NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Although she considers herself "a baby in the music business," Nayo Jones commanded the Congo Square stage at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival Friday with the grace and fire of a seasoned veteran.
"This is such a huge festival and I'm just honored to be on the bill with such seasoned artists," she said in an interview with The Associated Press. "I think what has worked in my favor has been that I've never tried to emulate anyone else though I'm inspired and influenced by many. I'm just me and I think that those in the audience can sense my genuine love for what I do and that's catching on like wildfire. I'm just blown away by it."
In her festival debut, the Phoenix, Ariz., native drew fans in with sultry, velvety tones on jazz standards like "Route 66" and "My Funny Valentine," as well as tunes from her own release, "My Name is Nayo Jones."
"That felt great," Jones said after the show. "I have this rush of relief and it's always great to see the crowd respond to the stuff I wrote."
George Salario, of Long Beach, N.Y., said he was attracted to Jones' voice and stayed in front of the stage as the sun's rays beamed down because of it.
"She's got a great voice, so up and down and real smooth," he said. "She makes it seem so easy, like she's just breathing."
George Hochschwender, of Andover, N.J., said Jones' singing was "first-rate."
"I heard her from a distance and said, 'Listen to that,'" he said. "You know it's good when you get shivers in this weather."
Salario said one of the reasons he returns year after year to the festival is because of opportunities to hear new acts like Jones.
Sayonara Davis, of New Orleans, said she'd heard Jones perform in other venues in the city and was glad the festival booked her for this year's event.
"Giving new artists a chance to get heard is one of the festival's greatest services," she said. "And, we get treated when surprise artists pop up like today."
Festival-goers out early to hear Jones' set were rewarded when trumpeter Kermit Ruffins appeared and sang "On The Sunny Side of the Street."
Ruffins said he recruited Jones to work with him after hearing her sing about four months ago.
"She's got a strong voice and she's such a little bitty thing," he said. "When you can sing like that, people love her. I'm so blessed to have her talent backing me up."
Jones said Ruffins told her he was going to "put her to work," and he's been a man of his word. "I've been all over with him, New York twice, Florida, Mississippi," she said.
Jones, who holds a degree in economics from Spelman College, is a classically-trained flutist and never really saw herself as a singer. Her father, jazz pianist William "Doc" Jones, had other ideas.
"I can't say that I wanted to do this," Jones said. "I remember when I was 14 or 15, saying to him 'I don't know why you're pushing me so hard. It's not like I'm going to do this professionally.' And I really believed that."
She had a 9-to-5 job until her dad had a fundraiser for one of his nonprofits and he asked her to sing. She said she suffered stage fright when she sang, but not when she played flute.
"But the audience loved it and my dad was a working musician so I would come out and do one or two songs during his shows and that snowballed into venues asking, 'Are you bringing your daughter?' And now here I am. So I guess it's always been in my destiny."
Jones said she was nervous before the show but "up for the challenge."
"If I go out there and have a good time and do what I do and share my gift, I think it will be all right. I just want to deliver for the fans."
Melissa Lomax, celebrating her 58th birthday, said Jones more than delivered.
"I think she has a beautiful voice and a hell of a band backing her up," said Lomax, of Raleigh, N.C. "What a way to celebrate my birthday! It's been a most incredible experience."