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Children's artist Jazzy Ash wraps up a busy year with new Christmas songs

Ashli St. Armant, a.k.a. Jazzy Ash
Courtesy of Mayers Consulting
Ashli St. Armant, a.k.a. Jazzy Ash

Ashli St. Armant is a singer and educator best known as Jazzy Ash, performing New Orleans-style jazz for children far and wide. She's also written and narrated audiobooks for young people. And to get her many fans into the holiday spirit, she's recorded some Christmas tunes, including "Zat You Santa Claus," a classic tune associated with Louis Armstrong.

"He's from New Orleans, and my family is from New Orleans, at least seven generations, so he's always been dear to my heart," Ash says. "I love how playful his music is. My work is all about introducing children to the magic and improvisation of jazz."

St. Armant, 37, lives in Southern California, where she grew up. Her mother was and still is a preschool music teacher, and used to run a daycare at their home. "That was really crazy and cool, to have all these little kids, and I was surrounded by children's music," she recalls. "I suppose that's how I got into children's music."

She studied musical theater in college and dreamed of singing on Broadway. Then she got married, and as she raised two sons, she taught music to preschoolers like her mother had. Her sons are now teens, and in October, she got married for the second time.

For the past six years, St. Armant has performed around the country with her band, Jazzy Ash and the Leaping Lizards. During gigs she often talks to kids about the history of Black America. And she shares stories about her family, including her grandfather, who'd been a civil rights leader in New Orleans.

"They ask me questions about my family like, 'Does everybody in your family sing?' I say, 'Not everybody, just me and my wife—my kids don't sing.' And they go, 'Your wife?'" she says. "Just walking through America as a Black queer woman speaks volumes. What I pride myself on is that I have a way of presenting it in a way that's approachable and fun. And in that way, I think I'm making my grandfather proud."

Last summer, St. Armant contributed to a biographical series called Rebel Girls. One of the profiles she narrated was about poet Maya Angelou, who once was a streetcar conductor in San Francisco. Another story was about Leah Chase, a famous New Orleans chef who inspired the story The Princess and the Frog. Fun fact: "My mother went to school with Leah Chase's daughter, who is also a jazz singer," St. Armant says.

She's also written her own original stories for Audible. "I thought this would be a cool opportunity to reimagine my own childhood," she says, "because I spent a lot of my summers and holidays in New Orleans." At the time, she recalls, she "had no idea that the French Quarter was across the river, and all this amazing food and rich history and pirates and all these things. And I thought, what if I had had the chance to explore that? What if I had solved mysteries?"

Solving mysteries in New Orleans is the premise of a series of the young-adult audiobooks she's written about a teen detective named Viva Durant. In Viva Durant and the Secret of the Silver Buttons, the young sleuth tries to find a hidden treasure.

St. Armant also collaborates with other children's musicians. One album she sang on recently, Actívate by 123 Andrés (that's uno-dos-tres Andrés) is now vying for a Grammy for Best Children's Music Album. "I know very few artists like Ashley," says singer Andrés Salguero, "an amazing performer with a voice that is just just soulful and rich and and playful, and then at the same time a writer touching so many young hearts."

This has been a busy year for St. Armant. She recently released her second Viva Durant audiobook, and as Jazzy Ash dropped an album called Songs from the Playground, on which she reimagined African-American folk tunes sung by children in the 1920s. For another album, Good Foot, she tapped into Black American sounds from the 1950s and '60s. Right now she's working on a musical she describes as "Annie in the Antebellum South," and she's written and recorded "Fly Through the Sky," an original Christmas song.

"That tune is about the magic of the night before Christmas, where you're hoping to catch a little glimpse of Santa Claus," St. Armant says. "I love all that kind of stuff. I think I still have that magic."

She really does.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.