So, what happens when your elegant entertainer goes off script and speaks mandarin directly to a Chinese delegation in the White House? Well, global relationships survived intact after jazz vocalist Dianne Reeves delivered her beautiful, welcoming message to the international crowd although for a moment, the gesture was misinterpreted by a few officials as if it were the '70s and it was The 5th Dimension singing "The Declaration of Independence" in Nixon's White House. The following interview with the artist reveals just how beautiful the event was, who designed Michelle Obama's stunning dress, her own musical history, George Clooney, and more. Also featured is an interview with another primo jazz vocalist, Kurt Elling, who shares his thoughts on his new Don Was-produced album The Gate and beyond.
A Conversation With Dianne Reeves
Mike Ragogna: Dianne, where are you right now?
Dianne Reeves: I'm in Berlin, Germany.
MR: What are you up to there?
DR: I'm getting ready to start doing some concerts here, I'm only touring in Germany. I'm excited about it because I love it. I'm here with my band and we're getting ready to do it.
MR: One of the main reasons we are talking to you today is because you sang at the White House when the Chinese delegation visited.
DR: Yes, that's correct. It was amazing. First of all, it was an honor to be asked. I told a few of my friends and they asked me if I was excited but I had to keep it cool. A couple of days before, I kind of lost it. It's something that, during this administration, I've wanted to be a part of whatever is going on in there, and I was very thankful to be asked.
MR: Can you give us a few words on how you think President Obama's doing?
DR: I'm in the mind that I would vote for him again. Our country was in a lot of trouble before he came in and this is a big task. It's like trying to keep your fingers in a dam to keep it from totally exploding. I think he's working really hard to do that, there are a lot of things going on in this country and in the world, and he's there trying to take care of business. I know this kind of thing is going to take time because it took time for it to get here.
MR: An interesting thing happened during the performance. You spoke directly to the Chinese delegation in Mandarin, right?
DR: Yes, I did. I worked on it for a week. I have to tell you something...you need to have really strong jaw and mouth muscles to be able to speak it! I love how the language sounds because it sounds like music, and to say those things is really difficult, but I got through it okay.
MR: When you were speaking mandarin, apparently, officials were a little worried about what was being communicated.
DR: Yeah, they were worried. All I was saying to them was I had the pleasure to play in China many times and I have the honor to play for you tonight. I worked with somebody to really help me say it. They understood what I said and it was right, but I guess nobody knew I was going to do it so it wasn't cleared. So, they were like, "Uh-oh!"
MR: Can you remember what you sang that night?
DR: Yeah, the first song I performed was "Lullaby of Birdland." And in lieu of what was going on that evening--and I'm really thankful that I did--I sang "What A Wonderful World" because the children were there and it was really nice to sing to them.
MR: Obviously, it was a beautiful moment?
DR: Yeah, it was really cool because we are just people in these countries, and...it's hard times for the most part. We are with our families and doing the things we love and the world is wonderful. So, I guess I was just stressing that we just wanna have a life of love and dignity as well.
MR: So, what do you think have been the biggest personal changes since you started your career?
DR: I think that when I started singing, I didn't know what I wanted to do, I only knew what I didn't want to do. Now I'm in a place where I've lived a lot, I've seen a lot, and I'm in a place where I know what I want to do and what I want to say--that's to continue to stay on this path of being able to be ready. My mother would say, "Stay ready so you don't have to get ready." I spent a lot of my early years preparing for beautiful moments that have unfolded in my life so far.
MR: What was the experience like working on the Good Night and Good Luck soundtrack with George Clooney?
DR: It was wonderful because he really respects musicians. When we first got in there, I thought we were going to have to put this music down and I'm going to have to learn and lip sync. He said, "No I want you to deliver your lines just like the actor in the film." I thought that was incredible, I was singing lines in a film and I thought that was the best way to present jazz music. It was great, he was great. He had a lot of stories, told me a lot of things about his Aunt Rosemary (Clooney). It was the best two days I've had in a long time. He's not hard to look at either.
