Diane Schuur: Deedle Me This

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Diane Schuur
By Maura Lanahan
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Diane Schuur
By Maura Lanahan

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“Look at me,” says Diane Schuur, a pixyish smile on her face. “Here we are in the middle of weight-conscious Beverly Hills, and I’ve still got a big shelf.” Thrusting her ample chest forward, she breaks out in a loud guffaw.

She’s right on both counts. We’re sitting in a modernistic glass, chrome and wood conference room at Concord Records’ Beverly Hills offices to discuss her brand new album, and Schuur—“Deedles” as she insists upon being called—does indeed have a “big shelf.”

She also has, barely a week short of her 54th birthday, baby-smooth fair skin, a winning smile, and a crinkly expressiveness around her eyes that belies the fact that she has been blind since birth.

Interestingly, Schuur’s bawdy humor and rich belly laugh contrast with the quiet and sensitive aspects of her demeanor in the same way that her let-it-all-hang-out high notes sometimes juxtapose jarringly against the cool intimacy of her vocal interpretations. More than one critic, this one included, has questioned that tendency to soar, Icarus-like, into the upper limits of her 3 1/2-octave range.

•••••

Schuur just smiles. It’s a criticism she’s lived with for a long time. And she’s convinced that the mature singing style present on Some Other Time, the new CD, will win over the skeptics. “Frank Foster,” she notes, “used to say, ‘I love it when Deeds goes upstairs.’ Musically, of course, that means going into the stratosphere. But you do that as an accent and not as a pervasive kind of thing. And this record, I hope, reflects the fact that I can do the lower-register stuff, too, that I really do know the way to interpret a song, to build it, to find a sequence for it.”

“And maybe a lot of people”—she pauses a moment for dramatic effect—“don’t realize that I can do that. Do you think?”

Before I can give a chastised response, Schuur laughs again, and switches the topic back to the “shelf.”

“And physically?” she says. “Well, I’ve vowed never to do the yo-yo diet again. I figure if I can get out into my garage, and do the Health Rider three or four times a week, then I’m going to be just fine.”

Even more importantly, Schuur has been “just fine” for nearly two decades in what once was a troubled area of her life. “I’m 18 years sober now,” she says. “And it’s been such a journey. The other day, when I was finishing the autobiography of Eric Clapton, my husband came in just when Eric was mentioning that sobriety is his first priority. And my baby just broke down and cried, because how often has he heard me say the very same thing—especially when I would just really be on my soapbox, saying, ‘Sobriety is the number one priority in my life!’ But it is, and always will be.”

Concord Records’ advance press releases for Some Other Time have been underscoring the significance of the “jazz of her parents’ generation” aspect of the CD and poising it as Schuur’s return to jazz. One can certainly make a case for tunes such as “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” “Blue Skies,” “Without a Song,” “It’s Magic” and “Taking a Chance on Love” as classic items from the Great American Songbook. But it’s hard to envision Schuur, despite her occasional flirtations with pop, as anything other than a strongly jazz-oriented artist.

For her, however, the most significant aspect of the recording is the deeply felt presence of her mother, who died of cancer at the age of 31, when Schuur was 13. “We worked on it in a real family kind of atmosphere,” she recalls. “My sister and her husband came down, stayed with us, went to the studio. And when I did ‘It’s Magic,’ tears were streaming down my sister’s face. This album really touches a chord in me, especially because of my mother. I like to think that she’s looking down, or wherever she’s at, and knows that her Deedle babe is doing fine. And I really want to let people know how strong her influence was in helping me to enjoy and love music.”

The family atmosphere was further enhanced by the participation of a trio of longtime associates in the rhythm section. Schuur has worked with pianist/arranger Randy Porter since the ’80s, and drummer Reggie Jackson and bassist Scott Steed since the early 2000s. “As a group,” she says, “we were able to get real tight, which is what made the experience in the studio so wonderful.

“We got it all started when Randy came to my house to talk about arrangements,” she continues, “and that’s how we worked things out. Like that instrumental opening on ‘Nice Work If You Can Get It’—that was my idea.”

