Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Diane Schuur: A Life of Making Music in the Moment

Photo by Lani Garfield.

Interview with Diane Schuur by Chris Becker

Diane Schuur was just 22 when she relocated from her hometown of Seattle to Los Angeles, and then boldly auditioned for a spot on The Tonight Show. Born in 1953, Schuur had been gigging since the age of 10 (a recording of an eleven-year-old Schuur belting out a jaw-dropping rendition of “September in the Rain” appears on her 2008 album Some Other Time), and was gaining attention as a prodigiously talented vocalist. Though Tonight Show bandleader Doc Severinson was not unimpressed with Schuur who, despite being blind, played and sang with the musical sophistication of a woman twice her age, she didn’t get the gig. Schuur persevered, paying her dues and singing for audiences in clubs and festivals across Southern California and the Pacific Northwest. Her big break came in 1979 thanks to a show stopping performance of “Amazing Grace” at the Monterey Jazz Festival, and a subsequent backstage meeting with saxophonist Stan Getz, a transplanted New Yorker and one of the originators of West Coast jazz. Getz was blown away by Schuur's soulful voice and dramatic sense of delivery. He became a mentor to Schuur, and in 1982, invited her to be part of a star-studded performance at the White House, which included such jazz greats as Dizzy GillespieChick Corea and Jon Faddis, and was filmed for broadcast on PBS. Schuur's career skyrocketed; she went on to appear eleven times on The Tonight Show, and record 11 Billboard chart-topping albums for GRP Records, including the Grammy-award winning Diane Schuur & the Count Basie Orchestra, along with several recordings for Concord and Atlantic records. She continues to tour widely across the U.S., Europe and Asia, most recently in Italy and South Korea.

Schuur pays tribute to Getz, who died in 1991, as well as the late great Frank Sinatra on her most recent album, I Remember You. The musical, personal and spiritual connection between saxophonists and singers in jazz has always been profound, from Billie Holiday and Lester Young, to Getz and Astrud Gilberto, to Schuur and Ernie Watts. Los Angeles jazz fans will be able to witness that connection first hand when Watts and two of the city’s most in-demand players, bassist Bruce Lett and drummer Kendall Kay, join Schuur for a special concert at The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on April 28.

Like Sarah VaughnElla Fitzgerald and Dee Dee Bridgewater, Schuur is part of a lineage of American singers who learned the art of jazz primarily by ear and on the bandstand. (Though Schuur did study piano formally as a child at the Washington State School for the Blind.) When asked if there are any singers today who stand out for her, Schuur replies, “To be honest, I keep gravitating back to the old jazzers. Dinah WashingtonSarah Vaughn and Nancy Wilson.” Those three singers in particular have had a profound influence on Schuur, and like them, she swings this music in a way that is pure and unforced. You can hear it in the way she tells a story when singing a song, be it George and Ira Gershwin’s freewheeling, Prohibition-era classic  “S’Wonderful,” or Jimmy Webb’s heartbreaking late-1960s ballad “Didn’t We.” Now 27 ½ years sober, and newly single after a long marriage to her soul mate Les "Rocket" Crockett, a former aerospace engineer who, at the time of this writing, is in hospice after a long battle with several health issues, Schuur sounds as good if not better than she ever has, and has no plans of stopping anytime soon.

In conversation, Schuur keeps her answers friendly, but succinct, and delights in occasionally disarming the interviewer with her bawdy sense of humor. And while she keeps her politics and certain aspects of her personal life close to her chest, she is happy to describe in detail the “wonderful ritual” of being at home in her desert “Deedle pad” in Cathedral City. California is the place where Schuur finds time to "live in the moment."

CHRIS BECKER: What kind of person were you when you auditioned for The Tonight Show back in 1975? How would you describe yourself?

DIANE SCHUUR: I was an ambitious little thing back then, and maybe somewhat na├»ve. I hadn’t been subjected to what the world could actually dish out. (laughs) But I definitely had a purpose in mind for doing those things. I was hoping the opportunity would bear fruit. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the gig.

At the time, I was working at a place called The Etcetera Club. I’ve worked at the Hollywood Bowl several times, and of course the Catalina Bar and Grill. I did that gig for at least a decade. L.A.’s been good to me.

The Monterey Jazz Festival performances were very important gigs for you.

Oh, absolutely! I’ll never forget the first time I did Monterey. It was 1976 with drummer Ed Shaughnessy and his big band Energy Force, and we played in front of thousands and thousands of people. It was really quite and experience. I also performed as a solo pianist and singer at the festival. The last time I did Monterey I believe was in 1993 with The Count Basie Orchestra.

In 1979, Stan Getz came into your orbit. 

Yes, he did. He brought me to the White House in 1982 for the PBS special . . . that definitely changed my life in a lot of ways. But still, the myth persists of “the overnight sensation.” It doesn’t happen that fast. It takes a lot of gigs and a lot of work to reach a pinnacle.

