“Better Days” composed and performed by Dianne Reeves from the album The Dianne Reeves Album;
“One for My Baby” music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by Johnny Mercer, performed by Dianne Reeves from the album, Good Night and Good Luck.
“Straighten Up and Fly Right,” written by Nat King Cole and Irving Mills, performed by Dianne Reeves from the album, Good Night and Good Luck.
“What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life” lyrics by Alan Bergman and Marilyn Bergman and original music by Michel Legrand, performed by Sarah Vaughn from the album, Sarah Vaughn with Michel Legrand.
“Dreams,” written by Stevie Nicks, performed by Dianne Reeves from the album, Beautiful Life.
“Nine,” written and performed by Dianne Reeves. Live performance.
Jo Reed: You’re listening to 2018 NEA Jazz Master Dianne Reeves and this is Art Works the weekly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine reed.
Dianne Reeves is an endlessly versatile singer—whether it’s R and B, gospel, Pop, Latin, or Blues. And at the heart of everything she sings is a jazz sensibility. Born in Detroit and raised in Denver, Colorado, Dianne had and has no patience for genres. Music—all music—was a way of life for her family. She was introduced to the blues by an aunt and to jazz by an uncle. Among her early influences were Sarah Vaughn and Betty Carter. Dianne Reeves went west to L.A. where she sang with the band Caldera, co-founded the fusion group Night Flight with Billy Childs, and toured extensively with Sergio Mendes. Moving east to New York, Reeves toured with Harry Belafonte as a principle singer for three years. When Blue Note Records reestablished itself in the mid-1980s—Dianne Reeves was signed as its first female vocalist. She would go on to win five Grammy awards—including one for the soundtrack of the George Clooney film Good Night and Good Luck—in which Dianne also had a featured part. She is the recipient of honorary degrees from the Berklee College of Music and the Juilliard School. In 2002, Dianne Reeves became the first creative chair for jazz for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. And of course, she continues to record and to perform—touring around the world several times a year. And now she’s a NEA Jazz Master.
Dianne Reeves: Woo, that is a very long, amazing table of masterful people that I get to sit with, and it’s extraordinary, because the Jazz Masters past are the reason that I’m here today, because they poured into me, they made music that, you know, I could sit and listen to for hours. They gave performances that I can’t even describe, that were so memorable, but that made an imprint on my heart that made me want to keep wanting to do this. So, I’m—I’m excited to be able to be a part of this amazing group of musicians.
Jo Reed: Your family is extraordinarily musical.
Dianne Reeves: Yeah.
Jo Reed: Tell me about music in your family.
Dianne Reeves: You know, growing up was pretty amazing because of—I had this one aunt, Kay, who played the piano and sang the blues, and a lot of them, her sisters and brothers, were a part of Vaudeville, and they did all of this wonderful music. But she would sing these blues that were like Ma Rainey or Bessie Smith that had these dual meanings. And when we’d get together during the holidays, she would play, and my uncle would play bass, and she would always teach me one of those songs. Then I’d be singing them and doing the dance that she showed me how to shimmy, and the adults would be cracking up laughing. And it took me, like, to about the age of 22 to realize what I was actually singing about. But it was wonderful, you know, exciting times. My uncle was with Denver Symphony at that time, Colorado now, for over 40 years. And then, my cousin, George Duke, would come here from time to time and visit, and was a magnificent and impeccable musician. We listened to music all the time. If people didn’t play instruments, they played great music, and music was not just entertainment, but really, a way of life. Music spoke to all generations and it was a rich time.
Jo Reed: You studied piano when you were a kid.
Dianne Reeves: Yeah.
