From food demos to jazz singer (with video)
Music was always in Maureen Washington's orbit, but cooking demonstrations tapped her inner performer
Maureen Washington takes great delight in being called slightly outside the box.
"I've been a crazy woman," Washington says with a big laugh. "I've worn a lot of hats in my life. I've been a million different people."
Washington, 45, is a selftaught singer, teacher, entertainer, organizer and storyteller whose personality could be classified as larger-than-life. Wacky, perhaps.
The gregarious singer with the solid-gold voice mines the jazz and blues repertoire for her concerts, but that's only half of what makes her so interesting. A conversation with Washington is full of stories that almost always end in laughter, tales you might consider too good to be true if the person telling them wasn't so eminently likable.
She was born and raised in Prince George, the youngest child in a family that still has strong ties to the area (Washington's mother has lived in Prince George for 72 years).
Washington was exposed to music throughout her childhood. Her tastes didn't always mesh with those of her parents and friends, so she developed some unique musical choices in her teens.
Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons were a favourite, to the surprise of everyone. "I was always a little bit behind whatever kids were listening to. I loved the '50s. I loved the '60s. You could put on a piece of classical music and I was moved."
Something musical was always in her orbit, though music didn't truly come alive for Washington until she was in high school.
"I was in the choir, and everything I did - eat, sleep, drink - was music or anything to do with theatre and the arts."
She graduated from Duchess Park secondary with no firm direction. She eventually enrolled in music classes at a college in Alberta, but her education became sidetracked almost immediately after Washington got married at 21.
She returned to Prince George and by the time she was 28, she had given birth to five children, each of whom she home-schooled for seven years.
Those days, as Washington jokingly describes them, were her "dark years" as a performer. She stopped singing - to anyone other than her kids - and was working for a direct-sales kitchen supply company, Pampered Chef, doing cooking demonstrations for clients.
Surprisingly enough, it was during those presentations that she found her calling. "I started to realize I was an entertainer. I wasn't a sales person per se, because I had this shtick when I gave my spiel. It became an event."
Bosses at her company intimated that Washington should resume her career as a performer. Being asked to sing at a company conference "spurred me back into it" for good, she said.
It didn't take Washington long to settle into her new job. Music, as it turned out, became her saviour. "When I was 26 years old, I looked old. I felt old. But then I hit 35 and I started to look younger, feel younger."
Her first kick at the can was an album of original alt-folk songs. Shortly thereafter, in 2002, she got hired to sing for a Prince George jazz band, Bop, a decision that would eventually bring her to Victoria.
When Daniel Cook, lead guitarist of Bop, decided to move to Victoria in 2006, he told Washington to do the same. "I actually don't know why I thought it would be OK," Washington said with a big laugh. "I said, 'I have five kids and a mortgage, are you freaking kidding me?' "
He wasn't. Cook left Prince George for Victoria in March of that year. Four months later, Washington had sold her house and was following suit, albeit with no discernible employment options.
Against all odds, music wound up paying her bills. The pairing of Cook and Washington continues - they perform together Friday and Saturday night at Vista 18 in the Chateau Victoria Hotel - but the soulful singer has begun to work extensively with others, too, some of whom qualify as the best the city has to offer.
That was her on-the-job training. "All my training has come from doing. The amount I have worked with Karel Roessingh over the last two years, he's been my teacher."
Now that her children are growing up and moving out - the youngest is now 17 - a new journey lies ahead for Washington.
She'll face it headfirst, no matter the outcome.
"When I'm 90, I'm not going to go, 'What would have happened had I moved to Victoria?' I can say, 'This is what happened when I moved to Victoria.' "
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