She scats the instrumental opening, and her big, resonant sound—so startling when it emerges from such a small source—echoes through the conference room. “And the ending of ‘Without a Song’—the D to the C to the B with those changes on top—that was my idea, too,” she continues. “I love hip changes.”

Marc Silag, whom Schuur describes as her “awesome manager,” suggested other tunes. “Like ‘Beginner’s Luck,’” she says, “Which I’d never heard before. And ‘If Someone Had Told Me’—I never heard that one either. But the rest of the tunes are tunes I grew up with: ‘The Good Life,’ ‘It’s Magic,’ ‘They Say It’s Wonderful.’ But the approach is really cool and contemporary, kind of like trying to keep the mystery. And when we get into something like ‘Blue Skies,’ it takes it into a whole new place. In fact, that’s one of my favorite tracks on the record.”

And with good reason. The track displays the full spectrum of Schuur’s emotions. Describing it, her ebullient side begins to surface. “Every time it goes into”—she breaks out into an impassioned “Blue days, all of them gone…”—“whenever I do it now, anywhere I am, if I can get away with it I just crank it up, man. Just jam. And the way that [guitarist] Dan Balmer does this Pat Metheny kind of trip, it’s so awesome. Everybody is just jamming on it.”

The most intriguing track on Some Other Time, however, is a performance of “September in the Rain,” recorded in 1964, when she was 11. In retrospect, it sounds like an uncannily accurate template for all the elements present in her mature style: the alternating qualities of intimate tenderness and outgoing theatricality, the sure sense of rhythm and phrasing, the unerring, perfect pitch.

The most touching track, “Danny Boy,” opens with a brief recording of her mother’s voice, asking her, “Diane, do you know the song ‘Danny Boy’?” Schuur responds, “I’m going to record it, mom. Just for you.” And she does, in a poignant, emotionally wrenching version that is one of Schuur’s finest performances.

•••••

Born Dec. 10, 1953, in Tacoma, Wash., Schuur was blinded in a hospital accident at birth. “It had to be pretty traumatic for my mother,” she explains, “to have twins, and then have one of them being blind, and the other having a hearing deficit. But she handled it as best she could. She sent me to the Washington State School for the Blind in Vancouver, Wash. when I was 4 1/2. That had to be tough, but father was the one who was crying on the way back home. My mom just stood strong. She knew it was the best thing for me.”

It was her parents who worked hard, even then, to illuminate Schuur’s musical awareness, bringing recordings to the school, having them played over the speakers in the playroom. “My God,” says Schuur, “I can remember the first time I heard Duke Ellington play ‘Prelude to a Kiss’ and that saxophone”—she vocalizes the sensuous, chromatic instrumental line—“Oh, my God. Of course I got even more homesick, but it just touched my soul. It still does. I’m just so grateful to my mom”—she begins to softly weep—“for exposing me to all that music.”

As well as for recognizing her daughter’s budding talent and encouraging it to grow and prosper. Schuur played her first professional gigs when she was 9, an obvious prodigy with a great potential future. But there were a few glitches along the way toward jazz success.

“Believe it or not,” she says with a characteristically hearty chuckle, “the first record I ever did was actually country. Have you ever heard of Jimmy Wakely? He was a big country-and-western star back in the ’40s. I flew into Burbank—my first commercial flight—in March of 1971 to do a recording with him. The guitar player was James Burton, who used to play with Elvis Presley.”

A failed audition for the The Tonight Show in the mid-’70s had less promising results. “Doc Severinsen said to me that I wasn’t ready for stardom,” she says. “At the time, of course, I was heartbroken about that. Because I thought I was really ready to go. But he was trying to tell me something about the interpretation of a song, like where in the first few bars you don’t just spill it all out there.”

Schuur grins wryly: “Took me a while to learn that.” And well enough, apparently, for her to do many later appearances on The Tonight Show. Widespread visibility began after she performed with drummer Ed Shaughnessy’s big band, Energy Force, at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1975, and was heard and aided by Stan Getz. In 1982, she performed with Getz in a televised appearance at the White House. Her jazz recording career began later that year, when she was signed to GRP Records.

Nominated for five Grammys, Schuur won the awards in the Best Jazz Vocal Performance, Female, in 1986 (for Timeless) and in 1987 (for Diane Schuur and the Count Basie Orchestra). By the early ’90s, her audience had widened to the extent that she received nominations in 1991 and 1993 in the Traditional Pop Performance category.