Dianne Reeves: Every family that I know had a piano in their house and we did. And my mother started piano lessons when I was very young. And then, when I went to junior high school, my junior high school teacher, who was my music teacher, Bennie Williams was giving me piano lessons. And at that time, we were the first young people in the city to be bused, so we were going out to these schools that were way out in the farmland, it seemed like, because we had never been that far away from home. And it was interesting, because we—it was all of these kids put together, and all the kids got along fine. And we found out a lot of things about one another and wanted to know more. And my junior high school teacher, Bennie Williams, was really, really more than just a music teacher. She taught us poetry; she helped us put on school shows; she did all these kind of things to help us stand in each other’s shoes, and it was a really powerful time. And that’s when I discovered that I could sing, and from that point on, I’ll never forget; I was on the stage singing, and I didn’t know how to move or anything. But I’m singing, and I’m loving how I feel singing, and I’m loving the energy that is coming from being able to do this. So I remember, my grandmother used to always say don’t put all your eggs in one basket, but when I realized what music was inside of me, I decided I’m putting all my eggs in one basket.
Jo Reed: You tell a great story about your uncle and his—the advice he gave to you after he heard you sing a Sarah Vaughan song.
Dianne Reeves: Oh, in high school, we had a really, really great jazz program. And I remember the conductor of the band asked me what I wanted to sing, and there was this record that Sarah Vaughan did with Michel Legrand. And she did “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life.”
Dianne Reeves: I thought I loved the arrangement. I loved the way she sang it because her voice just seemed to go on forever, every color, every note. Her range was beautiful and wide.
Dianne Reeves: And so, I learned the song verbatim, just like she sang it, and we would perform it with the high school jazz band. And one day, my uncle said, “You know, that’s probably one of the two or three at the most takes that she did, but after that, I’m sure she never, ever sang it like that again.” He said, “You find your own way to sing the song,” and that was the beginning of me trying to find my own voice.
Jo Reed: A very, I think, special moment when you were young here in Denver you met Ella Fitzgerald.
Dianne Reeves: I was in high school, and there was a club called The Warehouse and on the weekends, they would have a jam session, and I would go, and I ended up getting a gig there. And there was a—a club downstairs from The Warehouse called The Tool Shed, which was just the little club; the big club was The Warehouse. So they had all of these amazing acts I saw. Then they tell me Ella Fitzgerald’s coming. I’m like oh, my God. And I went to see her upstairs; I had the opportunity to see her. And I remember, she swung all this Beatles music, and I was like, I didn’t even know you could do that, you know. She was supposed to be there I think three nights, and she ended her appearances there because the altitude kind of got to her. But her wardrobe was still unpacked and still in her dressing room, where I had met her the night before. So they tell me, you know, this next day, you have to go on, because, you know, Ms. Fitzgerald is not going to be here, and we just need you to come upstairs and sing a couple of songs. We have a band and, you know, we’ll work it out. And I’m sitting in her dressing room, looking at all of these gowns, and there were a pair of patent leather, periwinkle blue, patent leather pumps sitting off to the side. And, I just put my feet in them. And I went on stage, and I sang the three songs in her stead, and the whole time, I was looking down at my feet, thinking I have on Ella Fitzgerald’s shoes. You know, that was major. Having access like that was major.
Jo Reed: And in high school, you also met Clark Terry.
Dianne Reeves: Yes.
Jo Reed: Again, that was very, very significant.
Dianne Reeves: Yeah, you know our band won a citywide competition, which allowed us to go to Chicago to attend what was then called the National Association of Jazz Educators. Clark, you know, has always been a—a clinician and a—you know, always looking for new talent. And he came, and we started talking. He said, “I really enjoyed that, and we need to be in touch.” You know, I started doing performances with him. And he had—always had these really amazing all-star bands, jazz masters, and I didn’t know who they were. Like, I would work with them and then come back and say oh, my God, you know. So it would be, like, Major Holley on bass, or George Duvivier, or the great Grady Tate on drums, or Louis Bellson -- the list just went on, all of these great musicians. And I always think back and think, God, you know, no singer could have ever asked for a more fertile soil to be in, and he would be there, you know. So I was learned the language of the music working with him. And it was extraordinary because through that experience, I realized that the music was a kind of language and that there was a conversation going on, on the stage musically that, at that time, I wasn’t a part of, and I knew I wanted to be a part of the conversation. So part of that was listening, and I would listen, and I’d hear, Clark play something, and I would answer, and then it just started to open up for me, and I started to understand, like Abbey Lincoln said, jazz is a spirit, and it’s something that you feel inside and you don’t think about. If your technique and your—all your things are in order, creativity just flows straight through you and it’s like having a conversation on stage, laughter and all, everything.
