This article is part of a series in celebration of a new, dynamic voice in Black America: the NUBIANO Exchange. Brace yourself for the NUBIANO experience.
Dianne Reeves is one of America’s most revered contemporary jazz singers. Standing on the shoulders of her forbearers, Reeves’ name has been added to the ranks of Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughn, her vocal inspiration and personal favorite.
To date, the Recording Academy has bestowed Dianne Reeves with four GRAMMY awards — making her the first singer to win “Best Jazz Vocal Performance” for three consecutive recordings: In The Moment (2001), The Calling (2002) and A Little Moonlight (2003). Reeves garnered her fourth GRAMMY with the soundtrack to Good Night, Good Luck (2006), a movie in which she was also featured.
On April 15, 2008, Dianne Reeves released When You Know, an album that showcases Love — from a woman’s perspective — in all of her different stages. Upon review of When You Know, Dianne Reeves managed to squeeze some time out of her busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry — reflecting on life, love and, of course, jazz.
In 1977, you embarked on a musical journey — introducing your spirit to the world with the release of Welcome to My Love. Much of your recent mainstream success has been in the last decade, however, with a string of historic GRAMMY wins. What kept you motivated during the early years and what do you attribute to the longevity of your career?
In those [early] years, I was trying to find out who I was. I had the opportunity to record. I was touring, I had my own band – that just kept me going. I think that’s the same kind of thing that still works and keeps me going now – it’s the journey of all of this. Throughout the journeys, there have been more and more accolades, more and more people who have come to know what I do and who I am.
One song you have revisited in this journey a couple of times is “Better Days.” You appear to be telling a specific tale about you and your grandmother, but the lyrics really reach out to a lot of people on a very personal level. What is the significance behind the song?
Well, I grew up in a family that told stories, that celebrated one another, and kept people’s memories alive through storytelling. I think when my grandmother died, it was the story that I wanted to tell about her. I listened to her [story] all my life – and my mother’s and everybody’s. They were stories that gave me inspiration, gave me another kind of way of looking at life and dealing with things. These stories still reinforce a lot of things in my life now. So when my grandmother passed, I thought the most befitting thing was to tell her story. What happened from that was people said, “No, this is my story.” Interesting.
The storytelling is shown in “Today Will Be A Good Day,” which was one of my favorite songs on [When You Know]. How did you decide to put that track on the CD?
When we were recording, I was really excited about what was happening. I just started writing. Some of these things I said, “Well, I’ll just leave for the next record.” [“Today Will Be A Good Day”], even though it is recorded different, still fit the concept of the record. It was one of those things that was for my mother: her philosophy in life and how that particular philosophy really helped me. I thought that would be befitting.
Sarah Vaughan is one of your favorite jazz singers, but you were still able to develop your own particular style [apart from her influence]. Was that a natural growth or did you purposely want to go in a certain direction?
Oh, no. I think [Vaughan] was really important to me because she showed the possibilities of what a person could do with their instrument, you know. When I was growing up, I had this really raw instrument. I was singing and doing all kinds of stuff, but I didn’t realize how much one’s instrument possessed color, timbre, and these kinds of things that you can do. It was through her that I started to hear all kinds of things to be able to define and refine myself.
As you talk about honing your own sound, I am reminded that a lot of singers of yesteryear were raised in the church and sang for that purpose, as opposed to singing for the crowd to become a star. What is your opinion of current musical styles?
Interestingly, I grew up listening to people who were very popular who came out of the church. The one thing that everybody did at that time was seek their own unique ability. I hear that more among the rappers [today] than among the pop singers, because it seems like in the pop industry, music executives are focused on saying, “We want the next this and the next that.” You will find the original and then five other clones underneath. I think that’s really unfortunate. The beauty of life – and the most amazing thing that God has given us – and the miracle that we see everyday is that we are unique. Each one of us is unique and we have unique [things] that we can say or do. [This uniqueness is] one of the things I think the industry just doesn’t really promote enough.
Jazz started off as an exclusive genre. How do you make it appealing to a new generation that might think it’s too old school?
Most of this stuff that people think about jazz is because they never really listened to it. I go out and tour and perform, and there are young people in colleges [who say], “I didn’t know that was jazz. I didn’t know. I love what you do.” Jazz artists are just as unique within the community as anybody else, so everybody has a different sound.
What I really hate is when somebody says, “Oh, yeah, she’s like the next Billie Holiday,” and they’ve never even heard of Billie Holiday’s records to know who she really was and why people celebrate her. I think the mystique that surrounds jazz music, even with jazz critics, always makes it sound like this elite club, for-members-only kind of music. And it is really not.
Recently, Herbie Hancock received a Grammy award for Album of the Year. What effect do you think his win will have on the jazz genre?
I know one thing: it says to me that anything is possible. To me – whether it be jazz, classical, whatever – it wasn’t the norm for a jazz artist. He’s of great stature, but maybe not as a celebrity like Kanye West. But at the same time, [Hancock’s] work stood up. He was voted by his peers to receive that honor. So that was pretty amazing.
