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Diana Krall: An Intimate Portrait

Diana Krall 1999
Diana Krall (photo: Bryan Adams)
Diana Krall 1999
Diana Krall (photo: Jayne Wexler)
Johnny Mandel
Johnny Mandel (photo: John Reeves)
Diana Krall 1999
Diana Krall (photo: Jayne Wexler)

“Stage lights love her,” I told Johnny Mandel when I got home to California.

“So does the camera,” he said.

That is why they have started using her as a fashion model. She is the hottest thing that’s happened to jazz in years.

It was Johnny who turned me onto her. Until some months ago, I had never heard Diana Krall, although one musician after another, particularly Canadian musicians such as Don Thompson, had been bending my ear in her praises. Johnny and I drove in to see Red Norvo in the hospital. I admired him as a musician and loved him as a human being, that dear dear man, and so did Johnny. It was a sad visit, and we both sensed that we would never see him again. We were quiet when we left, and changed the subject, and Johnny said he was going to write an album for Diana Krall, and then said, “What? You mean you’ve never heard her? Well you’re going to hear her before this day is over.” And he insisted on going from one Santa Monica record store to another until he found the album he wanted to be my introduction to her work. It was All for You, a tribute to Nat Cole in which she sang songs associated with him. I loved her piano work and her singing within sixteen bars.

We played the CD in the car all the way back to Johnny’s home on a cliff overlooking the sea in Malibu. She has perhaps the most erotic voice since Peggy Lee, and like Peggy’s, her sound is unaffected. There is a crack in her voice, rather like that in Frank Sinatra’s, and, as I would learn, it is not a musical affectation: it’s also in her speaking voice. Frank smoked; she doesn’t.

The first pressing of the album she did with Mandel is an astounding (for jazz) one million copies.

She came up behind me in the restaurant in Philadelphia. “Hi,” she said, and I stood up and we shook hands. She sat down on the banquette against the wall, and immediately talked about mutual friends. By now I had heard a lot of her on records, including what we used to call a “test pressing” of the album with Mandel, and she’d read some of my books. She’d read my Oscar Peterson biography three times, she said. It was truly as if we’d known each other for years.

The pressures on her are enormous. She can fill concert halls all over the world. A recent jump took her from Cannes to Japan. And her success is drawing attack. This is inevitable when some people use criticism as a symbol of their own hipness. Too many jazz fans don’t want anyone else to like it, and when someone breaks into huge sales, the only-I-understand-this-music group draws its snickersnees. (Leonard Feather used to call them the hipper-than-thou crowd.) Consider George Shearing, Cannonball Adderley, and Dave Brubeck. I know one woman, a staunch jazz fan, who hates Diana Krall’s singing.

I told Diana I’d read a lot of the interviews with her. She was confronted with the same questions time after time and, inevitably, gave the same answers. She said that a boy in a master class asked her what it was like to be famous. She said she hated the question.

“I’m sorry, you’re wrong,” I said, which is hardly the way to begin an interview with someone you have never met. “The kid’s question is legitimate. I’ve seen fame destroy people. Some survive it.”

“Is it worse for men or for women?” she asked.

I thought for a long moment. “Women. Because it puts them in the position of commanding men, and men bitterly resent it.”

We ordered dinner. “So the kid was right in asking that question. You’ve got to be feeling it. What’s it doing to you?” I studied her face. I assessed its flaws and thought of Francis Bacon’s observation, “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.” She has beautiful skin and straight blonde hair. Her family background is Scottish, Irish, English, and German, and she is fairly tall: five-eight-and-a-half.

“So answer the kid’s question,” I said.

“Well, I’m shy. And I’m embarrassed. I feel like that when I walk out on stage and everybody claps. When we finish a show, as we did night before last in Pittsburgh, and people give me a standing ovation, I feel like saying, ‘No, it’s okay, sit down, don’t bother.’ I’m not comfortable with it. I love to make people happy but I’m not comfortable with that. Sometimes because of that embarrassment, it comes out in, I’ve been told, people saying that I’m aloof.”