Jo Reed: When did you move to L.A., and why L.A?
Dianne Reeves: I moved to L.A. in 1977, and I always say I had an opportunity to starve and be cold and move back East, or starve and be warm and move to L.A., so I went to L.A. And the biggest reason is because I had family there. George was there. I had cousins there. And it just seemed like the right place—a lot of musicians move there, and it was the perfect thing.
Jo Reed: And you also met Billy Childs.
Dianne Reeves: Yes, we did a lot of work together.
Jo Reed: You sure did.
Dianne Reeves: Yeah, we had a group together, Night Flight, very experimental, played in a club out at the beach called The Come Back Inn, and at the time, Billy was working with Freddy Hubbard, and I was just getting ready to start going out on the road and ended up working with Sergio Mendes during that time.But we had this amazing group, and we would write our own songs or arrange things. And, you know, we were in this place that they didn’t pay us. We passed a hat; that’s how we got paid, but it was for gas money, and it was all worth it.
Josephine Reed: How did you meet Sergio Mendes? How did you begin to tour with him?
Dianne Reeves: My friend, another pianist, great pianist, John Beasley, was saying, “Sergio’s looking for a new singer.” And I was like, “Oh, okay.” He said, “You should go audition.” He said, “Do you know any Brazilian songs?” And I said, “Yeah, you know, I know “Wave” and, you know, “The Boy from Ipanema.” I said, “I know this song that I learned from the record, the Stories to Tell album that Flora Purim did, and it was “How Insensatez,” and “How Insensitive.”And I learned it—I don’t know if I learned it, but I—I sang what I heard. So ended up getting this audition with Sergio, and we did “Wave,” and we talked about Jobim, and he said, “What else do you know?” I said, “Well, I know this song in Portuguese,” and he said, “Oh, really?” “Yeah.” He said, “Let’s do that.” So it was “How Insensitive,” and I started singing it, and he’s playing, and I’m singing my heart out. And then, after it was over, he said, “Well, I don’t know what it was you just sang, but you’ve got the gig.” So I worked with Sergio for about a year and a half. And the thing that was really cool about Sergio was it wasn’t just about the music that we performed with him. He was all about all the music that came out of Brazil. It was an education in the music and always pulling up amazing songs. You know, I had this whole long Portuguese repertoire when I left him.
Josephine Reed: And you also met Betty Carter in L.A., didn’t you?
Dianne Reeves: Yes. Woo, man! Okay, so my friend called me and he said, “Dianne, you at home?” He said, “Come down here. You got to see this lady. She’s singing. She has another show. You know, she’s here all week at Hop Sing’s, and come down right now.” “I got a ticket for you. Just come down.” So I came and there she was. And it was the beginning of the second set, first night, and when she opened her mouth and she started to sing, and the way that she was singing, that there was this co-creation going on, like right before you, that there’s this person who had this very, very broad range that had just jumped off the edge and just was flying on the stage. That she had this relationship with time that she could pull so far back, you just thought oh, my God, you know, and left you in kind of suspended animation.
Dianne Reeves: I went every show, every night after that. It was like a religious experience. And I’ll never forget, I went to the Tower Records and bought records, and then, you know, here’s Bet-Car Records. I’m like, she has her own record label? And so, I bought a turntable that would play just her records. I had this record player set up with her records all around the speakers, with flowers. It looked like an altar, and I sat in front of that thing and just listened. I couldn’t get enough. it’s like seeing a glimpse of something that you recognize in your soul, but now you get to kind of, to see a spark of it, and that spark really changed my life, and I started trying to mess with time. Like, I will never forget, I said, “Okay, we’re going to do “The Man I Love,” but we’re going to put it right here and I’m just going to phrase over the top and I’m going to do it this way.” Shoot, by the time we got to the end of that song, I don’t know if the man I love could find me; I couldn’t find him; we couldn’t find each other. But she gave me this kind of courage that said you know what, it’s out there for you. Find it and make it yours. Do the things that are in your heart, your authentic things, there was nobody like Betty Carter.
