The first lady of American jazz wears her mantle lightly. Dianne Reeves may be garlanded in Grammy awards and have a fanbase that includes George Clooney and Elvis Costello. However, in person she is endlessly understated, blanching at the idea that she is the era’s preeminent ‘jazz’ vocalist. She’s a singer – nothing more, nothing less. It horrifies her to think she might be placed on a pedestal. She prefers to keep her feet on solid ground.
“I grew up in a time when people would listen to everyone and every thing,” she says, explaining why she doesn’t like to be pigeonholed. “I’ve always kept that with me. Marvin Gaye was from a gospel and r’n’ b background. He still sang jazz. Ella Fitzgerald was singing The Beatles. There were no boundaries – just good music.”
Despite her protestations, Reeves (57) has been a stalwart of the jazz scene for decades. In 2005, she came to the attention of a wider audience when George Clooney cast her as a lounge singer in his 50s-set drama Good Night and Good Luck. In the film, Reeves’s character serves as a sort of Greek chorus, her singing echoing the frame of mind of the protagonists (the movie is an exploration of McCarthyism and the manifold hypocrisies of post-war America).
She smiles as mention of the ‘C’ word: since Good Night and Good Luck, it feels as if a day cannot pass without someone asking her about Clooney. Not that she objects. She was flattered the actor would seek her out to play such a pivotal role in a project close to his heart (Clooney directed and produced the feature, which was nominated for several Oscars). And working with him was a joy. He was grounded and had a sense of humour, while making it clear he expected the absolute best from everyone on set.
“The reason I was in that movie is because I was friends with George’s aunt Rosemary Clooney [a noted jazz vocalist]. She and I had done this thing in Los Angeles years before and had shared a dressing room. We had laughed through the whole thing, really struck up a connection. We both remembered that.”
Clooney had wanted to cast his aunt. However, she had passed away before the project got off the ground. He felt Reeves was perfect to take her place. Her singing was meticulous and emotive, the perfect splicing of poise and emotion.
“When he told me that it was going to be set in that period [the 50s] I was thrilled. I have so many recordings and films from that time. I adored the singers from back then, the way they carried themselves, how they performed. To be on set, singing… it was like a dream to me, and I wasn’t even dreaming. I’ll never forget it.
“Rosemary had told George about me. She had made the transition [ie. passed away], which was why they asked me. George used to hang out a lot with his aunt. He understood the power of live performances. That is why, in the movie, all the singing is live.We both knew it had to be that way. It makes a difference.”
MOTOR CITY WOMAN
Reeves was born in Detroit in 1956. It was a hard-scrabble upbringing. Her father passed away when she was two years old and her mother supported the family by playing trumpet in a variety of bands. Detroit is the home of the American car industry: when, in the face of competition from abroad, the sector went into violent decline in the 1960s, the social upheaval was deeply felt. With Detroit sliding into decay the family moved to more prosperous Denver, where Reeves lives to this day. She enjoys the Midwest: people are straightforward, life is relaxed.
“Detroit influences me hugely,” she says. “Not just because I am from there – but because of Motown. The music was powerful. It mattered hugely to African-Americans because, at that time, those voices weren’t being heard. Here was this incredible black American music. It was inspirational. We didn’t have black radio until Motown. It changed everything – was a very powerful expression of our hopes and fears.”
Reeves bounced between the coasts through her early career, performing with big bands in New York and playing clubs in Los Angeles. She sang with jazz bad leader Billy Childs, and toured for three years with calypso artist Harry Belafonte. In 1987, when EMI revived its storied Blue Note label, she was the first artist to sign. Her ascent had begun.
The support of Blue Note ushered in a golden period for Reeves. She won the first of four Grammys for best jazz vocals in 2001 (she was similarly recognized for Good Night, and Good Luck). Reeves is grateful for the acknowledgement. Nonetheless, it is obvious she does not view accolades as an end in themselves.
“The real award is that your fans keep coming to see you. That’s what really matters. Grammys are nice. They aren’t the whole story.”
She has strong opinions about singing other people’s songs. The goal should be to honour the material and leave your own imprint. And yet you should also feel free to experiment, to not be hemmed in by an audience’s expectations.
