Nikki Yanofsky is correcting her mother.
"No, Mom. It was 2005 the first time," she says. "I remember because I was in Grade 5, and I got that shirt, the one with the ruffles, and I wore it there. I remember it very, very clearly," she asserts, looking at her mother who is seated near her in the kitchen of the large family home in the Montreal suburb of Hampstead. "It was in December, and then in 2006, I did the [Montreal International]jazz festival."
Her mother is obviously accustomed to her teenager's exuberant confidence. "That's right," her mother says slowly in recollection.
"Of course it's right," the young Yanofsky responds brightly. "Look who you're dealing with." She taps her forehead. "Best memory." She laughs.
"You're right." Her mother nods, certain now of the date.
"Say that again," her daughter implores.
"You're right," her mother repeats, laughing.
"That's what I like to hear," Yanofsky says, bobbing her head of dark, glossy hair in a show of approval. Her confidence is precocious, but charming. She offers a huge smile, complete with shiny braces. "It's not very often I get to hear that," she continues, slapping a hand lightly on her thigh in mock congratulation of herself.
Yanofsky is 13 years old, 5-foot-1 in height and weighs 89 pounds. Her heft is all in her spirited personality and in her prodigious talent as a jazz singer who can scat sing like the legend she most admires, Ella Fitzgerald. Since performing in Montreal in December, 2005, with her father's garage band at a local club for a fundraiser, she has quickly caught the attention of the music industry's biggest players.
She has performed at several international jazz festivals and charity events. "Stunning doesn't begin to describe it," wrote Globe and Mail jazz critic J.D. Considine of her performance at last summer's Toronto Jazz Festival.
In the spring of that year, under the guidance of Tommy Lipuma, the legendary chairman of Verve Music Group, she recorded Fitzgerald's Airmail Special for We all Love Ella: Celebrating the First Lady of Song, a tribute album to mark the 90th anniversary of the jazz singer's birth. She had learned the complicated vocal-improvisation piece in two days. Produced by another music legend, Phil Ramone, the album includes performances by Natalie Cole, Gladys Knight, Diana Krall, k.d. lang and Michael Bublé, among others. She's in discussions with Ramone about recording her first solo album.
But her biggest gig is around the corner. On the heels of two concerts in Toronto early next month, she will make her debut at New York's fabled Carnegie Hall on Feb. 8, which happens to be her 14th birthday.
"It's, like, freakishly huge," she says, laughing. "Any kid my age probably wouldn't know what Carnegie Hall is."
Marvin Hamlisch, the multi-award-winning conductor, composer and pianist, will lead the New York Pops orchestra in the evening's program of swing-era classics. Grammy Award-winner Dee Dee Bridgewater headlines the event. Yanofsky will sing When You Wish Upon a Star and Fitzgerald's hip version of Old MacDonald Had a Farm.
"I don't feel that I've changed," Yanofsky says, as she chats animatedly at the kitchen table, popping fresh blueberries into her mouth. "My parents have succeeded in keeping me grounded, because they always teach me that if you believe that you can grow as an artist and as a person, you'll never get too cocky or full of yourself because you always feel that there is room to grow."
Her parents, both native Montrealers, who have been married for 21 years, describe their daughter as "a force" who has commanded attention from an early age. Her 50-year-old father, Richard, a principal and founder of WowWee, a toy company, has always had a studio in the house for his band, which he has since folded as he focuses his musical interest on his daughter's career. He plans to remain her manager.
"She would come and noodle around with us from an early age," he recalls.
"And then they were, like, wait, something is weird here. She can sing!" Yanofsky gleefully exclaims.
"I always say that she has a photographic ear," he explains. "She hears something once or twice, and it's done. I've never met anyone that musical in my life."
With her two older brothers, Michael, now 19, and Andrew, 17, she would often give musical performances during family meals on Sunday night. When she was 2, she learned all the songs in the hit musical Rent and would compete with her brothers about who could remember the most words on long car rides to the family ski chalet in Stowe, Vt. At 4, she was singing Britney Spears songs. At 5, she discovered the Beatles. By 8, she was hooked on jazz.