MR: (laughs) When you have a role in a film and you watch yourself on the screen, knowing that all of that hard work has gone into it, can you loose yourself and look at yourself as a part of the movie?
DR: Eventually I did, but at first I didn't. I remember the first time seeing it. We were at the premiere in New York. I was sitting next to (George) and I hadn't seen the film. There is a place in the film where I do "How High The Moon," and he touched my arm and said, "Wait 'til you see this." And all of a sudden, I was filling the entire screen. For an actor this is their work and this is what they've done. But for me, it was amazing, it was pretty incredible, and he picked some pretty great songs. He picked the entire repertoire for the movie.
MR: Some of your favorites artists were Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Holiday, Sarah Vaughan...
DR: I loved Betty Carter, Carmen McRae, Nina Simone... And I love most of the artists that came out on Motown. I came from a home that was filled with music. My dad was a lover of jazz music, and there were a lot of musicians in my family. Also my sister and cousins were playing the music of the day.
MR: So, you were on tour with Harry Belafonte before your album deal right?
DR: Oh yeah way back in the early '80s, that was my first major world tour.
MR: Was that how you got your record deal?
DR: No, actually, that was several years later. I happened to find out that Bruce Lundvall was going to be the head of Blue Note records and they were going to bring the label back. I had always heard amazing stories about him, I thought he would be the best person to work under because he really respects artists and he's an artist himself. So, I had a concert in Los Angeles and I knew he was in town. I went to his hotel to meet him, and I told him how much he needed me on his label and he said, "Okay, I will do it." I told him, "Not 'til you hear me sing." He came down--that was in 1987--and I started recording right after that performance.
MR: That was such a great record too. I ran out to the store right after hearing its opening track, "Sky Island."
DR: Thank you so much. It's funny because that's the second time I've recorded "Sky Island." I had been doing a lot of things. But with that first Diane Reeves Blue Note record, I wanted people to know where I came from. So, I did everything I was doing in the past, then wrote some things for it as well.
MR: Was there a certain point where you knew you wanted to be a vocalist, specifically, a jazz vocalist?
DR: I think very early on. When I was in junior high school, I knew I really wanted to sing. Even early on, I knew I had a voice, but I never really experienced it. When we started doing a lot of singing in school, kind of like a glee club, I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed how it made me feel. It seemed like something that was mine and I loved how it made people respond. My uncle was a really fine jazz bassist, and I would do performances with him and he would give me records. I love jazz music and that's where I decided where I wanted to go.
MR: And you were rewarded pretty nicely by the Grammy's. In 2001 you were awarded your first of four for your live album. What was that like?
DR: That was amazing. It's funny, every time--with the exception of the last Grammy--I wasn't even around. I had been nominated before and I wasn't able to go because I was on the road. When I heard my name being called, I was thinking, "Whaaat?" I will never forget, it was Erykah Badu and Tony Bennet. I was like, "Why couldn't I have been there!"
MR: How did you approach recording an album of Sarah Vaughan material?
DR: I had a lot of video of her. I've met her, I've been around her musicians, I've seen her live. She's always somebody that I loved. She had this broad instrument and she understood how it worked and made it work in different ways all the time. When I got together with George Duke and Billy Childs who did the arrangements, we were talking about it, and I said I wanted to do this tribute record. It was something that I've actually wanted to do for many years, but I didn't want to sound like her, I wanted to present her music and show how she was an inspiration to me as well. We went about finding all of these different songs. In the records, there are certain things that she did that I really tried to incorporate into the songs--the way she would phrase things, the way she would improvise, and the colors that she used in her voice. I wanted it to be very colorful and rich in terms of harmony, just be a record that every time I go out and perform, it would be different every time. We did it live in the studio with the orchestra, and we did it in three days once we got it together. It took us eighteen months to put it together.