Josephine Reed: You moved to New York in 1983. Why New York?
Dianne Reeves: I had gotten a gig now with Harry Belafonte. I had auditioned for him. He was looking for someone, an African-American singer, because he had had singers from all over the world that he presented on stage, and he wanted to do something different. So, I got this gig with him and I remember going up to BEI over there on 57th Street for my first meeting, he said—he introduced me to the musicians. He said, “Now,” he said, “You know, we have a certain kind of repertoire that we do. I have a whole lot of songs.” He gave me notebooks of songs. He said, “Just go through it and pick some songs. There might be something that you might think you want to do; it’s fine.” He said, “But we won’t be writing arrangements.” He said, “We’ll get together with this band in a workshop atmosphere, and the arrangements will come through that.” And of course, he had this United Nations of, you know, musicians in the band, where everybody’s contributing things from their culture. And so the music it was very, very special, because it was music that first of all was coming from us, and I understood this because, you know, I’d seen Betty and just this whole co-creation thing. So here we are in a workshop, co-creating, making this amazing music and arrangements to be a part of this extravaganza that would be Harry’s show that happened every single night. And it was extraordinary, and I think to myself he was so gracious in, you know, allowing me to explore and find myself in this music. He didn’t tell me what to do; he didn’t tell me how to do it. He just gave me the tools to find my way in it.
Jo Reed: And I’m curious about what you learned from him. You told us a little bit musically, but also about that life, a life in which you’re creating music.
Dianne Reeves: Well, up until that time, I was really into my instrument, you know, and I wanted to improvise and do all kinds of things and, you know, really wasn’t into lyrics, because I hadn’t really lived a lot. And there were certain songs that called to me that I would sing, but it was all about improvisation, and in my band with Billy, that’s what we did. And with Harry, it was about a message. So here we were, singing these—some of these folk songs, and songs from South Africa, and songs about the Zambezi River, and, songs of protest and social consciousness. So, working with him made me change the way that I would sing. From that point on, it would be always about the story that I could tell with a lyric.
Jo Reed: In 1987, I think, Blue Note came back to life and—
Dianne Reeves: Yeah.
Josephine Reed: –ta-da, you were the first female vocalist.
Dianne Reeves: I had always heard about Bruce Lundvall from different musicians, and George even talked about Bruce. Everybody loved Bruce Lundvall. And in 1987, I’ll never forget, he was staying at this hotel. They were doing a conference there, and I found out a way to, you know, have a meeting with him. And I said, “You have to come and see me. I’m going to be performing tomorrow night at the Wiltern, and we’re doing this celebration of Ellington music, and you have to come.” I don’t know where I got this courage. Anyway, he comes, and I’ll never forget, I’m waiting for him to sit down. He’s not seated yet, and he’s like, about the fourth row from the front, so you could see him. And they said, “Ladies and gentlemen, Ms. Dianne Reeves,” and just as I was walking on stage, I saw him coming down the aisle, so I slowed up getting on the stage to make sure he’d get seated, and I took my time. And then afterwards, he came back stage, and it was on; 1987 was a good year.
Jo Reed: When you were at Blue Note, you worked with George. You worked with George Duke.
Dianne Reeves: Yeah.
Jo Reed: I really would love for you to talk about that relationship, because you worked with him for years. He produced many of your records.