“I covered Fleetwood Mac song ‘Dreams’ recently and it goes from being a love song to a song sung by a friend offering sage advice. You should be faithful to the melodies and the lyrics. After that, you can put whatever you want beneath it, so that you can make it your own.”
Several months ago Reeves released her new album, Beautiful Life. It’s her first collection of new material in five years. A collaboration with cutting edge jazz artists such as Robert Glasper and Esperanza Spalding the LP came by its title the hard way. The record has a sunny, optimistic tenor – extraordinary given the circumstances in which it was recorded. Indeed, if the collection can be said to be about anything, it is about holding strong in the face of life’s challenges and reversals.
“My mother passed right before we did the album,” she says. “And then my cousin [jazz pianist] George Duke passed after we had finished recording. Those were people who had always been there for me. They know my heart. I draw on that experience of love and memory, every night on stage. They are the purist, most real emotions. The feelings are there, inside me, and I don’t interfere with them. I just let them be.”
MORE THAN JAZZ
Reeves’ performance at theEveryman theatre at the end of the month will be one of the highlights of the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival. Despite the ongoing success of the event, some purists have been raising eyebrows in recent years at the dilution of the jazz content. For instance, the 2014 festival will include the Frank and Walters and 2 Many DJs.
Jazz festival director Jack McGouran says the goal is a more eclectic bill.
“We have done research of people attending. They are looking for a broader range. They love jazz – and want jazz to be a core part of what we do. But they are also looking for other styles of improvised music. They want to wander into a pub, encounter something electronica – folk and world music almost. That is the way the jazz market is going all over the world. It seems to be a successful formula for us – it has been successful for other big festivals in Europe.”
Despite the economic turmoil of the past half decade, budgets at the festival have been maintained he says. “Guinness-Diageo have kept the budget, even through the last six years when the economy was down the tubes. They didn’t reduce it at all. They have been very supportive.”
- Dianne Reeves plays the Everyman Theatre, Cork, on Saturday, October 25 as part of Cork Jazz Festival. guinnessjazzfestival.com
, Thursday, Oct 23, Cyprus Avenue
Mercury Music Prize nominee William Doyle blends experimental dance with old-school tunefulness. His debut album Total Strife Forever was interpreted as a pun at the expenses of indie group Foals and their album Total Life Forever. However, alongside the wit, there’s a lot of melancholy in the music — behind all the bleeps and beats, Doyle bares his heart as fully as any singer-songwriter. It is widely agreed he would make a worthy Mercury winner.
, Friday Oct 24, Everyman Theatre
Composers are routinely described as ‘legendary’ — Paris-based Legrand may actually be worthy of the designation however. An esteemed writer for the screen, Legrand scored such movies as The Thomas Crown Affair (the Steve McQueen original) and ’60s art-house musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. A winner of three Oscars and three Grammys, at the jazz festival, he will play a selection of compositions on piano.
, Saturday, Oct 25, Everyman
For jazz fans, this double bill with Dianne Reeves is probably the gig of the festival. Cherry’s CV includes a 14-year stint as Dizzy Gillespie’s guitarist, and an impressive body of other collaborations and solo work. Pianist Barth is one of the top ivory-tinklers on the scene. The latter’s trio also includes Japanese bassist Masa Kamaguchi and Barcelona-based Irish drummer Stephen Keogh.
, Saturday, Oct 25, Triskel
Triskel is again the place to be for those who like music at the more cutting edge and experimental end of the scale. Quercus feature English folk singer June Tabor, backed by pianist Huw Warren and saxophonist Iain Ballamy; and the venue also has a late-night Saturday electronica event headlined by Dimman, the new project from Jape’s Richie Egan.
, Sunday, Oct 26, Cork Opera House
Sharon Jones is among the outstanding soul voices of the era, and has been at the forefront of the revival of an old-style, non-digital sound. She is said to have inspired Amy Winehouse during the recording of her Back To Black LP. Backing band the Dap-Kings play on most of the album’s tracks, including ‘Rehab’. Lee Fields and the Expressions form the other half of a decent double bill.