Music Interview: Singer Dianne Reeves — Her Foundation is Jazz
“I try not to live in fear, which is the big thing we have to fight right now.”
By Glenn Rifkin
In George Clooney’s award-winning 2005 biopic Good Night, and Good Luck about Edward R. Murrow’s courageous journalistic stand against Senator Joseph McCarthy, the demagogue commie-hunter, the vivid black-and-white cinematography is punctuated by a smoky jazz score designed to evoke the early 1950s. Instead of using background music, Clooney chose to incorporate a jazz singer and her combo performing several period standards in order to better set the mood. With a tip from his famous aunt Rosemary, herself an iconic chanteuse, Clooney chose Dianne Reeves to portray the jazz singer. Reeves’s remarkable yet understated performance punctuates the tension-filled drama and catapulted the film’s soundtrack to a 2005 Grammy Award for best jazz vocal album.
Making the movie was an unusual sidestep for the versatile Reeves, who had won multiple Grammys and had long been a mainstay of the jazz firmament. Her career, which spans four decades, is marked by a ceaseless desire to stay “open” to all types of music, musicians, and styles. I was lucky enough to see her at the Montreal Jazz Festival in 2014. She blew the roof off the Theatre Maisonneuve with a rousing set. Her joy for her craft was evident. “We get paid for traveling from place to place,” she told the audience. “All this other stuff (the music), we do that for free.” Reeves’s bio is long and impressive and, nearing age 60, she hasn’t come close to slowing down. On Friday night (July 15), she will perform at the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport, MA. The Arts Fuse spoke with Reeves by phone from her home in Denver about her career and her muse.
Arts Fuse: People call you a jazz singer. How do you describe yourself?
Dianne Reeves: Jazz is my foundation. Listening to all the great singers who were called “jazz singers,” like Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald, and others, they were just open. I got my cues from them. Every jazz generation is inspired by the times they grew up in and the music reflects that.
AF: Yet you have embraced other genres.
Reeves: When I was coming up, before the phrase “world music” was coined, I listened to people like Wayne Shorter and discovered Milton Nascimento, groups like Shakti, the Mahavishnu Orchestra. It was a time of experimentation. Once I was really conscious of the music, I ended up recording with a group called Caldera — my first recording– and they were all from Argentina, Costa Rica, and other Latin American countries. And they were playing traditional music with a jazz sensibility. They heard me and I’m from Denver but it worked. I could sing over it and had some kind of understanding. I ended up working with lots of people early on like Sergio Mendes, Harry Belafonte, Tito Puente. All of that was an opening to world music. There are so many colors out there. That was my beginning.
AF: You tend to embrace popular songs in your repertoire, from the likes of Fleetwood Mac, Bob Marley, Peter Gabriel, and others. You take them and make them your own.
Reeves: That’s part of jazz tradition. Jazz musicians have always taken popular songs and done that. These happen to be the ones I came up with. There are certain songs that appeal to you because you like what they are about. You sing them and make them yours even when you are singing in the shower and listening to the artist. I just did the songs I love. Either I’ll do an arrangement, or (Grammy-winning jazz pianist) Billy Childs, who I think is a genius. He can listen to the melody and divorce himself from the harmonic movement and just do something else. I believe a song is the lyric and the melody, and then you can put whatever underneath. He has this ability to do it. I always tell him “Hey professor, I want this.” We talk about it and he comes up with something so spectacular.
AF: You worked with others on your most recent album Beautiful Life, which won a Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal album last year.
Reeves: On this last record, the same thing happened with Robert Glasper. We were tweeting back and forth, which is how I met him. He said “I’ve always wanted to work with you and I have this idea.” We started emailing and he said “I have an idea for the song ‘Dreams’ by Fleetwood Mac. I said, “Players only love you when they’re playing ‘Dreams?'” It blew me away. I didn’t think that would be a song on his radar. I love it, because the way he arranged it, it’s not about a relationship, it’s more about sage advice. I could relate to it. I always dug the song because I love Fleetwood Mac. So when he changed it up, and put the interlude in it, I just really love singing it.
AF: Who were the main influences on your career?
Reeves: It wasn’t so much one artist because I like so many. It was really the times I grew up in, the ’60s and early ’70s, because at that time, you listened to the radio and you heard everything. You could go to a concert and it wasn’t genre oriented….it was an artist you liked, and you’d go see them. You could see Miles Davis and Ravi Shankar on the same stage in a concert. I remember I went to an Ella concert and she was doing all the Beatles music. It was open. That was the greatest thing. It was this really broad community.
AF: Who were your favorites?
