Famed jazz performer, Scientologist
By STEPHANIE HAYES, Times Staff Writer
Published November 11, 2007
CLEARWATER - She clapped wildly at the swirl of skirts and crinoline on stage. She gazed at the beautiful dancing woman.
Amanda Ambrose's parents owned a cosmetology school across from the local African- American theater in St. Louis. The theatre musicians let little Amanda sit on their laps as they played the organs that rose from the stage.
She was 5 years old, but at that moment, she wanted to be like that lady - turned out, it was Josephine Baker.
As a child, she took dance and piano lessons and sang in her church. At 18, Ms. Ambrose started singing jazz in local nightclubs. Then came Hollywood, Chicago, New York and beyond.
There was the Rainbow Room, Florentine Gardens and Carnegie Hall. NBC, ABC and CBS. Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin. Live Shakespeare in New York.
Ms. Ambrose astounded her children.
"I couldn't believe this incredible music," said her daughter, Naomi Kaye. "Seeing the audience, the way they responded. They would clap and stand and cheer for her."
She hosted parties and hobnobbed with Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong. The kids would sneak from their room in pajamas and crawl along the floor to watch.
Once, Ms. Ambrose found them.
"You can come join the party if you want," she said.
During a performance at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, Ms. Ambrose opened her mouth to sing. Nothing came out. A doctor told her she needed to take time off.
"You wouldn't ask a doctor or a lawyer to get a part-time gig or get a real job," she told him.
Soon after, she developed a vocal program for pop singers called Voicercise, which Kaye still teaches. And her family said Ms. Ambrose's own voice came back stronger than before.
"She kind of grew at a very rapid rate," said her daughter, Stephanie Hamilton. "She was always looking for answers."
* * *
She grew up in an African Methodist Episcopal Church. Churches felt like home.
"For black people, that's where we live," said Hamilton. "Everything that's good about our community comes form the church."
Church was never far, even after a traumatic moment took her on a new path.
In the '60s, Ambrose volunteered at her child's school. One day, she heard a noise in the bathroom, Hamilton said - on the floor, an 11-year-old boy writhed with a needle in his arm.
"She picked him up and started to run with him," Hamilton said. "He looked up and said, 'Please help me,' and he died in her arms."
Soon after, she became interested the Church of Scientology, and how it could improve African-American social standing, education and literacy.
Ms. Ambrose became one of the first black Scientologists.
"She was already famous," said the Rev. Charles Kennedy, pastor of the Glorious Church of God in Christ in Tampa. "She wanted something to help the African-American community. She embraced it fully."
Along with her daughter, Ms. Ambrose founded Ebony Awakenings, a group that has worked to honor African-Americans and create partnerships between Scientology and churches, including Kennedy's.
"It was a dream for her," Hamilton said.
* * *
She never really slowed down.
Men always flirted with Ms. Ambrose, whom her daughter said never had a wrinkle. When Hamilton asked how she stayed so vivacious, Ms. Ambrose said, "Try to keep up, Stephanie."
She and Hamilton lived together in Clearwater. They'd see live theatre, listen to music and study Scientology together.
Sick recently with colon cancer, she stayed heavily involved in Ebony Awakenings. And she dearly wanted to see her 18-year-old grandson's rock band perform live.
The night before she died, the band came over and serenaded her with an acoustic set.
On Oct. 26, she died. She was 82.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at email@example.com or 727 893-8857.
Born: April 18, 1925.
Died: Oct. 26, 2007.
Services: Celebration of life at 1 p.m. today at Glorious Church of God in Christ, 4701 E Hanna Ave., Tampa.