Last Friday evening, the premiere jazz vocalist Dianne Reeves ran a Jazz Master Session in the Terrace Theatre at the Kennedy Center. Renée Fleming moderated the event as part of a weekend she had spearheaded called American Voices, a celebration of our many vocal traditions and styles. This was followed up by a panel discussion with the opera star sitting down and talking to some serious jazz creators.
But first, the master class, where four young singers showed their grooves and got mentored.
Sydney Marie Thomas, still a senior at Duke Ellington School of the arts here in Washington D.C., launched the session singing “September in the Rain.” Dianne gently nudged the young singer to consider the mood and circumstances of the piece. Though Dianne used words that might be spoken to every vocal student, but they were no less true here: “You gotta make this song your own. You gotta tell your story.” With attentive work, word for word, line for line, the song began to transform into something being imagined fully, and we could begin feeling the real deal of an improvised moment inside a relationship.
Michael Mayo stood in front of Dianne Reeves next and used his voice like an ensemble of instruments, going into an air-filled big-kettle bottom and intentionally warping sound when he chose, in the vein of Bobby McFerrin. Dianne thought for a moment, then asked him to re-introduce himself and tell about himself but singing it all, getting him to align himself with his speaking voice. “Carry this into your song. What do the words sound like without the music surrounding it?” Then she tested whether he was listening to the accompanist, Peter Martin, pleased when the singer could shift comfortably with the piano playing. She suddenly joined him scatting, where she added her remarkable sound, influenced by African rhythms and vowel colors. He grinned and played right along. They were having fun together as musicians, a hallmark of jazz.
Shacara Rogers, a recent graduate from Howard University, brought to the class the ballad “The Midnight Sun.” Dianne again was most interested in getting the singer to connect and make the words come alive, in lines like “Your lips were like a red and ruby chalice.” She coaxed the singer into tasting the sounds inside the words, breathing attitude and emotionality into these images.
Kate Davis was the last of this group to come out on stage, and even if we had not read she was a bassist, songwriter, and outspoken activist, as well as singer – yes, and despite the lack of polished style – right away there was something curious. It’s an ineffable quality, but we could pick up something quirky, original, and therefore arresting about this young woman. In “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” her voice wasn’t holistically aligned as yet. It didn’t matter. This person seemed to have something to say, and it made us want to get her story.
The following night, we got our chance – and so did she. Kate Davis and Michael Mayo both were invited to join the roster of stars at the $300 concert in the Concert Hall, when big-name jazz vocalist Kurt Elling had to bow out because of illness. It must have felt like a movie for these two young artists to be thrust on stage ti perform with Renée Fleming & Friends. The two singers did so well, it was exciting to see them step up. And Kate in particular, dragging on and off her big bass to center stage, looked so vulnerable, that is until she put that big wooden beast down, then she owned it and won our hearts.
Questions & Answers
Renée showed she was genuinely curious about this form that is so American and yet can be mystifying to many of us. What does jazz singing include? And what choices does a jazz singer have to vary a song? What about scat? Where does it come from? How do you choose which sounds, one young singer wondered.
“I’ve developed my own language to help me hit the high notes I want to hit or get a certain sound.” Dianne answered her without a trace of condescension. And as for jazz phrasing, “it’s such an awesome individualistic part of styling.” She urged singers to start by paying attention to how you’d speak the words. “That way it comes from the heart.”
What about tips for playing with a big band? “There are just so many colors found in a big band, you can pull from all of them, the fill, the solos.”
And what do you do to take care of yourself as a jazz singer with the kind of punishing touring schedule someone like Dianne has? “Give up talking on the phone for a start. I had to,” she joked. “Keep things peaceful. Rest your voice, drink water, and get lots of sleep. And, then, I had classical training. That helps keep the voice healthy.”
Dianne Reeves was joined on stage by another jazz great, Kurt Elling, as well as principal at Depth of Field Management Darryl Pitt, Producer Larry Rosen, and Don Was, music producer of Blue Note Records.
Kurt painted a picture of the life of a jazz artist on the road. The life of a singer had real perils, challenged by drying air on airplanes, lack of sleep, strange food. His words carried special urgency and poignancy, because Kurt had just announced he would not be able to join his colleagues on stage the following evening in concert.
Renée shared how this was an all too real experience. She, too, had had to cancel, after losing her voice, five minutes before she was to go on at the Met.
Throughout the weekend, Renée described opera singers as the “heavy lifters” because of singing in huge halls without microphones, nonetheless she reckoned that one night singing, then two nights off, probably sounded cushy compared to the months on the road, night after punishing night, for singers working in other styles. She asked, “Who helps you get through?” Dianne, it seemed, travels with four musicians, a manager, and a tour manager whom she described as her “pit bull.”
Renée came back to her question of what makes a jazz singer, and what drew these artists to this style. Dianne spoke of the singer’s particular co-creation that happens in jazz, where a singer brings something new and fresh to every performance. The process sounded like alchemy, and Dianne described jazz as “spirit.”
Larry quipped that, like pornography, you know it when you see it. He has been scouting out there for years, including for the Sassy Awards, named after Sarah Vaughan. He still feels excited. He assured us the talent is out there and it’s “sensational.”
Renée asked, “But where does a young person who wants to sing jazz start? What’s the path?”
Start wherever you start and sing where you can was the consensus. Some of the panelists thought competitions help. But Don Was suggested striking out on your own. Kurt concurred. “I found a pizza place and played for a slice. Next week I played for a whole pizza. And then a week later maybe they gave us $20. You need to pound pavements and create your own gigs. Then, when you get in front of an audience, see what the rooms needs. Feel out if they need ballads.”
Diane jumped in to address what she sees as a key element to success, a radar sensitivity to sense what an audience needs. To this day she doesn’t have a play list. She might even change arrangements on the spot, maybe asking for just the bass to back her on something if she feels it would be right for a particular audience.
Just talking, you could feel the spirit of these jazz artists.
Renée admitted this is what the weekend was all about, learning from each other. She turned to Dianne, “I want you to work with opera singers, with your focus on freedom and your emphasis on words.”
An earlier performance by Kate Davis at the Kennedy Center