Tierney Sutton. Courtesy photo


Tierney Sutton, who joined the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music faculty this fall, was a singing cocktail waitress when she found her vocation. On a summer break from college, she landed a job with the Heidel Honeys, a vocal quartet dressed like the icon on a bottle of St. Pauli Girl beer. With organ accompaniment, they performed for vacationers in Green Lake, Wisconsin.

But it wasn’t the Heidel Honeys who inspired her music career. Her muse was on the other side of the street.

“When I crossed the street to hear this jazz trio, I realized that all of the songs they played were like the few songs I didn’t hate in our shows,” Sutton says. “Before then, I knew I could sing, but I didn’t think there was any purpose for it. Why bother to sing a cover of somebody else’s tune that is going to be not as good as the original version? I didn’t know there was such a thing as improvisation or taking a song and making it your own.”

Since then, Sutton has made a lot of songs her own. Her 12 recordings—which have earned nominations for eight Grammy Awards—include albums that reimagine the songs of Joni Mitchell, Sting, Frank Sinatra, and Bill Evans. She also provided the soundtrack for the 2016 Clint Eastwood movie Sully.

Sutton, 54, grew up in Milwaukee and has lived in Los Angeles since 1992. While there, she taught part-time while touring internationally. She wasn’t looking for a full-time teaching gig in the Midwest when IU contacted her and brought her to campus. But when she visited, she says, “The vibe was great.”

Not that she will leave LA altogether, which remains home to her musical family. In a field where musicians rotate in and out of groups, The Tierney Sutton Band has had the same personnel since 1993.

“Jazz is very much an art form of consultation,” Sutton says. “People being affected by one another, people listening carefully to one another, people being changed by one another. I think it’s a beautiful metaphor for a kind of problem-solving that the world needs more of.”

Sutton will perform in a concert including several vocal jazz groups on November 4, at 8 p.m. in IU’s Auer Hall.