Reeves: I liked the music of Motown a lot. I liked a lot of different jazz singers. My uncle would bring me records of different jazz singers. He would play Sarah Vaughan or Dakota Staton, or Carmen McCrae, all of them singing the same song, and we’d talk about the differences.
AF: Was your uncle a musician?
Reeves: He was a bassist with the Denver symphony for 43 years. His name is Charlie Burrell (Burrell, 94, was one of the first African-Americans to join a major American symphony orchestra). He was a great jazz bassist as well. There were a lot of great musicians in my family. I was around (cousin and legendary jazz keyboardist and producer) George Duke a lot when I was young. There was a lot going on with him. He’d be producing Airto (the Brazilian drummer), and then go do an R&B thing and his own records. He was just really broad. It was real open at that time. You could do a lot of different things.
AF: Was there somebody outside the family who had an influence?
Reeves: When I was in high school, the big band I was in had won the citywide competition. We were allowed to go to Chicago for what was then called the National Association of Jazz Educators. And Clark Terry was there. Maxine Adams, who used to run the Wichita Jazz Festival, told him he needed to hear me. He came and listened and asked me for my information. I had no idea who he was. When I got home, I was telling my uncle that I’d met this really great trumpeter and he was really nice. My uncle asked, “What’s his name?” and I said “Clark Terry” and he started laughing because they had been in the Navy jazz band together.
AF: Was there a moment when you realized, I’m going to do this as a professional?
Reeves: I was at the University of Colorado and Dr. William Fowler was the dean at that time and he had just started this jazz program there. I realized, “I want to be out there doing this.” So I left Denver at age 19 and went to LA and found myself in it. I made a decision. I didn’t care what it was, as long as it had something to do with music, that’s what I was going to do to survive. I had made a clear decision to do studio work, something that would sustain my life, but it had to be music. I just realized this was what I wanted to do.
AF: Musicians can bring their instruments to their gigs and they know they will work every time. But when your instrument is your voice, how do you make sure that instrument is where it needs to be every night?
Reeves: Basically, you are conscious of your instrument 24/7. One thing I know that makes my instrument work is rest and lots of water. I use my instrument to speak. I’m very conscious about a lot of things. I don’t holler in the next room. If I do, I make sure my voice is supported and projected. For every singer, it is different. I travel in a very peaceful way. I love all my musicians. We’re real cool together, and we have great crew of people who make sure that when we travel everything is cool. They know my specific needs. I can do tours and I don’t get hoarse. I used to, but I realized it wasn’t just about warming up and working on the instrument. It was also about a kind of peacefulness. That’s what I have. I always trust that my instrument will be there. If I have a cold or something else happens, I know that the voice is your spirit, being a jazz musician, I can improvise.
AF: What impact did the George Clooney movie Good Night, and Good Luck have on your career?
Reeves: It got me a whole new audience who didn’t even know I existed. It was really cool. After that I toured a lot and did a lot of those songs. It was a lot of fun.
AF: How did you land that role?
Reeves: I asked (Clooney) and he said that his aunt Rosemary always liked me as a singer and would talk about me. One time, Rosemary and I did this benefit performance together in LA. There were a whole bunch of singers and we shared dressing rooms and they put me in a room with her. We just laughed and talked the whole time. I loved Rosemary anyway. She listened to me sing. And we never saw each other again. You just never know. When I asked George Clooney, “How did you know about me?” He said, “My aunt, she loved you.” I said, “Wow.”
AF: It’s a great movie, and putting you in it was a brilliant move.
Reeves: The thing that was cool was that Clooney understood the music enough to know that I wasn’t going to lip synch. He said, “You are going to sing live in the film.” I thought that was the coolest thing.
AF: How would you characterize your life philosophy?
Reeves: I try not to live in fear, which is the big thing we have to fight right now. The other thing, I find myself not combating fire with fire all the time. I really choose my battles. Like when we travel and run into things, I might act the opposite way and just stop whatever it is that is getting ready to happen. I try to be more observant and listen. I know that words are very powerful and I try to be clear about how I’m using them.
AF: Who is in the band we’ll see in Rockport?
Reeves: It will be Peter Martin on piano, Reginald Veal on bass, Terry Allen Gully on drums, and Peter Sprague will be joining us on guitar. My regular guitarist, Romero Lubambo, my brother from a different mother, is in Brazil.
Glenn Rifkin is a veteran journalist and author who has covered business for many publications including The New York Times for more than 25 years. Among his books are Radical Marketing and The Ultimate Entrepreneur. His efforts as an arts critic and food writer represent a new and exciting direction.