“Do you think it’s a Canadian characteristic?” I said. Kenny Wheeler’s that way. Kenny and I went to high school together.

“Maybe,” she said. “I think I put a lot of pressure on myself where it isn’t necessary. I’m trying to handle it. I’m happy for my success, and I’m trying to enjoy it. Not to be so worried about things. The pressure is learning, learning how to answer questions that may not be directly pertinent. I’ve got to get used to it.”

We got into Canadian stories. I told her a joke: Why did the Canadian cross the road? To get to the middle.

Americans don’t get it; Canadians do, and she laughed. She’s like the joke: she never wanted to get to the fame on the far side of the street. She just wanted to play the piano. Right there in the middle.

There is so much about her that is Canadian. The main element of any singer’s style is enunciation, particularly the shape of the vowels. I had a bilingual French Canadian journalist friend who used to say that the Canadian accent, in both French and English, with the tight, closed vowels, develops “because our jaws are frozen half the year.” One of the elements of Frank Sinatra’s style is his New York-area Italian dentalized t’s and d’s and half-swallowed r’s, coupled with almost Oxonian vowels. Krall’s style is a Canadian accent with excellent time and a voice that is inherently lovely.

She is thirty-three now. She was born in Nanaimo, British Columbia, a small city due west of Vancouver across the Strait of Georgia on Vancouver Island. It is in one of the most magnificent areas of the planet. Her father is a chartered public accountant, her mother a teacher with a master’s degree in educational administration. Her sister is bylaws officer of Nanaimo. When the two girls were young, they were in love with swimming and skiing. Diana had a dream of being an astronaut. Both parents are ardent music lovers, and aficionados of the old television and radio shows. In the first five minutes of conversation, Diana mentioned Wigan, England, and I said, “George Formby.”

She said, “How did you know?”

I said, “I grew up on his movies and records.” George Formby was an English comedian and singer; I not only knew his movies and songs (as did Peter Sellers) but once even interviewed him. She was astounded. Formby was born in Wigan, Lancashire.

“I couldn’t have had more supportive parents,” Diana said, echoing every major musician I’ve ever talked to. “The most important thing for me is my family. I’m very close to my family. The hardest thing is living far away. I made that choice for my career. Because of that I go home once a month.”

“That often?” It’s a long way from New York City, where she now lives, to Nanaimo.

“Yeah. I try to.”

When she was in her middle teens, her parents sent her to the summer jazz camp that Bud Shank runs in Port Townsend, Washington, which is maybe a hundred miles south of Nanaimo across the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Through Bud she met many of her future friends, including Ray Brown (with whom she would one day record), John Clayton, Dave McKenna, Monty Alexander, and Jeff Hamilton. Jeff urged her to move to Los Angeles to study. She got a grant from the Canada Arts Council to do so. She studied with Alan Broadbent.

“I’d like to study some more with him,” she said. Later she studied with Mike Renzi in New York. But the obvious and most important influence on her was Jimmy Rowles. She was in love with his playing. John Clayton arranged an introduction.

She said, “I called him up and went over to his house and I ended up spending most of my time at his house.”

“What were the lessons like?” I asked. “I can’t imagine Jimmy giving formal lessons, saying ‘Do this, do that.'” She emulated Rowles’ growly voice. Anyone who tells a Jimmy Rowles story does this; within the jazz community, Jimmy’s manner of speech is as legendary as that of Miles Davis.

“I wish he were still here,” she said wistfully. “I’d like to go over and ask more questions. He’d say, ‘Sit down on the couch and ask questions.’ He’d tell stories about Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan. “I just did a tour with Ray Brown. I’d sing about three tunes a night and play piano. It was just as important to me to hang out and listen to stories as it was to practice and play. With Jimmy and with Ray Brown. And still is. A lot of the time with Jimmy was spent just talking. Jimmy wrote out ‘Poor Butterfly’ for me. It’s one of my favorites of his recordings. I’d come over and there was a piece of music there on the piano, and I knew it was waiting. He’d say, ‘Go take a look at that.’ And it always had my name in the corner, Diana.”

“What was it like? Voicings and such?”