"She found jazz by herself. She is driven to knock off exact replicas of Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Charles, and so these people became her teachers," explains her father, adding that his daughter often begs him to help her learn jazz and R & B classics.
Yanofsky didn't take any formal voice lessons until last year. "Now I know how you are supposed to breathe," she says, leaping to her feet to give a demonstration.
The family purposefully kept her talent under wraps until that fundraising event in December, 2005. They wanted her to develop her talent without the influence of the music industry, which can be damaging to child prodigies.
"We said to each other that night that our lives were going to change. We had let the cat out of the bag," says Nikki's mom, Elyssa Yanofsky, 46. Even though they were aware of her musical gift, they were not inclined to enter her in talent shows. "The JonBenet Ramsey thing, that's not my speed," Elyssa Yanofsky says, wrinkling her nose. "I am not a stage mother. She is her own force, and we just go with it. We don't push her."
"I pull them," the younger Yanofsky pipes up brightly, explaining that if she goes too long without being onstage she feels she is in withdrawal. "I think my parents were worried that, 'Oh my God, she's going to get discovered.' But now they see that I've put in a lot of work for this, and now they see I'm capable of doing it."
Last year, her father, uncle and three other investors started A440, a company set up to handle her career. Her father hired a vocal coach and musicians who rehearse with her three times a week. "We are prepared to invest up to seven figures," Richard Yanofsky states. To date, they have spent close to $200,000, he figures. "We want to keep her career really organic and natural. If we can seed her with a brand centred around art and goodness, it will stand her in good stead for when she wants to sell a record. We have created in Montreal her own private Juilliard [School] with access to a studio, to shows and to musicians."
With his background in business and marketing, he carefully planned how to introduce his daughter to the music industry. "From a visibility perspective, from a credibility perspective, I wanted to have her ushered into the industry by its leaders." He has been able to arrange for introductions to "everybody at the highest level," he says, including Canadian music producer David Foster, singer-guitarist John Mayer and jazz icon Wynton Marsalis.
Watching Nikki move about the house, it's clear that her family has had little choice but to organize itself around her. She is a diva in a little girl's body. She speaks her mind with no inhibition or threat of censure from her parents. She poses for photographs as effortlessly as she might skip rope, if she had the time.
"It's like we're living with a Wayne Gretzky or a Louis Armstrong or an Ella Fitzgerald," her father says, with a slightly dazed look of awe.
"She's an old soul," her mother says. "It's like she's been doing this for thousands of years."
A maturity beyond her years has not always been easy to handle, however. "Lots of the girls don't get me," Yanofsky says. "I often feel like an outcast. And I don't talk too much about what I'm doing, because they'd get all snooty and think I'm being egotistical."
Currently enrolled in Grade 8 on a flexible learning program at St. George's, a private co-ed school in Montreal, she is a top student.
A year and a half ago, girls in her class put wads of chewing gum in her hat and boots. "No one ever owned up to it," she says with a pout.
Were they jealous?
"Oh, maybe," she says, waving one hand dismissively in the air. "To each his own. I have no clue. I didn't do anything to them. I just had to get over it."
The friend that never lets her down is the microphone. In rehearsal, she is all force and nuance, using her voice like a finely tuned instrument.
Her father enters the studio to listen to her after returning from doing some errands.
"That's good," he says to her as she finishes When You Wish Upon a Star.
"I know," she replies with a laugh.
"Can't I hear [Stevie Wonder's] Signed, Sealed, Delivered?" he asks, referring to a song in her jazz repertoire. She tells him she has already rehearsed it.
"You'll hear it in Jamaica," she squeals, holding his hands as she leans affectionately into his lap. The band is heading south for the Jamaican Jazz Festival this weekend.
"He pays the bills," the drummer cajoles.
"Yeah, but I'll be paying them really soon," she retorts playfully as she steps up onto the wooden platform to indulge her father's wishes.
Luminato arts festival, in partneship with TD Canada Trust, presents Nikki Yanofsky in her solo concert debut Feb. 5 and 6, in Toronto.