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Dianne Reeves: Fearless

Though she’s one of the planet’s most popular and critically acclaimed jazz vocalists, Dianne Reeves is not about to rest on her laurels. “When I listen to my early records, I hear that I was fearless,” she says, reminiscing about her four-decade career. “But I think I’m still fearless!” To date, she has released nearly 20 albums, the latest—2014’s Beautiful Life—earning her a fifth Grammy Award and boasting a multi-generational list of guest artists. In a recent conversation with Jeff Tamarkin, associate editor of JazzTimes magazine, Reeves discussed her musical inspirations and how she was ultimately able to find her own voice.

When did you come into your own as a vocalist?

When I started listening to Miles Davis albums. I remember making a comparison between him and [Brazilian vocalist] Milton Nascimento. Milton had a way of singing without vibrato and a longing feeling that was so beautiful. I thought it was like Miles. That’s when I started to open up and listen to everything, and to develop my own exercises to find the placement for these sounds in my own voice.

Did you spend a lot of time studying the great female jazz vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan?

I really did. I listened to a lot of people—Sarah in the very beginning because her voice was so broad and expansive. I used to do a lot of her songs and my uncle [Denver Symphony Orchestra bassist Charles Burrell] would tell me, “You sing these songs exactly like Sarah, but you’ve gotta have your own take.” That changed me.

One of the hallmarks of your style is your scat singing. How did you learn to do that?

It’s just improvisation. [Trumpeter and mentor] Clark Terry always told me how improvisation starts with being able to phrase. Listening to the great singers like Billie Holiday, Carmen McRae, and—much later on—Shirley Horn, for me was the beginning; that gave me an understanding of harmony and how you can move through it and find your way. When I first worked with my high school jazz band, they didn’t want a singer, so I would come down to the class anyway and sit in the trumpet section.

Dianne Reeves (Jerris Madison)

Are women musicians more accepted now in the jazz world than when you started out?

Yes. I moved to New York in the early ’80s, and there were a number of really great women instrumentalists; it was starting to happen. If you could play, you could play. [The late pianist] Kenny Kirkland was one who fostered a lot of really great female musicians. Esperanza Spalding might have been noticed back then, because she’s a star—you’d have to take notice of somebody like that. But I remember when I was out in Los Angeles and [pianist] Billy Childs and I had a band. This well-known disc jockey from a jazz station asked Billy, “The band is great, but who is the chick singer?” And Billy said, “Dianne Reeves.” Then the disc jockey said, “Well, who is the leader of the band?” and Billy said, “The chick singer!” 

How do you feel about the direction young artists like Esperanza and Robert Glasper are taking jazz, incorporating hip-hop, R&B, and more electronic elements?

I absolutely love it. It’s so fresh and inventive. They’re coming from the tradition, but they’re a reflection of now.

They’re among the many guests on Beautiful Life, which also features Sheila E., Gregory Porter, and Lalah Hathaway. How did they come to appear on the album?

Some of them chose me. They asked me, “Can I be on your record?” Robert Glasper came to me through Twitter. He said, “I’ve got this idea for this song, ‘Dreams.’” I said, “Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Dreams’? How do you know that song?” He sent me a demo of him singing it, which I will always cherish. It was incredible.

You’ve worked with Beautiful Life producer and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington in the past. How do you know each other?

Oh, I’ve known her since she was 10. She’s like a sister, and she’s incredible to work with because she knows so much music—she could have been an ethnomusicologist. She has her foot firmly planted in the jazz tradition as well as what’s going on now.

Your cousin, the great keyboardist and producer George Duke, died in 2013. What was the most important thing he taught you?

Just to trust my voice. That was the biggest thing. He taught me to trust my choices and also that you’re unique. He produced all kinds of music all the time, but you never heard him in it. It was always about the artist. He had a gift for that. He was truly a great producer.

You’ve credited a middle school teacher with being the first to recognize that you could sing.

I’m still really close to her; she was my choir director and piano teacher. She didn’t know I could sing until one day I was helping a friend sing a song, and she said, “Who is that?” The kids said, “It’s Dianne!” I wound up in this school talent show and that was it. I loved the way I felt onstage and the way people felt listening to me. My grandmother used to say, “Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket.” But I vividly remember walking down the hall and saying, “I’m putting all of my eggs in that basket!”

Reeves, Dianne by Jerris Madison Wednesday, March 30 at 8 PM
Dianne Reeves

Dianne Reeves is a Grammy Award–winning vocalist who is one of the foremost jazz singers in the world. Whether she’s interpreting jazz classics or melding elements of R&B, Latin, and pop into swinging song, she thrills with every note she sings.