“Yeah. He’d play for me, and then I’d play for him. But most of the time was spent with me listening to him play. And we’d listen to records. We’d listen to Ben Webster, to Duke Ellington. He’d say, ‘This was recorded in 19-whatever.’ I admire those guys who know the history. Kenny Washington. The jazzmaniac! He is amazing. We’re going to do some dates with him. One thing I couldn’t do was play or record Jimmy’s tunes. Two weeks before he died, I called him and told him, ‘I can’t play your tunes. They’re so personal to your style that I would have to imitate you to play them.’ I thought that way at the time. I don’t feel that way now. I’d like to do a lot of his music. I thought, ‘Why bother?’ He recorded ‘The Peacocks,’ Bill Evans recorded ‘The Peacocks’ beautifully. I thought, ‘What am I gonna do with that?’ He’d swear and growl and say, ‘Forget that! Play them!'”

“There’s a time to emulate, and then you have to do your own thing. There’s so much to Jimmy Rowles. It’s about attitude. I think the most important thing he taught me was about beauty. And I think I was too young even to grasp that. You want to play fast. That’s all I wanted to do. He’d put on Daphnis and Chloe and we’d sit and listen to that. Ansermet’s version. That was the recording I had to listen to. And he’d give me the scores. I learned a lot of stuff.”

“I hear Rowles in your playing,” I said. “But without the quirkiness. Jimmy would do eccentric things just for the fun of it.”

“Oh, I do that too, sometimes,” she said.

“What else did you listen to?”

“Art Tatum, which I found overwhelming at that age.” She gasped aloud.

“Where did the singing start? Nat Cole never intended to be a singer.”

“I sang with my grandmother. I sound like her, a lot like her. My father’s mother. She was a real character. She was the last person to go to bed Christmas Eve. She’d still be up singing ‘Hard-Hearted Hannah.’ Knew every tune. I went over to her house every day after school. We’d play the piano and sing. I just sang there, never at home. I didn’t think I had a good enough voice. Then I started getting piano-bar gigs. I sang as little as I possibly could. Typical story. You get more gigs if you sing. I started singing in L.A. Ray came in to hear me and I was so nervous. I did a lot of piano bar stuff, ’cause that’s how I could survive.”

“When I read all the articles about you,” I said, “I noticed an occasional criticism that you don’t write your own stuff. Neither did Frank Sinatra. When I was growing up and listening to Frank Sinatra, he was doing stuff that was already old, like ‘Night and Day.’ ”

“Oh yeah?” she said, with real surprise.

“Sure! ‘Night and Day’ is from 1934. So was ‘Try a Little Tenderness.’ A lot of it came out originally before I was born. All that stuff Sinatra did in the 1940s was at least ten years old and a lot of it twenty years old. Sinatra’s career was largely built on older tunes. So is Tony Bennett’s. Peggy Lee and Nat Cole too. All built on classic repertoire. Tony has never written a song that I know of, and Sinatra was in on the writing of maybe one or two.”

“I’ve been misquoted on this point,” she said, “including this criticism that I don’t write my own material. There’s this pressure in interviews: ‘Do you consider yourself a jazz musician? Are you a jazz singer?’ Because I’m not improvising and scat singing, does that make me a pop singer? But I play piano and I improvise in my trio and quartet. So it confuses people. I don’t think about whether Shirley Horn is a jazz singer or not.”

“Nor do I,” I said. “And Sarah Vaughan hated the term ‘jazz singer’ and didn’t want to be called one.”

“Well, I don’t want to be labelled,” Diana said. “They say, ‘You don’t fit, you’re not a jazz singer like such and such.’ Or ‘You don’t write your own tunes.’ There’s a lot to do. I’m writing my own arrangements, I’m playing piano, I’m leading my own band. I’m inspired by Ahmad Jamal and the way he took standards and did them his own way. I find that creatively fulfilling. That’s not to say that I won’t ever write. But songwriters are songwriters. People don’t think of Cole Porter as a jazz pianist. He was a great songwriter.”

