Dianne Reeves: Musical Conversation
One of America's Finest Contemporary Jazz Singers Defies Genres

By Lee Valentine Smith

Though firmly rooted in jazz tradition, Dianne Reeves continues to expand the boundaries of contemporary R&B, pop and world music. Her most recent album Beautiful Life is an all-star celebration of her diverse influences. The collection deftly covers a stunning variety of artists including Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley, Fleetwood Mac and Ani DeFranco, and was produced by her friend and fellow Jazz Festival performer Terri Lyne Carrington.

In April she received one of music's highest honors, The National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters award at Kennedy Center. It's just one of many accomplishments of the busy performer who has collaborated with legendary performers Clark Terry, Harry Belafonte, George Duke and was featured in George Clooney's 2005 film Good Night and Good Luck.

Currently on a national tour that includes a headlining gig at the Atlanta Jazz Festival and concludes at Carnegie Hall, Reeves spoke with INsite by phone from her home in Colorado.

Last month, you received the Jazz Masters Award at Kennedy Center. Please tell us a little about that honor.

It was so beautiful to be honored with people like Pat Metheny, Joanne Brackeen, and Todd Barkan. People that you listen to and know, who are out there in this music and trying to keep it moving forward. It was nice to be celebrated for a commitment to a life in this music.

Terri Lyne Carrington was there, too.

She was, and she's a Jazzmaster in her own right. I call her my little sister. She's very present in the music and it was nice having her there. She's so special.

She's very influential as well.

As a producer, a professor, a mentor, arranger, she's just a trailblazer. I call her Big Life. What people don't even know about her is she when she was in high school, she got two Fulbright Scholarships - to MIT and to Harvard. But she would never tell you that. She turned them down because she wanted to study music and she completed Berklee and high school at the same time.

I know Atlanta is very special to you in general but headlining the Jazz Fest must be the icing on the cake.

Yeah! The Atlanta audiences are always so warm and in the progression of the show, they're right there, with you. You just feel like you're at home.

People really do go there to actively listen, which is quite different from some of the other big festivals.

Yes - and they participate. They'll let you know how they feel about what you're doing. That's what this music is about, so I love it.

That interaction is key to the live performance.

It creates the magic. When there's an intimate exchange going on between the musicians on stage and the audience, it makes it alive and it's a show that'll never be done again. When people are a part of the energy and vibration, it makes every show special.

Atlanta was one of the first radio markets that really caught on to your music.

That's very true. But you know, we're talking about over 25 years ago now when that happened. Atlanta has such a rich culture and the people are really open and engaged.

They're open to a really diverse line-up on a show or a festival.

That's how I - and I think a lot of people who are my age - really grew up. We'd go to concerts and at the time we didn't even think about genre. We were going to a music experience.

You grew up in the Denver, Colorado area. That's a major market, so you were exposed to a number of great shows.

Yeah, you know a lot of times people will ask me what artists are my greatest influences. I always say, 'It wasn't the artists, it was the time.' Denver had a small community of African-Americans, but it was a very tight community. I remember in the '60s when the first black radio station came on, with Doctor Daddy-O and we were hearing the music of Motown and R&B but there was a lot of country music, too. At that time, jazz was very experimental, and you had these open-air concerts at Red Rocks, up in the mountains, a natural amphitheater. I went there and saw The Headhunters and Miles Davis, a lot of R&B and just all of this amazing music out in an open setting. It didn't even matter what kind of music it was, people just went there to enjoy it. I am so thankful I came up in an amazing time because music was a big part of what was going on socially, too.

Music in general and the industry in particular has changed so much since then.

There's not an industry like I knew it anymore. But a lot of the younger artists can have direct contact with their audiences now. They really know how to make that happen. I love that while we had albums and liner notes, they have this really beautiful visual experience going on with images and new ways of expressing who they are. I like having the access to all these different universes that people create around themselves. My introduction to jazz came through exposure to world music and now I can pull up all kinds of music from all over the world.

Your family were very musical and very creative, including your cousin [multi-instrumentalist-singer-producer] George Duke.

They were. If they didn't play instruments, they played great records. It was really a way of life. George produced most of my records on Blue Note and my uncle [Charlie Burrell] was the first African-American to play with the San Francisco Symphony and was with the Denver Symphony for over 43 years. Back then, imagination ran wild in a totally different way. We didn't watch television, we played outside. So the way we interacted with each other was different than it is now. It was very powerful and all the musicians knew the work of the others. You could hear Aretha Franklin talking about Sarah Vaughn, and Sarah talking about Aretha. Everyone was very aware of each other. But everybody was unique. From the first note, you'd know who you were listening to.

Your stage presence is unique not only for your incredible vocals, but also for the between-song conversation which is just as musical as the songs. How did you create those improvised scat-type vamps?

I think it came because I could perform in front of audiences, but I used to very nervous about speaking to them. I found if music was under it, I could improvise and say anything in any kind of way. That's how it came to be; it was just a necessary way for me to be able to communicate.

What do you call that part of the show?

Well every artist has something unique they bring to the table. I don't call it anything. You know, necessity is the mother of invention. It was necessary for me to communicate with my audience so I had to find a way.

Let's talk about your time with Harry Belafonte in the early '80s. You said world music brought you deeper into jazz. He's a world of influences in one person.

Absolutely. When I was asked to be a part of his group, he'd always presented people from other countries, mainly vocalists, like Nana Mouskouri and Miriam Makeba. He'd wanted to do something with an African-American singer and I got selected. It was quite an experience because he shared his mastery with me and his way of doing things.

You were already recording at that point.

Yeah, I had my own band and I had my first record out. With my jazz band, we were very complicated and complex and here I come into this situation where words can have a dual meaning. A lot of his songs were songs of protest with hidden meanings in order to communicate with people from all over the world. And he had a band that was like the United Nations of bands. He said, 'We don't write out our arrangements, what I want you to do is pick a group of songs, get together with the band and then you guys come up with the way you want to present the songs.'

Total artistic freedom. That mindset seems to have informed the varied approach that you still utilize today.

I loved that freedom! That's part of the tradition of 'head arrangement' in jazz. It's all encompassing. It did become part of how I still approach a lot of things musically. You have all these different personalities onstage and you want each person to contribute to the conversation. He was very gracious about performance. He said, 'If the people are not standing when we finish the show, then we need to go back to the drawing board.'

Dianne Reeves appears at the Atlanta Jazz Festival Saturday May 26 at 9 p.m. on the Legends Stage. For more information, please visit atlantafestivals.com.

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