At first blush, it’s a little hard to take Tim Ray all that seriously as a singer.
When Jazzper, the trio he fronts, takes the stage at the Ozark Cafe in Jasper not long after 7:30 on a February Saturday night, Ray’s wearing an orange plaid shirt, black jeans and bright white tennis shoes. A little later, he’ll be called off stage to go fix the credit-card machine.
And the first song he announces, right after he puts on a pair of dark sunglasses, is a Ray Charles tune.
Odds are that at some point during Jazzper’s 90-minute set, unless you’re a fan of Celine Dion or Josh Groban, you will wince.
But the good news is, it’ll come when Ray announces a song — before he actually starts singing. He will say the words “When You Wish Upon a Star,” or perhaps “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and you will think, there is no way this can end well.
But then…it does, in large part because Ray chooses to use his powers for good, and not for evil. He trained as an opera singer in college and has years of musical theater experience under his belt, and he has a warm, rich, wonderfully versatile baritone voice. He’s got the vocal chops and easy stage presence to carry off just about anything. But he’s content just to sing, instead of approaching every number as a chance to show off his Big-time Trained Opera Singer Guy voice. He gets that different musical styles call for different singing styles. And while he’s not afraid to throw in some jazz hands when he feels it’s appropriate, he never approaches the level of histrionics that have become de rigueur for “serious” pop singers these days.
He’s funny, too. He’ll bait you with a stick-straight first verse of “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” then switch you with the quick addition of a blonde Rosanne Rosanadana-esque wig and a pair of white plastic cat-eye glasses before continuing in an over-the-top falsetto on Bess’ part in the second verse. It’s a cheap laugh, sure, but it works.
So what’s a guy this talented doing running a restaurant in a tiny, isolated Ozarks village? Blame his children. Tim Ray is originally from Crossett and his wife, Mona, from Pine Bluff. They met in college in Texas, where they were both music majors. Ray had been working as a medical consultant in Houston when, about six years ago, the family had the opportunity to move anywhere they chose. They put the question to their two children, then 11 and 9, and the kids chose Jasper, where they’d come several times on vacation. The Rays’ first business venture was a gift shop, but Mona had always wanted to own a restaurant, so eventually they opened a soup-and-sandwich place.
In the process of settling in, they met Jim Westbrook, the area’s lone architect and a lifelong piano player, and Jim’s wife, Kathy, who played the guitar. The three played together for the first time at a fund-raiser in what was then the empty building next to the Rays’ deli, and Ray liked the acoustics so much he and Mona ended up buying the building and expanding into it. They built a stage at one end, and Jazzper became a Saturday night fixture. When Kathy made a temporary move to Wisconsin recently, they brought in George Decharm, a surgical nurse from Harrison, to replace her.
Ray’s just as comfortable singing Jerry Lee Lewis and Patsy Cline as he is Broadway gems and arias — he can throw in a growl that would probably make his college voice teacher apoplectic — so a typical Jazzper show hops nimbly from genre to genre. The group’s non-classical songs are all crowd-pleasers, but Ray said he actually gets more requests for songs of the serious-singing variety.
“I’ve always been a firm believer that if you only sing one type of music, you’re not a very good musician,” he said.
Jazzper performs just about every Saturday night — they take weeks off occasionally during the winter — starting at 7:30 p.m., or whenever Ray’s able to get away from the kitchen. Admission is free (they’d obviously prefer you eat a meal if you take up a table, but the food and the prices are decent), but every week they pass the hat around for some local charity or neighbor who’s down on his luck.
Even without tourists around, they fill every table in the 100-seat restaurant by 6:15. Once the Buffalo River opens for business, it’s standing-room-only.
“This is just fun,” Ray said. “We’re just trying to have a good time — it’s just turned into this weird thing.”