What was Stan Getz like? You two formed a close friendship. 

He could be really charming . . . it just depended on the day and the mood and the substance, you know? Because back then he was still “practicing,” if you know what I mean, which I didn’t even know about until later. He could be very charming and everything, but on the other hand, there was that Jekyll and Hyde side of him. I didn’t know sometimes what to expect. But the point is, he taught me about delivering a song, and that you didn’t have to give it all away all in one note or all in one phrase. That singing a song is kind of a building process, and telling a story.

On the liner notes for I Remember You, you credit saxophonist Joel Frahm for being “your other voice.” Is there always a dialogue happening between a singer and saxophonist in performance?

Yes, definitely. There is a running dialogue happening, musically. The thing that comes to mind, and this may really sound far fetched, is the Close Encounters of a Third Kind dialogue between the musicians and the mother ship as it’s coming down. (laughs) I don’t know why that came to mind, but it did!

Well, in that film, the humans and aliens communicated through music! Tell me about Ernie Watts.

He was on The Tonight Show for decades. He’s just a wonderful arranger, composer and saxophonist. Not only is he a brilliant musician, he’s one of my dearest friends, just one of the coolest guys I’ve ever had the pleasure to get to know.

So we’re talking about personality very different than Stan’s?

It’s like night and day. Watts is just such a cool cat, and very wise. When I’ve gone through things, he’s been a confidant for me to talk to.

As a singer, what do you want to hear from your bass player?

Support. Which is part of the function of a bass player. To give support or grounding to a musician or a singer. Bruce Letts is really good, and I love working with him as well.

In performance, the bass and drums are engaging in a musical conversation with you as well.

Yes. Maybe “support” is too general a word. Kendall Kay is very strong, and yet very sensitive. It’s wonderful to be able to have that combination, because there are a lot of musicians who have one or the other. It’s a little harder to find someone who has both, and he does.

As the singer, do you lead the band? 

Oh, no doubt! (laughs) I’ve got to man, or we fall apart! I’ve got to be the captain of the ship. And the musicians are my co-pilots, you know?

When you get in a room with Ernie, Bruce and Kendall, and you call up a song, do you have to give them any direction before you begin? Or do you just play? 

We pretty much just play. In fact, I’ll do that onstage, sometimes even with a tune we’ve never played before. (shouts) ‘How ‘bout we do this?’ ‘Okay, Deeds! Let’s do it!’ And we go right into it. And the audience really digs it, because they know it’s spontaneous. It’s loose and fun.

You trust each other enough to try something you haven’t done before.

Yeah, and most of the time, it’s pretty hip, because we’re all in the same musical universe.

Do you practice singing every day? 

No. I have a lesson every two weeks with a really wonderful vocal coach in New York. We do it by Skype. We’ve been doing this since July 2013, and it’s really helped my voice. As we age, things start to change, including the voice, which is just like any other part of the body. It’s a muscle that needs to be in tune and taken care of.

Do you do any sort of rituals to center yourself, after a gig or after a tour? 

I live in the desert, in the Palm Springs area. Cathedral City, which we lovingly call “Cat City.” I love it here. I’ve been living in California since ’96. If I do a gig in California, I’m able to come back to the dessert Deedle-pad, and the thing that I love to do is cuddle with my cat Puss-Puss. That’s very healing and wonderful and comforting. I wear these little prayer beads. They’re bracelets. Puss-Puss loves to grab them with her teeth and stretch them. It’s part of the wonderful ritual that goes on in my home life.

Is there anyone you particularly like to listen to for spiritual replenishment? 

Sure. There’s this wonderful album that Carlos Santana put out in 1975 called Illuminations, with Alice Coltrane and Dave Holland. It’s pretty amazing. Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way is a real spiritual album. Saxophonist Earl Bostic. I really love his work. And of course, Stevie Wonder. I have a collection of his stuff on my iPhone.

I think musicians are all part of an effort to enlighten and raise consciousness.

Absolutely. I feel very blessed I can do that. Music is part of the human experience. It’s part of the spiritual experience. Everything has a note. There’s not one thing that doesn’t have a note, including electricity. Even whoopee cushions have notes! (laughs)

I hope to keep on keepin’ on throughout the years, no matter what happens. I hope there’s always going to be a place for music. Politics can’t wipe it out. I really don’t think that’s going to happen. There would an absolute uproar, I’m sure. Let’s hope that music is part of the raising of consciousness that is happening, that the higher vibration will win out, despite all of the darkness.

Do you think about the future? Or do you just live in the moment?

Well, I try to live in the moment, but when you’re looking for gigs, you gotta think about the future. It’s a balancing act. I’m just grateful to still be able to do what I’m doing.