Dianne Reeves: Right. Well, I had been in Los Angeles for 10 years before I worked with—you know, did my own project. He always would say, “Let me produce you. Let me produce you.” I said, “I’m not ready yet. I’m still just trying to get it together. When I’m ready, then…” You know, because I just respected him so much. So now, here’s 1987, and that’s when I did my first record with my cousin as producer George Duke. I said, you know, I want to make a record so that people will kind of know where I’ve been and who I am and what I’m about.
Dianne Reeves: The thing that I found that I loved about my cousin, even more, was that, you know, George had his own sound and his own way of, you know, presenting his music. But when we went into that studio, it was all about my voice and presenting my ideas in the way that they needed to be presented. And he produced many artists from all genres of music, and that’s just the way he was. He was this impeccable, impeccable musician, from classical music, funk, jazz, everything. He just loved music, and excellence was just always just second nature. And I loved him so much. Now, I’m recording, I’m hearing my voice back, and he’s helping me to understand well, leave that alone. That’s really, really soulful. If you keep doing it, you’re going to take the spontaneity and the soul out of the recording. He helped me to really like my sound and what I was doing in the moment.
Josephine Reed: Your versatility is part of what you bring to the table. Well, you sing everything; you sing standards, you sing popular songs, you do your own music. Buy you’ve said you bring a jazz foundation to all of it.
Dianne Reeves: Yeah, absolutely and the greatest influence on my life was the times that I grew up in. The times I grew up in, music was without boundaries. You listened to everything. You know, I loved, you know, being able to take, you know, a pop song or a R&B song that I heard growing up and giving it a jazz sensibility, because, for me, that was my standards. And then I learned, later on, that’s what jazz musicians did. They took the popular music of the time, and they gave it a jazz sensibility, so I still was in with tradition.
Jo Reed: Your 2013 album Beautiful Life won a Grammy Award and the collaborators of young talent that you brought on to that project is extraordinary.
Dianne Reeves: Well, I have to thank Terri Lyne Carrington, because she’s pretty extraordinary. She produced it, and that was, like, the third project that we worked on, and you know, she’s always been someone whose been steeped in the jazz tradition with one foot, and then the other foot in what’s going on now. And we were talking about these younger musicians, they’re listening to the music that I grew up listening to, that I was a part of that. And I said this would be a nice kind of place to come together, and so we just started asking people, and people were like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” And I remember Robert Glasper, I actually met him on Twitter, you know, and he kept saying, “I have this thing that I think that you would really be—I’d just love it and, you know, I think that you would really be able to do.” It’s called “Dreams.” And I was like, Fleetwood Mac? And I’m like how does he know this song? I was listening to Fleetwood Mac too and he sent the demo of him singing it – I still have it – I won’t let anybody hear it. I treasure it, it’s funny, but he’s singing it and, you know, I thought that is the way I would want to hear that song for me to do.
Dianne Reeves: And so we ended up doing it. He ended up playing on it, brought—as well as Gregory Porter was a part of it. Esperanza Spalding, and I love it. <Laughs>
Jo Reed: And then, with, you know, with Good Night, And Good Luck—
Dianne Reeves: Yeah.
Jo Reed: ––you’ve got straight-up jazz—
Dianne Reeves: Yeah.
Jo Reed: ––straight through. How did that whole thing come about?
Dianne Reeves: Man, I asked George Clooney, I was like, “Why me?” He said, “My aunt loved you.” And I said, “Really?” I said, “I met her one time.” He said, “She told me.”
Jo Reed: And we’re talking about Rosemary.
Dianne Reeves: Rosemary Clooney. And we had done this program in Los Angeles, and we shared a dressing room, and we laughed and cracked up and were crazy the whole time. We sang and did our thing and hugged each other and say—said, “See you out there.” That was her last words to me, you know, you never know whose radar you’re on, so when he told me that, I laughed. But the thing that I loved about this film was it was taking place in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and very, very familiar with that music, because those are the records of a lot of great jazz singers that I listen to. So it gave me an opportunity to play all of them. And when they asked me to do it—I always tell this story—I thought I would just be on the credits of the film. And then they sent a script, and I’m like what? Jazz singer. I was like, that’s me, and I thought okay…So, okay, I figure we’ll go in the studio and record all of these songs, and then, you know, I’ll lip synch, so I was getting ready for that. And—and then George Clooney, who wrote and directed the film, he said, “Oh, no, no, no, no, no. We’ll do those live in the film. You’ll deliver these songs like the actors will deliver their lines.” And I thought, man! You know, he said, “Well, that’s the best way to enjoy this music.” I said, “You’re absolutely right about that.”
