacking Bo Merlot


By Joel Goldberg

February 7, 2009 at 2 am

Joel Goldberg

Marlena Studer sports a moniker that sounds like she might have a career promoting Piesporter or Lowenbrau. But after spending 10 years in academia with a sociology PhD, the Ann Arbor transplant became a wine entrepreneur, creating and importing the Solterra label of Chilean wines since the 2001 vintage.

Last football season, it was difficult to miss the banners, store displays and tailgate parties all over Ann Arbor to promote Bo Merlot, the wine named for legendary Michigan football coach Glenn “Bo” Schembechler. Studer quarterbacks the diverse team that runs the project, which includes Bo’s widow, Cathy, local wine distributor Doug Wanty, sportscaster Jim Brandstatter, and Dr. Kim Eagle, director of UM’s Cardiovascular Institute, which receives a $2 donation from each bottle sold.

Around the same time, I found myself temporarily banished from Studer’s friends list after I called Bo Merlot a “gimmick wine” in a web article. So when we recently sat down to talk, picking that scab seemed like an optimal place to start. Here’s how things went.

Joel Goldberg : Why is the word “gimmick” in reference to Bo Merlot troublesome to you?

Marlena Studer : What we’ve tried to do with the legend of Bo is to carry on building the legacy and promoting not only his name but the cause he stood for. For his first wife, Millie, he raised millions of dollars for cancer research. That’s the kind of legacy that fits with what he represented.

To a lot of people, “gimmick” connotes something that isn’t of value in and of itself. Our wine is a value in every way; we have a quality product in the bottle and we have a great concept in packaging it and representing something that people can connect with.

JG : I frequently compare it to Marilyn Merlot from California, which has been wildly successful for years.

Marlena Studer prepares some specially-wrapped bottles of Solterra for a promotional event.

MS : People adored the woman. They’ve created something that’s a collector item, for people who love to collect all the images of what she represented. That’s why it was successful.

It’s a concept that people in the industry call a celebrity brand. A label that uses a celebrity can only be successful if it allows people who valued that celebrity to connect with it.


JG : I’ve heard that you have another life as a jazz singer. What do you like to sing?

MS : I love the old standards. I guess it’s the romance of them, everything from the ’20s to the ’50s; that was a great period of time.

JG : Who are your vocal idols?

MS : Carmen McRae had a wonderful quality to her expression, her treatment of the standards. I love Sarah Vaughan’s voice; it’s a classic, beautiful voice. I don’t adore Ella as much as some of the others, but she’s a genius with pitch and rhythm.

JG : Have you always sung?

MS : I didn’t start singing professionally until after my mother died. That was 14 years ago, in New Orleans.

The one thing she had always loved and supported was my voice, and I never really did anything with it. After she died, I said, “I want to sing.” It was something I was going to do in her memory, and I want to go and sing with a band, do a professional gig. Just one – I just wanted to have one.

JG : Who did you sing with there?

MS : I sang with a 20-piece band my first gig, on New Year’s Eve. It was at the Fairmont Hotel – I performed in front of a thousand people my first gig.

I was so nervous that my voice just shook; I had a real strong vibrato. But I did OK. Afterward the bandleader said to my husband, “She’s pretty good.”

That was just going to be a one-time thing, I thought. But then I just liked it so much that I said, “I want to do it again.”

JG : And now you’ve got two CDs out.

Marlena Studer has held a position as one of the finest jazz singers in Southeastern Michigan for about a decade. It's time the rest of the U.S. and the world caught up her talents, charm, and wit as translated into the words of a song.

Several independent recordings have been a prelude toward her eventual emergence as a breakout artist. This, coupled with many live appearances on the local level has brought Marlena to what will be the crowning heights of her already formidable career.  What solidifies this notion is the company she keeps, having worked with such brilliant Michigan musicians as bassists Paul Keller, Nick Calandro and David Stearns, drummer Scott Kretzer, the incomparable saxophonist George Benson, and especially her arranging partner and main piano accompanist Cliff Monear.

Studer has an alluring, even illuminating way of turning a phrase or adding her own sense of value to a lyric. Her take on the evergreen “Blue Skies” is simply classic. She has a ton 'o fun with “Peel Me A Grape” and “Frim Fram Sauce,” while her ever present romantic side turns love songs like “The Best Is Yet To Come” and “Better Than Anything” into convincing statements that make you understand - like most of us - she's also been there before. 
Adding at times dashes of kitsch, playfulness, humor and light hearted discourse, Marlena never forgets that first and foremost, she's an entertainer. Particularly during the holidays, she's concocted and recorded a full CD of jazzy Christmas songs, sure to warm hearts without the use of a fireplace, though kindling and yule logs accompanying a fine bottle of wine and cozy clothing can't hurt the effect.

What she will do next is anyone's guess, but it's anticipated that Marlena Studer will again deliver the goods, as she's done in the past, and for years to come.

- Michael G. Nastos - WEMU, Writer

I welcome feedback on my music.  Please click on my contact page to send an email.  I promise to respond to all emails! 

- Marlena Studer, Writer


- ***, Writer