I said, “No one would deny that Nat Cole was one of the greatest of all jazz pianists. But when he sang, he was scrupulously faithful to the original melody.”

“Can you imagine someone saying to Nat Cole, ‘Why don’t you write your own songs?'”

“Well,” I said, “he wrote a couple of light novelty songs, such as ‘Straighten Up and Fly Right.’ No ballads that I know of. I’ve seen Nat Cole referred to as a cocktail pianist. Bill Evans too.”

“There’s that fine line. People will say, ‘All you’re doing is cocktail piano.’ I don’t obsess about that. Things that sound simple . . . it’s not the easiest thing.”

“Dizzy Gillespie said, ‘It’s not the notes you play, it’s the notes you leave out.'”

“Charlie Parker, Miles, Ahmad Jamal, they were playing standards.”

“So were all the great ones. And John Lewis argues that jazz was built in a kind of symbiotic relationship with popular music during its classic period.”

“It’s not something I feel I have to defend. I’m so used to that question. I get it, like, almost inevitably in every interview. It’s always, ‘Why don’t you write your own material?’ I guess I’m very focussed on what I want to hear, what I want to do, and what I like. I’ve made some mistakes along the way. Still makin’ ’em.

“Original music is obviously important, it’s creative. It’s like,” she said, laughing, “I’m neither for nor against apathy. This is what I’m doing, and I don’t feel I have to defend it. Nor am I against writing all my own tunes if I felt I had something to say. When I do, I will. And now what I’m focusing on is the art of interpretation. It’s funny how a lyric can be changed by a tempo, the meaning of the song. I’m studying this art. ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’ at this tempo.” She snapped her fingers at a Basie-like medium tempo. “Tells one story, and if you slow it up to a ballad tempo, it becomes bittersweet. The same words. Tempo is my biggest thing right now. It’s splitting hairs, it’s lint-picking. I’m learning how to count off the right tempo, knowing where it is in my head. Benny Goodman used to snap his fingers for no matter how long until he got the right tempo. Ray Brown and I talked about Basie, how they would play it until it settled in, and they got it where they wanted it. Tempo changes everything.”

“Sure,” I said. “Tempo changes your phrasing, for one thing. If you sing at a fast tempo, you can breathe more words in a phrase. If you do it very slowly, it breaks the line at completely different points, and that changes the meaning.”

She said, “Yes! And I’m still trying to get the tempo right on ‘Under My Skin.’ If you get nerves on stage, you’ll sing it faster. And things will sound a little nervous. I try to relax so that I’m not rushing, rushing, rushing.”

“I’m sure you’ve noticed that when musicians do a song over the years, the tempo will creep up. I suppose as they get it more under control. I don’t know whether it’s done consciously or not.”

“Sure. We do it too.”

“And for a singer, keys are critically important.”

“Sure. Although sometimes I’ll get lazy and instead of doing it in A I’ll do it in B-flat or A-flat. Instead of doing ‘Over the Rainbow’ in B, I’ll do it in B-flat. Jimmy Rowles told me that Ben Webster used to do ‘Over the Rainbow’ in E. It changes the feel of a tune.”

“And Fletcher Henderson,” I said, “wrote a lot of charts for his band in sharp keys and drove the saxophone players crazy.”

“Guitar players and bass players love sharp keys,” she said. “There’s nothing like a blues in G. That’s my favorite key to put a blues in.”

“Bill Evans used to run through a new tune in all the keys until he found the one he wanted.”

“The master. I’m embarrassed to say that I should do that. Geoff Keezer does that. His mind!”

“Warren Bernhardt practiced ‘My Bells’ through every key. For the voicings. Don Thompson claims that because of the character of the sonorities, that tune works only in Bill’s original key. Warren did it as an exercise.”