Dianne Reeves: I always talk about my two and a half days with George Clooney, mm-mm-mm. It was pretty extraordinary. But he selected all the music for the film. We ended up doing a record, which was really excited to do, and that record also won a Grammy.
Jo Reed: Yes, it did.
Dianne Reeves: Mm-hmm.
Jo Reed: You’ve said that you’re more of a performer than a studio musician.
Dianne Reeves: Well, I enjoy live performance. I enjoy the studio, too. I enjoy both, because both are situations where I need to be in the studio with the musicians, putting it down with them, so it’s live. But I also like the energy of being on stage, because you know, I have a very broad repertoire, but my musicians know everything, but I don’t write sets. I just do what I feel is appropriate in the moment or what I’m moved to do, and that’s what I love. So, that edginess of being able to jump off the edge every night I’m pretty addicted to that, so that’s why I think, you know, performing live is, like, really special for me.
Jo Reed: Yeah, you’ve said you see the stage as a sacred space.
Dianne Reeves: Yeah, it’s a sacred space and also a playground <Laughs>. You know, it’s where we go and we leave everything on the side of the stage, and we go and create and make something really beautiful for that evening that will never be heard again.
Jo Reed: Building, having a successful career in music just isn’t easy. And if you were talking to a younger musician what else would you say that they would need, besides the talent – which is a given?
Dianne Reeves: When I first started, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew what I didn’t want to do, and that was a start. And I think you have to kind of decide what does success mean to you and define that for yourself. But the thing that I tell young people is the thing that is the most powerful is your uniqueness, and everybody is unique in your approach to the music, and you have to protect that. I tell them to define it, refine it, be able to call on it, be able to stand in it, be able to, at any moment, jump off the edge with it, because you’re so ground inside of it. After that, you know, you have to kind of keep your eyes on your—on the prize, what your goal is. But more than anything is just to stay focused and stay in love with what it is that you are doing. If you love it and you’re passionate about it, it’s going to take you places, maybe not where this person is going or that person, but where you need to go.
Jo Reed: Dianne, thank you.
Dianne Reeves: Thank you.
Jo Reed: And congratulations.
Dianne Reeves: Thank you.
Jo Reed: And thank you for giving me your time.
Dianne Reeves: Oh, you’re welcome.
Jo Reed: That was 2018 NEA Jazz Master Dianne Reeves. The 2018 NEA Jazz Masters Tribute Concert will take place on Monday, April 16, here in Washington DC at the Kennedy Center. To find out how to get tickets for this free event go to arts.gov.
You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Please subscribe to Art Works where ever you get your podcasts and leave us a rating on apple—it really does help people to find us.
For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
Music Credits: “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life” written by Alan Bergman, Marilyn Bergman, and Michel Legrand and performed by Sarah Vaughan, from the album Sarah Vaughan with Michel Legrand, and used courtesy of Sony Music Entertainment HERITAGE and by permission of Sony/ATV Music Publishing, ASCAP.
“Today Will Be a Good Day” written and performed by Dianne Reeves from here album, When You Know, used courtesy of Blue Note Records and by permission of Wild Honey Music Publishing c/o Modern Works Music Pub, ASCAP.
From Good Night and Good Luck:
“Straighten Up and Fly Right”
“One for My Baby”
“Pick Yourself Up”
“Betty Carter Live at Montreal jazz Fest 1982”
“Nine a cappella”
“Dreams from Beautiful Life”
“Better Days from Better Days”
Making music without boundaries.