Karla Harris

This jazz vocalist helps children discover a love of music

Karla Harris

Photography by Martha Williams

“My parents had a great stack of very eclectic albums, and I would listen to them on Saturdays after doing my chores, sometimes putting on shows for imaginary audiences,” says Karla Harris. Her favorites? Jazz greats such as Nancy Wilson and Billie Holiday. While attending the University of Missouri-St. Louis, her love for the genre expanded when she started singing with renowned local groups like the Gateway Jazz Ensemble and St. Louis Jazz Quartet. Then her mentor, esteemed vocalist Jeanne Trevor, introduced her to arts education programs like Young Audiences, Inc. “It was a nice situation because it combined two things I love: jazz and arts outreach to children, many in local underserved schools and neighborhoods,” she says. It was the start of her decades-long career not only as a performer and recording artist with top billing at some of the country’s most notable venues and festivals but also as an educator ensuring that future generations have access to the arts.

Since moving to Atlanta in 2012, she has helped launch a half-day interactive jazz camp and a Jazz Discovery series for school children at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center, where she regularly performs as part of the Jazz on the Lawn summer concert series. She’s also a vocal jazz instructor and artist-in-residence at Kennesaw State University, where she teaches and mentors up-and-coming jazz vocalists.

“Jazz is a uniquely American thing, but it has such a small audience compared to other types of music,” she says. Regarding the value of arts education, she adds: “It seems intimidating to some people because we don’t grow up understanding it. It’s not just understanding music that is important to me. There are soft skills you learn with music, and jazz in particular, like collaboration, communication, and mutual respect. Jazz values are the same things we value as a society and as a democracy.”