A diverse playlist awaited Vance Gilbert every time he made his way around his college campus.

"I got exposed to everything," he said. "Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor -- any and everybody who came out of that '70s acoustic scene were big then. You had jazz and funk, disco was just starting to get started ... it was a nice musical crossover."

As a student at Connecticut College in the late 1970s, he might hear the music of John Coltrane coming out of one dorm room and a Grateful Dead tune playing from another.

"That music shaped me more than anything else. Really, it was anything I could play on the guitar," he said. "Ideally, I wanted to be that guy who could play Motown on the acoustic guitar."

It is something Taylor was doing, reinterpreting R&B and soul classics and making them pop hits. Raitt, meanwhile, was helping the blues seep into the mainstream, Gilbert said.

"I wanted to expand on that," said Gilbert, who grew up in Philadelphia. "I wanted to play Gershwin and Cole Porter and Duke Ellington on acoustic guitar, and sing."

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Vance Gilbert
Westport Arts Center, 51 Riverside Ave. Sunday, March 3,
3 p.m.. $25, $10 students.

After college, Gilbert headed to Boston in 1979 to be a part of a vibrant music scene. He became a public school music and arts teacher and performed original songs at open mics at night.

"I was definitely burning the candles at both ends," he said.

The tipping point came after a trip to the former Old Vienna Coffee House in Westborough, Mass., when he and a friend caught a performance of singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin.

"As I was driving home that night, I made a plan," Gilbert said. "I would give up my teaching job, play as many open mics as I could and come back to the Old Vienna Coffee House and have my own show in two years. I even told myself that three years out, I would be on the road with Shawn Colvin."

He was off on the timing. In four months, he had his own gig at the coffeehouse and in a year he was on the road with Colvin.

"I was just tenacious," he said, laughing. "Nobody told me not to."

That fearlessness and his keen observations of the world around him drive a body of work that is influenced by jazz, folk and the blues.

"Where I am in my career now is all about the songs," he said. "I want to write songs that will leave a legacy. It's the song I want them to remember, not the way it was sung."

Still, Gilbert's voice is as much a draw as his lyrics and musicianship. It is an encompassing talent that was recalled by Brian Torff, artistic director for Jazz at the Westport Arts Center in a recent news release.

"Extraordinary artists startle us," Torff said. "That is what happened to me when I first heard Vance Gilbert. His voice, songwriting and guitar playing was a painting fully realized. The lonesome voice of the blues, the joyful spiritual, the field holler and the story-telling folk song were all there in his performance."

Gilbert will be at the Westport Arts Center Gallery Sunday, March 3. He has a rich repertoire to tap into for the afternoon performance, having released 10 albums since his 1994 debut, "Edgewise."

His latest is 2011's "Old White Men," which features songs with fully realized, complex characters who come to life through simple instrumentation and Gilbert's resonant vocals.

After 30 years in the business, Gilbert, who once thought his life's work would be that of a biology teacher and tennis instructor, has instead built up a following of ardent music fans. Still, he said he always hopes to tune new ears into his work.

"I think of myself every day as a new musician to somebody," he said.