Sunday, January 17, 2016

Interview With Diane Schuur (Excerpted from "Freedom of Expression: Interviews With Women in Jazz.")

Here is another excerpt from my book Freedom of Expression: Interviews With Women in Jazz. It's the introduction to and portion of my interview with Grammy award-winning singer and pianist Diane Schuur. Diane is the featured performer at this year's Trinity Jazz Festival, January 29-31. 

Freedom of Expression: Interviews With Women in Jazz is a collection of interviews with 37 women musicians from across the spectrum of jazz, including Carmen Lundy, Terri Lyne Carrington, Eliane Elias, Helen Sung, Anat Cohen and many, many other incredible artists. The book available for purchase from Amazon. You can also purchase the book locally at the Jung Center of Houston Bookstore, Casa Ramirez FOLKART Gallery, and Brazos Bookstore.

Diane Schuur. Photo by Lani Garfield.

While editing the transcript of this interview with singer and pianist Diane Schuur, I was intrigued to see that our conversation began and ended with references to rain. We begin by discussing a recording Schuur made when she was just 10 years old of the standard tune “September in the Rain,” which appears on her album Some Other Time. On that album, “September” is programmed as a coda to a selection of songs Schuur heard growing up and recorded as a tribute to her late mother. Blind from birth, Schuur was blessed with perfect pitch and a full, beautiful voice that belied her years. You can hear what I’m describing on that track, recorded at a Tacoma, Washington, Holiday Inn in 1964.
     Like many female jazz musicians of her generation, Schuur’s talent allowed her to begin a musical career at a very young age. As you’ll read in the interview, she began playing piano at the age of 3 and “was singing even earlier than that.” She hit the road immediately after high school, and has enjoyed a hugely successful career as an internationally loved vocalist, pianist, and ambassador for the art of big band performance. She recorded two Grammy Award-winning albums in the late 1980s, Timeless and Diane Schuur and the Count Basie Orchestra, both of which brought the big band sound into the mainstream, and are classics of the genre. The popularity of those records is all the more amazing given the fact that after World War II, big bands became less active in the U.S. as jazz transformed into music for listening while sitting, as opposed to dancing, and rock and roll emerged as the new sound of America’s youth.
     Schuur, known as “Deedles” to her friends, has also recorded plenty of mu¬sic outside of jazz repertoire, including classic country, blues (most notably with guitarist B.B. King), and popular songs. Her most recent recording at the time of this writing is a tribute to two mentors who were also good friends, saxophonist Stan Getz and singer Frank Sinatra. Everything Schuur sings is blessed with her inimitable and engaging style.
     I must admit, for reasons I can’t explain, I was a little intimidated at the prospect of talking to Schuur. But Schuur’s immediate enthusiasm for this project calmed my nerves and reaffirmed my belief that a book collection of interviews with women across the spectrum of jazz would be welcomed not just by fans of this music, but by the musicians who play it as well. As Schuur told me at the end of our first conversation for this book, “A book about women in jazz? That’s pretty fucking cool!”

I was just listening to the recording you made at the age of 10, singing “September in the Rain” [from the album Some Other Time]. Did you have any kind of formal voice lessons before that recording? 
No. I had voice training afterward. I went to the University of Puget Sound when I was 11 years old. Puget Sound is in the Pacific Northwest. That recording was pre-training for sure!

So as a child, you just started singing by ear to produce the voice we hear on that recording? 

You had such a big voice. Is that just a God-given thing? 
I think for the most part it is. A person can get coaching if they choose to. I did when I was 11 years old. I’m actually getting some coaching now because the voice does change as one gets older. I don’t have an old voice by any means, but placement has to be a little bit different than when you’re a little younger.

Were you also playing the piano at an early age? 
Oh, yeah. I started playing the piano at the age of 3, and I was singing even earlier than that.

You also attended the Washington State School for the Blind. Did that school provide formal music instruction for piano or your voice?
You’re right about the piano part of it. I actually started taking piano lessons when I was 7 at the Washington State School for the Blind. I went to that school from age 4 and a half to age 10 and a half, and then I went to public school.

Were you listening to a lot of jazz at age 10 or 11? 
Yes. That was the main focus. Dinah Washington in particular, Duke Ellington, George Shearing, and Nat King Cole, although I did get exposed to rock and roll, country music, and classical music as well. My mom really loved jazz, and I was exposed to it constantly.

You didn’t attend college, is that correct? 
Just the musical training that I got when I was 11, which was Puget Sound. But no, I did not go to college after high school.

So you headed out after high school to become a professional singer. 
Well, I was a professional musician from the age of 10. I was working up until I graduated from high school. I would come home from the school every weekend and work different places professionally. Once I graduated from high school I worked a lot in the Northwest. In the late 1970s, I started working in the Southwest; I moved to Tucson, Arizona, for a few years, then came back to the Northwest.

Was your family supportive of your career? Did they understand that you had this incredible talent and could make a living as a musician? 
Oh, absolutely! They took me to the Holiday Inn, where I did that recording you mentioned of “September in the Rain” when I was 10. They took me to a lot of other places subsequent to that. I was, I guess, the star of the family, and helped to bring extra money into the household.

At some point, you must have started learning about the business of music, how to make sure you get paid what you’re supposed to get paid for a gig or how to negotiate a contract. 
Oh, yeah.

When did you have to start taking control of the business side of making music? 
My father took care of the business up to a certain point, and then I went ahead and took control. I didn’t have what you would call a formal manager with a contract until the beginning of 1985. That’s when I met my first manager, Paul Cantor, who managed me for 17 and a half years. He was there for the height of my career with the Grammy awards and my appearances on American Bandstand, Solid Gold, and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson 11 times and once with Jay Leno. He’s [Paul Cantor] still alive today. He took the helm back then, and that’s when a lot of things happened.

Before that time period, before you had a manager, was there a sense of camaraderie among you and the musicians you were performing with? A feeling that we’re all musicians, we’re all in the same boat, and we need to look out for each other? 
There was camaraderie. I think I felt it most with the Count Basie Orchestra. Freddie Green, who was the guitarist with the orchestra, looked after me and kind of protected me in a way, and that was really cool.

Did you have any kind of mentorship early on in your career? 
George Shearing was a mentor when I was growing up, and later on, Stan Getz. There’s a man that I worked with named Overton Berry, who was a wonderful mentor. He’s a pianist in the Seattle area.
     Berry didn’t instruct me on piano. He took me around to various places around the North and Southwest and started introducing me. In 1975, I did the Monterey Jazz Festival and then a gig with his group at an art gallery the day after. And then we just worked together pretty regularly until 1981 or ‘82. Berry was one of my biggest mentors, not only on the musical front but on a very spiritual front as well. Just a very wise individual and a great guy. I can’t say enough about him.

Ray Charles once said: “When you’re blind, you become a soul reader. Everything a person says is a soul note. It comes straight outta their soul, so you read a person immediately.” Does this statement resonate with you? 
Oh, absolutely! Absolutely it does. I couldn’t agree more with what Brother Ray said, because it’s the truth. I think that’s what led me through all of the personal experiences that I went through, that ability to “soul read” people.

Not only musically and personally, but in business as well? 
Yes, it’s all interconnected. That’s my own belief. Maybe other people don’t share that, but it’s absolutely my own belief.

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