We talked on and on until it grew late. The next day I went with her to her sound check at the Zellerbach Theater on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania and, that evening, to the concert. She was working with a new rhythm section, including Peter Bernstein, guitar; Paul Gill, bass; and Joe Farnsworth, drums. She has a strong face, and when the stage lights hit it, it radiated, looking like a flower above her black pantsuit. She is an outstanding pianist. (Even if she grouses about what she considers a limited technique; but compared to what, Art Tatum?) She sits slightly sideways at the keyboard, to face the audience, as Nat Cole used to do; maybe she picked it up from his movies and TV shows. Again she got a standing ovation. Whether she likes it or not, she is the glamour girl of jazz. I just hope her singing success doesn’t take her away from the piano, as it did Nat Cole.

After the concert, we went to dinner again, talking of Jimmy Rowles. Sitting back to the wall again, she suddenly dropped her head a little to the right. The straight blonde hair fell over her face, and she put her left hand to her forehead to hide behind it.

“Oh God,” she said, “somebody just recognized me.”

Yeah, yeah, lady, I thought, maybe he did and maybe he didn’t. Maybe he’s just looking because you’re a knockout.

But I didn’t say it.


The Johnny Mandel/Diana Krall Connection

“I’d like to get back to writing something that swings,” Johnny Mandel said recently.

The reference is to his reputation as an arranger of ballads for singers. His new album with Diana Krall, When I Look Ii Your Eyes (Verve), follows such albums with Shirley Horn, Natalie Cole, Michael Feinstein, even Paul Anka. That work with singers goes back a long way to, among others, a Jerome Kern album he wrote for David Allyn and Ring-a-Ding-Ding for Frank Sinatra, and indeed much farther than that.

John Alfred Mandel was born in New York City November 24, 1925, one of two siblings. A sister, Audrey, died some years ago.

“My mother was a frustrated opera singer,” Johnny said. “My grandparents, who were very Victorian, disapproved. Nice girls didn’t go on the stage. My mother was very musical, and she was tremendously supportive. My father was a clothing manufacturer, ladies coats and dresses. He was a gentle soul who loved music, loved jazz. He died of a coronary when I was 11.”

Johnny started studying music at the age of 12. “I started trumpet and writing simultaneously,” he said. The evidence is that he was precocious at both. When he was 14 he went to bandleader and arranger Van Alexander and asked for lessons. They are still friends.

During vacations while he was a student at New York Military Academy, he played trumpet with Joe Venuti. He gave up that instrument for trombone, worked for Boyd Raeburn, Buddy Rich, Georgie Auld, Alvino Rey, Chubby Jackson, Elliott Lawrence, and Count Basie. But it was with Woody Herman that he began to be really established as an arranger.

In 1953, Mandel settled in Los Angeles to pursue studio work and, eventually, film. He has written extensively for film, including the scores to The Americanization of Emily (which produced the song “Emily,” with a lyric by Johnny Mercer); The Sandpiper, from which came one of the most recorded songs in history, “The Shadow of Your Smile”; Harper; The Russians Are Coming; and Agatha. These scores revealed him as a superb melodist with an ingenious harmonic sense. It was an ability he didn’t know he had. “For years I didn’t think I could do it,” he said. Later songs include “Where Do You Start,” with an achingly beautiful lyric by Alan and Marilyn Bergman, and “You Are There,” which has a comparable poignant lyric by Dave Frishberg. He also wrote the odd “Suicide Is Painless” theme for M*A*S*H. Since that show still runs regularly on television in many countries, the airplay royalties make this his biggest money-maker.

In August 1996, at a banquet in Beverly Hills, Johnny was given the Golden Scroll Award of the American Society of Musical Composers and Arrangers. Just about every distinguished arranger and composer you could think of was there. This award is not the fancy blowout that the ceremony of the Motion Picture Academy is, but it means more to musicians than an Academy Award, because it is given to musicians by musicians. Van Alexander was in the audience.

Johnny got tired of movie work and gradually withdrew himself from it. His exquisite string writing makes him the arranger of preference for any singer who can get to him, and he picks his projects carefully. He initiated the project with Diana Krall through Tommy LiPuma, who produced the album.

Johnny simply called her up, told her, drawing a term from baseball, “You are the sweet spot on the bat,” and said he wanted to write for her. She was flabbergasted.

“He is awesome,” she said when the album was completed. “And I mean that in its literal sense.”

Originally Published