“I think I ultimately could have succeeded in any field that I wanted,” she says. “My father really wanted me to become a country singer, and I kind of dabbled with the rock ’n’ roll thing. But for me it was jazz. It is jazz. That’s what was basic. The Duke Ellington thing, George Shearing. My God, have you ever heard his recording ‘Concerto for Love’? My mother introduced me to it in the ’60s! And Nat ‘King’ Cole, of course, Nancy Wilson, Sarah Vaughan. All of these people who, through their music and through their artistry, helped me, as Deedles, to come into my own thing.”

She was also deeply affected, in a much more empathic fashion, by Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder. “How could I not be?” she says. “But you know, even though we’re all blind, we all have our different moves.” And she does a pitch-perfect imitation of the contrasting Charles and Wonder rocking styles, followed by her own head bobs and a gale of laughter.

“When I first heard ‘Fingertips,’” she continues, “I thought, Man this cat … can really do it. And, of course, Ray, with ‘Georgia on My Mind,’ ‘Unchain My Heart,’ ‘Ruby’ and all of those wonderful tunes. And I thought, Whoa, these people are something else. And then to be able to work with them—with Ray, with Stevie Wonder. If I died tomorrow—which hopefully I won’t—but if I made my transition tomorrow, I’d go out, man, knowing that I worked with these cats.”

“There’s so much, so much history, so many years,” she sighs. “I can’t believe I’ve lived so much of it already. I was on the Grammy Awards once with Sarah Vaughan, Joe Williams, Manhattan Transfer and, I think, Gary Burton, Buddy Rich. That was something. I’ll never forget it as long as I live. That was in ’86. I got to know people like Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris.”

“And Frank Sinatra,” she continues. “That was something, too. I did a benefit for abused children that his wife put on in 1988. We stayed at his house in one of the bungalows or villas—he called them ‘The Tender Trap’ and things like that. That was in the days when I was still tippin’ and trippin’, so we shared a drink or two. Quincy Jones conducted the orchestra. One day, when I was recovering from a terrible hangover, he said, ‘Hey, Deeds, are you living large?’ And I said, ‘Oh, yeah, Q, I’m living large.’ But I did get to meet Sammy Davis Jr., who was sober back then, and I really respected him a lot. I just wish I could have talked to him after I’d actually gotten sober.”

Schuur now lives in a quiet area of California’s Orange County, a five-minute drive from the beach. Although she says she’s not fond of the sand, she’s quick to recall an episode—in her younger, more adventurous days—when she almost drowned while body surfing. “I was in Mazatlán, Mexico,” she recalls. “I’d just done some psilocybin mushrooms, and I misjudged and was swimming out toward the sea instead of toward the shore.” She managed to get safely back on land, as she did in yet another stretch-the-limits experience when she went skydiving.

“It was great,” says Schuur. “There was a guy strapped to my back, and it took more time for my husband to sign the papers than it did for me to make the dive. Funny thing is, I used to have freefall dreams since infancy. But I haven’t had them since I went skydiving.”

•••••

These days, her adventurousness is limited to soaking in her piano-shaped spa with her husband, Les Crockett (whom she calls “Rocket”) and playful romps with her two cats, Tootsie and Keeser.

“There’ve been so many peaks and valleys in my career, in my life,” she says. “I’ve done a lot of detours with some of the pop elements, and all that kind of stuff. And there were a lot of years when—with the drink, and later on the drugs—it was like being in a fog. But now I think my intuitive sense has become a little bit [sharper] and I’m able to focus. When I’m onstage and I’m working, I’m really in my element, everything is just right, the ear monitors are working perfectly, and the band is swinging along, it’s like I’m not even in touch with my body. It’s like being in a totally different space, and I’m loving it. It feels so good, like finally feeling comfortable in my own skin.”

“But it’s only been by going through all that I have,” Schuur concludes, “that I’ve been able to learn that my jazz roots are really what are going to keep me in a career that I can escalate and bring to fruition in my lifetime. Because I’m a jazz vocalist. That’s just it.”

Originally published in March 2008

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