Miami Beach Jazz Festival debuts with Michelle Coltrane as headliner

Michelle Coltrane didn’t initially want to follow in her famous family’s footsteps. No, the daughter of jazz greats John and Alice Coltrane had plenty of other ideas for a career while growing up.

“I wanted to be more of an athlete,” she said. “I loved horses, and I thought about veterinarian work, or having a stable. I’m just an outdoorsy kind of person.”

But eventually her genes – and upbringing – caught up to her.

“We all had to play instruments from being babies and on – violin, clarinet, piano lessons, guitar, everything,” said the singer-songwriter. “So I think one day you realize that you have a knack for it because you’re around it. Maybe it isn’t that you’re born with it, but that it’s always around, so you have a better ear for music. You’ve been exposed to different genres of music, which in turn makes you possibly a better performer if you decide to perform.”

Thankfully for a new generation of jazz fans, she acquiesced, honing her vocal talent and releasing the critically acclaimed album “I Think of You” in 1994, part of which fans will hear at the inaugural Miami Beach Jazz Festival on Saturday night at the Fillmore Miami Beach at the Jackie Gleason Theater. Coltrane, now 53 and back in the limelight after taking time off to raise her family, headlines a strong, no-nonsense-jazz lineup that includes New Orleans’ the Brass A-Holics, the duo of Brazilian jazz guitarist Joe Carter and flutist Ali Ryerson, jazz pianist Markus Gottschlich, violinist Mads Tolling, and the South Florida Jazz Orchestra featuring guest performers Coltrane and guitarist Shea Welsh, plus local sax king and Miami-Dade College professor Ed Calle.

Coltrane – who lists Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Shirley Horn as vocal inspirations – will also sing new compositions and reworked standards from her upcoming album, a collaboration with Welsh, with whom she’s been writing songs for the past two years.

“Michelle and I just really respect each other musically, so when we’re sitting together with just the ideas and all, we’re very open to trying new things,” says Welsh of their songwriting process. “We throw out ideas and just explore, and I think that’s a huge thing, where you allow each other to be very expressive, and that’s how we’ve come up with some really nice ideas on these songs.”

Coltrane and Welsh also take on some inspired cover songs, with results that sometimes challenge the crowd’s musical intellect.

“Our music is fundamentally rooted in jazz,” she said. “But because we’re kids of the ‘70s and we grew up hearing ‘80s and ‘90s music, obviously we need to put some of what we like into what we present. So we’ve been experimenting with songs that we love, like we do a version of [Foreigner’s hit ballad] “I Want to Know What Love Is,” and I think it takes everybody about two minutes to figure out that that’s what we’re doing [laughs]. We use the approach of how jazz musicians would approach the song, and we just kind of keep turning it around and make it a little bit more improvisational. We also always include “My Favorite Things” – we love to play it, and it’s a crowd-pleaser.”

Coltrane is thankful to be back where she belongs, creatively.

“I’ve kind of gone back to what I started with my music,” she said. “I became a mom, and all those things were priorities to me, being married and having a family and all that. But when my kids got older, I still kind of had an unfulfilled dream. So I’m back at it now.”