In the old black-and-white movie version of her life, Emily Strom might have been portrayed as a rebellious youth who shocked her preacher father by becoming – gasp! – a jazz musician.
In reality, Strom’s pastor father and musical mother have backed her forays into entertainment, even venturing into that den of iniquity, Las Vegas, to see her perform at Mandalay Bay a couple years ago.
“They’ve always been happy for me,” Strom said.
On Friday, Strom headlines the last show in the free Old Town Rocks summer concert series. The Emily Strom Trio will showcase original songs from Strom’s upcoming CD as well as her covers of songs by artists such as Norah Jones and Nina Simone.
Strom, 26, with vivid red hair and a hearty laugh, grew up in Augusta. She says her musical talent was handed down from her grandmother’s side of the family. Family gatherings often included a couple dozen relatives singing the “Hallelujah Chorus” for her grandfather.
Strom, as Emily Deaver, won the Miss Kansas title in 2008. Her photograph still adorns a billboard welcoming visitors to the city.
Lest anyone think her win in the talent portion of that competition was a fluke (she sang “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?”), she majored in jazz piano at Wichita State University, studying with the likes of John Goering and Craig Owens. After college, Strom landed a television job, doing soft features for a local station.
Then she decided to shuck that and become a bar musician.
“TV was good with my Miss Kansas experience, but my passion and heart is in music, so I left the job with the good benefits and steady hours and play in bars ‘til two in the morning,” she said.
Actually, Strom decided to become maybe the busiest bar musician in Wichita, at least over the past summer. She had some experience, having sang with the slick local cover band Annie Up during the period when that outfit snagged its Vegas gig. But doing it practically full-time (she also teaches at Air House Music Academy) was another matter.
“It has been quite the journey,” she said. “I averaged five shows a week, which is brutal.”
To keep up with that kind of schedule, Strom knew she’d need a reservoir of talented musicians to play with, so she formed two bands. The Emily Strom Trio plays mostly jazz and usually consists of Strom on piano and vocals, Kirk Russell on drums and Jordan Bollig on bass. Emily Strom and the Ladybyrds, is a pop cover band featuring bassist Miki Masuda Jarvis and drummer Kim Garey. But the line-ups and set lists are fluid. At Friday’s concert, for instance, Masuda and Garey will play because of prior commitments on the part of Russell and Bollig. William Flynn, a jazz guitar professor at WSU, will sit in as well.
“I love leading a band,” she said. “That’s something I’ve never really done before. It’s fun to put together the sets. Luckily, I’ve found people that don’t mind being led.”
Storm has also played plenty of solo gigs and duo jobs with guitarist Alex Nordine – anything to keep the calendar filled.
Strom hoped to have her new CD, “Waltz in the Dark,” available at Friday’s show, but now thinks it won’t be available until Oct. 1. The recording features 10 songs written by Strom.
“That they’re all original is really important to me. I hope it’s important to other people,” she said.
Strom said she tries to “write as honestly as I can from where I’m at,” which leads to a mix of songs ranging from light-hearted (“Valentine Day Sucks”) to the bluesy “The Bee Song” and “Over You.” (Live versions of many of her songs can be found at emilystrom.com.) Musically, it’s a blend of jazz, pop and rock. “People always say Norah Jones for (describing) my voice,” she said.
After such a busy summer, Strom is hoping to play fewer but bigger gigs. She has a sold-out show in El Dorado next month at the Old-Time Gospel Radio Show & Dinner Theater.
“Now it’s like moving into more private parties and concerts, and it’s getting there, which is exciting,” Strom said.
This story is part of an occasional series in which the spotlight is on local bands. If you’re interested in having your band considered, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Old Town Rocks concert series
What: Free concert featuring the Emily Strom Trio, with opening act the Michah White Trio
When: 6 p.m. Friday
Where: Old Town Square, Second and Mead