Corrections or additions?
This article by Richard J. Skelly was prepared for the October 4,
2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Dianne Reeves’ Moment
Vocalist Dianne Reeves has made her mark in the world
of jazz by blending pop, rock, and jazz standards into her own
singing style. While she considers herself a jazz singer first, Reeves
has caught the attention of music critics in recent years for the
way she seamlessly blends a tune from Sting into one popularized by
Cat Stevens into one popularized by Sarah Vaughan or Ella Fitzgerald.
What does Reeves say to the jazz purists who are out there, those
snooty critics who don’t know Joni Mitchell from Joan Armatrading,
both songwriters who are greatly admired by Reeves?
"One of the things that I do is I take the popular music of this
day and time that addresses who I am as a woman in this new
I want to sing about things that I really know about, and jazz is
the music that is my foundation," says Reeves, who comes to
Theater Friday, October 6. In the heyday of Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah
Vaughan, the latter a Newark born-and-bred singer who turned the jazz
world on its ear in the early 1950s, "they felt free to stretch
out and do things that were the popular music of the day. All of them
did it. And it’s the same thing with me. One of the things a jazz
singer did in those days was take the standards of the time and give
them a jazz sensibility."
After all, Reeves, 42, began her career as a vocalist by singing jazz
in Denver — not a town known for its jazz scene — at age 13,
encouraged by her uncle and her mother and father.
"There wasn’t a large or sizable scene there," she explains,
"but there was one, and the wonderful thing was there were a lot
of jazz musicians who came through Denver on their way to Los
"I worked a lot with Gene Harris and Blue Mitchell and then my
uncle, who was a great jazz bassist but was also with the Colorado
Symphony for 42 years. He gave me my jazz education. Later I worked
with Clark Terry as well," she adds. Reeves was raised by a mother
who worked as a nurse and a father who worked for the post office
in Denver. Both were very supportive of her earliest desire to become
a singer, she says.
Clark Terry, the St. Louis-born and bred trumpeter,
was also very supportive. Terry can safely take credit for discovering
Reeves’ genius — how she can wrap around a lyric and make it
her own — because he first heard her sing in her teens.
"My high school jazz band won a competition and we ended up
in Chicago at the Jazz Educators Convention and he took me under his
wing," she explains. Terry gave Reeves the chance to shine in
a variety of settings, always with great musicians, Reeves says.
"Every opportunity he had to take me out on the road and sing
at festivals, he did it. He gave me my first opportunity to sing with
a full orchestra as well as the chance to work with some great
like Louie Bellson, Eddie `Lockjaw’ Davis, George Duvivier, Grady
Tate, Jimmy Rowles, Roland Hanna. He always surrounded me with the
best jazz musicians."
Attending the University of Colorado, Reeves studied voice, and while
the school had a jazz program, it was just starting out, she recalls.
In less than two years she left college and moved to Los Angeles to
start her career under her own name. There she could get some of the
lucrative studio work that is available to people with great voices.
"My uncle found out I could sing when I was 13," she recalls,
"he came to me with a big pile of records, including Billie
But the one that really got me excited was by Sarah Vaughan. She was
the voice that opened doors for me and inspired me."
Her current album, "In The Moment" (BlueNote Records), reminds
this writer of the late great Vaughan. "People say there are
of Sarah Vaughan in what I do, but I don’t really think so," she
argues, "I’m very flattered when people say that, but listening
to Carmen McRae, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah, Betty Carter, the one thing
they all showed me is that one must have their own unique approach
and their own unique voice. That is what I’ve been working on all
"In The Moment" also showcases some of Reeves’ original
inspired by her own experiences as an African-American woman in the
new millennium. When told she’s a gifted songwriter, the self-effacing
Reeves says it is not her primary focus.
"Writing songs is not something I do every day. I mean, I write
songs but I wouldn’t call myself a songwriter like I’d call myself
a singer," she explains. "I’m kind of casual about it. I find
things I want to address on my records but I’m not someone who writes
songs a lot. I like people who write in story form and ballads as
well as talk about specific events or places, people who lay pictures
into their lyrics." She says she admires "more folk-oriented
writers, people like Joan Armatrading or Joni Mitchell, their songs
are not in AA-BA format. The kinds of songs I like to write are more
free-form and they tell stories."
"I grew up listening to Motown music, so I like people like Marvin
Gaye, Aretha Franklin, and loved Gladys Knight. When fusion came on
the scene, I loved that, because to me that was the first kind of
world music, or musicians embracing each other with respect and a
desire to learn about different musics and different cultures,"
she explains. "I also loved Celia Cruz and a lot of different
types of Cuban and African music as well."
"In The Moment," her 10th album for BlueNote Records, was
recorded in a large studio before an audience of 300. At her shows
in jazz clubs and McCarter and NJPAC this month, it’s likely Reeves
and her band will improvise something, because although she will work
with a set list to get started, her real genius is as an improviser.
Asked about a first big break, she says "the biggest break of
my career with Palo Alto as well as with Blue Note has been that
always given me total artistic freedom, and an opportunity to develop
and experiment and experience all those things that are in me so that
I could define the music for myself. That’s really the thing I
more than anything."
At McCarter Theatre and at NJPAC, Reeves’ band — "don’t call
them my backing band, they’re my band," she says — will
Otmaro Ruiz, piano and synthesizers; Reginald Veal, bass; Munyungo
Jackson, percussion, and Rocky Bryant, drums.
"Because jazz music has been my passport into many different
of music and has been my passport to travel the world, I don’t believe
in categorizing music. There’s just so many possibilities out
True to form for a world class vocalist who believes so much in the
power of composing things on the spur of the moment and being
creative, Reeves adds that "the audience should come out and be
themselves, and if the music feels good to them, then it’s wonderful.
I don’t expect them to be anything other than what they are, because
that’s all I’m gonna be. I really like to allow the moment to be what
it is for the night."
— Richard J. Skelly
Princeton, 609-258-2787. $25 & $28. Friday, October 6, 8 p.m.
Saturday, October 14, 8 p.m.
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