Indeed it was. Do you find yourself singing to a different audience than when you first started?
Oh, God, yeah. My demographic is so broad. I think that people hear the record and it is one thing. When people come to my shows, they’re like, “Oh, boy we get it,” because it’s so alive and in the moment. My audience has just grown. And a lot of the recent reason is because of the movie Good Night, and Good Luck.
How did you become involved in that film? I know that you said George Clooney picked the tracks.
I was on his radar. He made sure that they got in touch with me. When I heard about it, they sent me a script. I thought “Wow, they just want me to sing.” I didn’t realize that I would be in the film. With that, I had a whole different approach and [performed] with respect to the time. I really enjoyed that a lot.
How do you feel when you go abroad? How is your reception?
Well, it’s funny because black music in general – whether it be jazz, R&B, Gospel – is looked at as very exotic in Europe because of the freeness of the music and because the music always has an edge of celebration – because it’s living music. So, when we go to Europe, people are chomping at the bits because they don’t understand the spirit, the soul, and the roots of this music. They are very, what I call, active listeners – extremely sophisticated listeners. They want to let go and hear and feel everything that is to be felt and heard.
What artists do you listen to and which artists do you feel are freely expressing themselves?
I love to listen to artists who are clear about what their voice is. Of course, anytime I speak of voice, I’m talking about spirit, because everything else is the instrument or the means for that to be heard. I love artists who really delve deeply into the spirit. I get really inspired when I go hear somebody else and they make the hairs stand on my arms and I go, “Wow, I never even thought about doing it that way or doing it this way.” So, I listen to a lot of different kinds of music.
Any artist in particular that you would call your favorite right now?
I just got a couple of really amazing compilations of stuff, like outtakes of Aretha Franklin. I got some really, really wonderful stuff on Sam Cooke. I love him. I’ve never really delved into him as I have lately. I have not seen her live but I really like this young woman, Chrisette Michele. I think she’s authentic and I think that what she talks about is really, really wonderful. [Her] lyrics are rich and it’s about respect and love and compassion and all kinds of stuff. I really like that about her.
Wow, good stuff. If you were talking to someone who perhaps doesn’t know anything about jazz, who would you tell them to be on their introductory list to the jazz genre?
I think I would start down the line of Bessie Smith. Then I would say Billie Holiday, then definitely Dinah Washington. I would tell them to listen to Carmen McRae, then Sarah Vaughan, then Ella [Fitzgerald]. In there, as well, I would say Mahalia Jackson, because when you start with Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday or Dinah Washington, you’re really starting in the church.
A group that recently got some appreciation is The Clark Sisters – they finally won a Grammy [for Best Gospel Performance].
I know – The Clark Sisters, oh my God. [Those ladies] and Shirley Caesar. I was listening to [Shirley Caesar’s] “Blessed Assurance” and it just wore me out. I had to go listen to it again and it makes me cry. It’s one thing to sing a song and another thing to believe in the power of the words.
In listening to your older CDs and comparing [them] to When You Know, there’s a lot more emotion behind the CD, especially the title track, “When You Know.” How did you go about selecting that particular song for the title track?
Well, it’s like the sentiment of when you know. I grew up with, “when you know that you know that you know that you know”. I loved that. And I feel that this time in my life there are a lot of things that I want to know, there are a lot of things that I really do know for certain. So the song, while it has a certain kind of dimension on the record, takes on a multi-faceted dimension live because there are so many things that are a part of what’s being said in that song. I thought it was appropriate.
Any particular stories from recording the album?
The musicians were the glue in pulling [the album] together. There was such joy. When the arrangements were done for the music, we tried to keep them light. When we go in the studio, the [music] takes form because all of the musicians that I’ve had the opportunity of using – they’re impeccable. When they come in, they’ll start putting in their thing, then it becomes something totally different than what the sketch was. The sketch becomes colorful. Everybody contributed so much and we all became co-creators of the sound. I love that.
You are often known for your live performances. What is it that elevates the performance or takes your instrument to another level?
It’s being able to jump into the unknown and know that it’s going to be good. And that’s what I tried to create in the studio with this record, more than any other record I’ve ever done. When you’re in the studio, you have the safety net of going in and fixing things. Still, I wanted it to be a live set. I wanted everybody to be feeling and grooving on each other and have this kind of excitement and playing.
Well, it’s definitely a great album.
Thank you so much.
An Abbreviated Dianne Reeves Discography (2000 – present)
▪ In the Moment: Live in Concert (2000, Blue Note)
▪ The Calling: Celebrating Sarah Vaughan (2001, Blue Note)
▪ A Little Moonlight (2003, Blue Note)
▪ Christmas Time Is Here (2004, Blue Note)
▪ Good Night, and Good Luck (2005, Concord)
▪ When You Know (2008, Blue Note)
For more information on Dianne Reeves, visit her official website.