MR: What went into creating your Best Of collection?
DR: Oh my goodness. We had to go through everything and sometimes you don't want to leave out certain things. Bruce Lundvall had his favorites, I had mine, and I had a few people that I really trusted. We just sat down and figured out what should be on it. The music kind of represents a lot of different things. We took from everything and put them in there.
MR: Do you have any advice for new artists?
DR: The biggest thing is, when I was coming up, the thing that made you wonderful was your uniqueness, people celebrated that. You could have all of these different artists on Motown and none of them sounded alike. That's the thing that I really love about the time I grew up in, that was celebrating that one thing that you have that is different in all the world and that is your unique way of approaching something. So, I always tell young people to find and refine that. Just keep coming with who you are and your unique self. We are in an age right now where you hear something and you want to sound like it. You have something else to give, so do that. Do that because you love it and you're passionate about it.
MR: Got anything else?
DR: You didn't ask me this but I wanted to say I was standing there up close and personal and Michelle Obama was stunning! She took my breath away and everybody that was standing there. I have been hearing all of this stuff about her dress--her dress was fabulous, it was the perfect thing to pick out. She just looked amazing in it.
MR: Did you strike up a friendship with Michelle?
DR: Well I don't know that it's a friendship because she must meet 9 million people a day. But she was very sincere in her thanking us for being there. She was the most gracious person, she was gracious and warm.
MR: She comes off as such a wonderful human.
DR: Oh my God, she was just so amazing. We (also) loved meeting President Obama, but he was icing on the cake for all of us.
MR: By the way, who designed the dress?
DR: Alexander McQueen.
A Conversation With Kurt Elling
Mike Ragogna: Let's talk about your Don Was-produced album The Gate. It covers a lot of territory, what was the process like putting it together?
Kurt Elling: I had a number of compositions in mind that I wanted to get to. Don approached me a couple of years ago about wanting to work in a general way, wanting to work on anything I had going. We kept in touch over the years and when it was time to do this record, I knew he was the right man for the job. Thankfully, he made some room in his schedule for it. It was just great, it was one of the most fulfilling and kindest times I've ever had in the studio. That was thanks to, in large measure, Don's participation.
MR: Did you pick out the repertoire or was it a group effort?
KE: I picked out ninety percent of it. Laurence Hobgood--my great collaborator--came across a couple of ideas, but it was basically my work on that end. Then, Laurence and I wrote the arrangements, Don coming on board to really support and help us bring to full fruition what we had in mind.
MR: Is that the approach you take with every album?
KE: Yeah, I've got what I think are pretty good ideas, and I like to follow through on what gets whispered into my ear by the muse.
MR: Can you give us the story of your getting signed to Blue Note in 1995?
KE: I was very hungry to put a record out...when you're young and foolish, you have a lot of energy, you think that now is the right time. I didn't really have a label deal, I had raised some money from supporters in the Chicago area. I then went into the studio and laid down nine tunes with my friend Laurence Hobgood and some great Chicago musicians so at least I would have something to sell. A friend of mine said that I should send it out to his friend in LA and he would help me get something around. He heard it and got very excited, and he definitely wanted to send it around. He sent it to a bunch of places, one of the places was Blue Note, which, at the time, was headed up by the great Bruce Lundvall. So, I was waking up on a Wednesday morning after a gig someplace, and I got a phone call about ten in the morning. "Is this Kurt Elling?" I said, "Yes it is." He said, "This is Bruce Lundvall from Blue Note Records, I have your record playing in my car!" He held out his phone and there it was. He said, "I wanna sign you., have you signed with anybody else?" I said, "No." "I want to come out to Chicago and hear you," he said. So, within about a month of my finishing the recording, we had it set out, then about three months later I was signed to Blue Note just from the quality of it. They liked that record and that's what they put out. We got a Grammy Nomination from that.
MR: You have like nine Grammy nominations now?
