There may not be another teenager who in 2021 is as obsessed with Frank Sinatra as Anaïs Reno. The 17-year-old singer shows off several of his albums on CD and vinyl on a shelf display in her New York City apartment bedroom.
“That’s a little concerning,” she quipped as she held up other jazz records of Sarah Vaughan, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington. “But oh well, this is me.”
“She’s really an old soul,” her mother, Julie Kurtzman, told Inside Edition Digital.
Anaïs loves collecting old records and listening to her idols, especially on vinyl, as fans have done for decades. “It’s really nice to feel that atmosphere of being at a jazz club come into your room,” she said. She took out an Ella Fitzgerald album, a gift she received for her 15th birthday, and played a bit on her record player. “It comforts me in the times that COVID can get a little bit depressing.”
Finding Her Voice as a Teen Jazz Singer
She discovered her love for jazz after as she realized how much of it consumed her life, she said. But Anaïs’ love for music should come as no surprise to those who know the teen, the daughter of an opera singer father, Camille Reno and violinist mother. Music, in a way, is in her DNA.
Anaïs was just 1 when she and her parents moved to New York City from Switzerland. One day, when Anaïs was about 5, her parents heard her singing “A Whole New World” around the house. It was something many other kids have probably done, but it caught her mother’s ear.
“I noticed this very unusual sound coming out of her mouth,” Kurtzman said. She enrolled Anaïs in voice classes. “I think the voice actually [came] from her dad.”
A few years later, when she was 8, Anaïs added jazz to her repertoire at the recommendation of her signing teacher. It was then she embarked on the journey to become a jazz vocalist.
Building a Career as a Jazz Musician
At 13, Anaïs made her singing debut at Birdland, a legendary Jazz club in Times Square. In a normal year, about 1,500 performers grace its stage. As soon as the club’s owner of 35 years, Gianni Valenti, heard Anaïs sing, he knew he had to meet her. “I get to hear a lot of singers,” Valenti said. “The one thing that I always remember was the poise that she had on stage and the delivery.”
Anaïs has gone on to perform at several prominent New York theater venues, including Carnegie Hall, Feinstein’s 54 Below, New York Philharmonic in David Geffen Hall and Lincoln Center’s Rose Hall. She’s performed on stage with Billy Stritch and the Emmet Cohen Trio.
But in the last year, such opportunities to entertain others have dwindled. She’s mostly been relegated to performing in her bedroom since live performance venues have been shut down amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“I won’t lie. I’ve been very down about it,” she said as she stood in front of a green curtain taking up most of the space in her room. It’s where she’s been filming her parts as “The Scarecrow” for her high school senior year production of “The Wizard of Oz.” Anaïs is a drama major at the prestigious LaGuardia High School in Manhattan. She admits she’s not used to performing without the adrenaline of an audience but has adapted by exercising new skills. She spends hours on Zoom with her friend, running lines and rehearsing.
“She lost a little bit of herself during this time,” Kurtzman said. “It’s been a real challenge. It’s not easy to just stay in your room and have to take classes and lessons.”
“To be transparent, it has taken a toll on my mental health,” Anaïs said. “I’m trying to work through that and not dig into it because I have a habit of doing that. But there are moments where it feels that it pays off.”
Recording Her Debut Album
Last summer she recorded her first album, “Lovesomething: Anaïs Reno Sings Ellington & Strayhorn,” which she plans to add to her growing shelf of prominent jazz artists.
It pays tribute to jazz greats, composer Duke Ellington and jazz pianist Billy Strayhorn.
“I think their music captures the complexity of the human experience,” she said of why she chose to honor them. “There’s something a little bit dark about them in terms of the harmonies and how those meshed with the melodies. And that resonates really strongly with me because of the melancholy that resides within each of their songs.”
It may seem an odd choice for a high schooler, who some might feel would be more at home singing pop songs, but the young singer has the maturity and range to pull it off. Like others, Valenti first thought such song selections for a teen were “pretty heavy stuff,” but was impressed with how she pulled it off. “She’s going to be around for a long time. And she’s going to turn a lot of heads.”
Her mom chokes up when asked about how she feels hearing her daughter sing jazz music. “I get tears in my eyes. I really do. I feel that her soul is coming out through the lyrics and the music. I feel the passion that she feels about the music.”
Finding Comfort in Jazz Clubs
It hasn’t really hit Anaïs that she has her own album, but she hopes to celebrate it with a concert at Birdland once it reopens. “That’s where it feels the most natural for me to just exist,” she said. “We walked in here today to do this interview and instantly I felt more comfortable than I felt in weeks, to be honest.”
Noting she has had a habit of isolating herself from her peers, Anaïs said she’s gotten better at trying to connect with others her age. But during that time where she said she felt the least understood, Birdland was her rock. “I don’t know what else would have happened in my life had this place not been a part of it,” she said.
Future performances might not have been possible without the hundreds of thousands raised early this year. In January, a benefit concert raised more than $411,000 to help save Birdland from shuttering. “So we, as a community, can enjoy the greatest musicians in the world, doing what they do best, in one of the most iconic clubs in the world, right here in our beloved city,” wrote producer Tom D’Angora on GoFundMe.
At Birdland, Anaïs energetically walks around the building to share its history, which is displayed along the walls. “Over here: the love of my life, Frank Sinatra,” she called out. In another room, Anaïs points to famous predecessors that inspire her: Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Miles Davis, Sammy Davis Jr., to name a few of the stars whose photos adorn the walls and whose names she mentions.
“I don’t aspire to be exactly like them because there’s no point,” Anaïs noted. “They really were one-of-a-kind, but I aspire to be reminiscent of the great mark they left on the world.”
Relating to Other Teens
Performing isn’t something she does to get people’s attention.
“It helps me feel the most understanding of myself,” she explained. “And it’s interesting because on one hand, I’ve oftentimes been put in a position where I have to be professional and very adult and very mature. But at the same time, it’s one of the only things that makes me feel like I can actually be a teenager, which I haven’t gotten to indulge in much in my life.”
Though not many teens may be known for their passion for jazz, Anaïs said it isn’t a point of conflict, either. “It doesn’t create such a divide” between her friends. “At the end of the day, we’re all just people who listen to music.”
Anaïs’s approach to social media also differs from her peers, in that she’s not really on it. “It affects my mental health,” she said firmly.
“You see people look a certain way, act a certain way, achieve certain things. It’s hard to discern what is real versus what is fake.”
Anaïs has an Instagram account, but it’s solely to promote her album. She’s not posting about the high school experiences she lost out on this year. Or the things she left behind in her locker: a few coats, some shoes and textbooks. And Anaïs definitely doesn’t remember her locker combination.
In the future, when she’s looking back on this past year, she hopes she remembers she tried her best. “I did what I could; and that there was at least some lessons that I could have learned from it.”
Outside LaGuardia, Anaïs recognizes the security guard standing outside. And she yearns to go inside. She’s still numb to all she missed out on.
“I’m sure it’ll hit me when I go to college,” she said. Anaïs will attend SUNY Purchase in the fall. There, she’ll study jazz. “I want to grow as much as I can as an artist and a person,” she said.