June 28, 2017
Dianne Reeves is widely considered one of the top jazz vocalists of her generation, and on June 12 the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) named her to its class of 2018 Jazz Masters.
In her first interview since winning the NEA award, Reeves spoke with SoundExchange about her musical influences, her favorite jazz instrumentalist and where she was when she learned that the NEA had named her one of the 2018 Jazz Masters.
Reeves also spoke about Black Music Month. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter designated the month of June as Black Music Month to raise awareness about the contributions of African American musicians. There is no American music without Black music, Reeves said in a telephone interview from her home in Denver.
Reeves, who has won five GRAMMYs®, perhaps is best known to non-jazz fans for her role in Good Night, and Good Luck, a film directed by George Clooney.
But to jazz fans, she is well known. In a review of a 2015 performance, New York Times critic Stephen Holden wrote, “The most admired jazz diva since the heyday of Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, Ms. Reeves has a keen sense of herself as a custodian of a jazz vocal tradition that has fallen into disarray as the boundaries between genres have dissolved. She may be a preservationist, but her definition of jazz encompasses rhythm and blues, reggae and salsa.”
SoundExchange: What was your reaction when you heard the news that you received the NEA’s award?
Reeves: I had been on a flight from Australia for 13 hours. We arrived in San Francisco and had to hurry to get our connecting flight and go through customs, so I didn’t turn my phone on right away. When we got to the next plane, I turned my phone on and all these messages came up.
I looked on Twitter and Facebook and saw congratulatory messages, and I thought “Oh my goodness, this is amazing.”
SoundExchange: June is Black Music Month, so this is a great time to talk about the accomplishments and the legacy of those who came before you. Can you tell us which jazz vocalists – past or present – you admire most and why?
Reeves: I don’t have one, and the reason I say that is because the lesson the jazz vocalists taught me is that you must come at this with your own authenticity and uniqueness.
I grew up listening to Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, but also vocalists that came out of Motown, like Marvin Gaye.
I think the one who really opened my eyes was probably Betty Carter. I remember living in Los Angeles and I had my own band and went to hear her. It was the first time I ever heard someone stand in a band in that way – as a co-creator. I loved her way and her uniqueness. At that point I realized I would never have a backup band. It would be an ensemble that we create together.
SoundExchange: Which jazz instrumentalist do you admire most and why?
Reeves: One of the greats to me is Cannonball Adderley. I would have loved to work with him. I’d seen him perform many times, and my cousin, George Duke, worked with him. I love the way he played, and I love that what he played I could see. It was very cinematic. I love the way he spoke to the audience.
He was exciting to me. I also loved the way he played with Nancy Wilson.
SoundExchange: If you had to name one Black musician who influenced you more than any other, who would that be and why?
Reeves: Probably Clark Terry in that he was my mentor. He put me in situations to work with great, masterful musicians. No young person could have asked for soil more fertile than that.
SoundExchange: You met him at a young age. You were performing with your high school jazz band. The band won a competition that led to a performance at the National Association of Jazz Educators, and he encouraged you to pursue a career as a singer.
Reeves: Yes, I was 15 or 16. He gave me the foundation and the insight to understand that jazz is a living art and that it is this amazing, intimate exchange that goes on between the musicians on stage. Every night is different.
SoundExchange: You’ve won five GRAMMYs® and your career has spanned a few decades, so it’s fair to say that you are an influence to up and coming jazz vocalists. Are you comfortable with that role, and what is the best piece of advice you can provide a jazz vocalist?
Reeves: I hope I can be an inspiration. I tell them what I learned – there is no one in the world like you, so be respectful of your uniqueness, define it and refine it and keep pushing forward. Do what makes you feel strong and happy.
SoundExchange: Jazz has had some ups and downs. What are your thoughts on the state of jazz in America today?
Reeves: There are a lot of people teaching music. I have a lot of colleagues teaching, and it’s wonderful that students have an opportunity to work with masterful musicians. But for me, I went to the living schools when I was coming up. The living schools were the great musicians like Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. It was Betty Clark, Clark Terry and Cannonball Adderley – always hiring young musicians who could learn from someone in the moment, be inspired in the moment and follow that inspiration.
I don’t think that happens a lot now. The students learn and are amazing, and they have great technical ability. But the spirit part – it’s not in everybody. For me that one thing is missing. But it’s still an exciting time because there are a lot of great young artists and fantastic vocalists who are doing amazing things.
SoundExchange: How important is it to observe Black Music Month?
Reeves: Black music is everywhere. I’ve been traveling this world for more than 35 years. No matter where you go in the world, hip-hop is there in some form or fashion. The whole time we were in Sydney, we would walk to stores or restaurants and hear James Brown or Earth, Wind and Fire. I was like, “wow!”