KE: I don't know, nine sounds like a good number.
MR: You also got a Grammy nomination for your second album on your current label, Concord Records. You have a few projects on that label.
MR: Were you influenced by Chet Baker?
KE: Well, sure man. I've tried to pay attention to all the great jazz singers and come to my own opinion about what made them great. I pay attention to the history of musicians. Chet is certainly one of several outstanding who have been singers in jazz's brief history.
MR: And there's Mark Murphy.
KE: Yeah, Mark Murphy, Jon Hendricks, Joe Williams. Obviously, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald come into play. There is a shortish history, but a significant one, of jazz singers. I've tried to cop the best I could from each of them.
MR: Are you curious about what writers think when they hear your versions of their songs?
KE: Well, I would sure love to hear about Stevie Wonder at any time about anything, as long as he wasn't mad at me about something. Stevie is obviously a hugely influential artist across all genres...a great and very influential composer. He is just a profound spirit gift to the world. I would love to hear from Stevie.
MR: Do you have any interesting stories about the King Crimson song you covered?
KE: "Matte Kudasai" is the Japanese phrase for "please wait." There is an indeterminate poetic flavor about that composition that has always stayed with and been relevant to me. You can't really pin down the vibe of it. Similarly, I wasn't able to pin down what I wanted to do with the piece. Thankfully, I had John Patitucci and Terreon Gully on board, and my good friend Laurence Hobgood. We were in the studio and they said, "What do you wanna do with this?" I said, "Well I'm not really sure. This is what it's about, this is how I feel about it, but you're really the experts at your instruments and you're great composers. I hired you so you could bring yourselves to the table as composers, so what do you think?" John looked at the page for a while, thought about what we talked about, and said, "Okay, let's try this. Let's roll some tape." He just started and Terreon joined him. Everybody else fell into that arrangement with him. We never really rehearsed it, it just came out the way it came out. I can't even tell you how pleased I am with it.
MR: You have a song called "Come Run To Me" that you dedicated to your daughter Luiza. How is having a five-year-old little girl in your life?
KE: It's great. I'm a much happier person because she is around. She is growing all the time. She's full of love, joy, songs, and music. She hasn't discovered what a flake I am yet.
MR: (laughs) Are you predicting she's going to be in music?
KE: She's going to do whatever she feels like doing. I'm going to be proud of her wherever she goes. She's really smart and she's a great little dancer and singer. She's five and she's going to go the way she goes, and if she's happy, that's all I want.
MR: Do you have any advice for new artists?
KE: I think the only relevant advice anybody could say is that, when you fall in love with something, give everything you have to it. Be smarter and more disciplined and creative and fastidious about becoming a jazz person and relevant artist. Give it all you have so you're the smartest, most dedicated person in the room. If you do that, then you figure out all the particular answers you need to figure out.
MR: What does the future bring?
KE: We put the record out in February, we'll do a lot of touring throughout the second half of the winter and into the spring and summer. I'm writing a larger piece for the stage--that is to say a theatrical piece that involves living, breathing jazz musicians doing what jazz musicians do and that is improvising in response to an ever-evolving plot line that's taking up a lot of time. I've got some collaborations coming up in the next few months that will be very challenging for me. I'm just trying to keep the ball in the air in this very sociopolitical economic climate.
MR: That's another thing. Is there anything in the papers or headlines that's bugging you?
KE: I can't think of anything that is in the papers that isn't bugging me. (laughs) We're in a very interesting and strange time right now. I just hope we can pull it together and treat each other like decent citizens again.
MR: Amen. Thanks for so much for spending time with us.
1. Matte Kudasai
2. Steppin' Out
3. Come Running To Me
4. Norwegian Wood
5. Blue In Green
6. Samurai Cowboy
7. After The Love Is Gone
8. Golden Lady
9. Nighttown, Lady Bright
(transcribed by Theo Shier)