Miss Justine: The Many Moods of a Philly Jazz Treasure
MJ: McCoy used to be at our house all the time, with John Coltrane and even Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Rollins. Even today, Sonny will tell you he remembers my mother. And McCoy married my younger sister. But that has nothing directly to do with my singing. It may have to do with my listening and picking up sounds, etc. McCoy and my sister divorced, but he says he's still my brother-in-law. They were married for 20 years. A lot of musicians came over there, and they were jammin' all the time.
AAJ: So you were exposed to it, but not heavily into it.
MJ: Exactly. I never thought I was that good I knew my sister was excellent.
AAJ: Is your sister well-known?
MJ: She's deceased now. Her name was Rosemary Davis. My sister and my two brothers they were called the Davis Kids. And they did a lot of talent shows.
AAJ: So at that time, you were just hanging out, but when did you get interested in singing, jazz, etc?
MJ: Probably when I was around 18, I started sneaking in those clubs, and listening. The musicians knew me, and they would get me up there to sing, so that's when I really started performing.
AAJ: The Great American Songbook?
MJ: Yeah. The standards. Ellington. Cole Porter. The stuff Sarah did. I don't know why this sticks in my mind, but the song I sung at age 3½ on that talent show was "I Don't Want To Set the World on Fire. I still know that tune.
AAJ: That's a pretty intense song for a 3½ year old!
MJ: There was always music in my house. My mother loved it, she played piano. We all did something in the arts. So, that's the background.
AAJ: Then you decided at some point to go professional.
MJ: I started getting hired at little clubs around, getting paid very little. Fifteen dollars for a job! [The small jazz clubs to which Miss Justine refers proliferated in Philadelphia after WWII through the 1960's. They were the spawning grounds for some of the greatest jazz musicians of all time, notably Tyner, Coltrane, Benny Golson, Mickey Roker, and the Heath Brothers, to mention just a few. Eds.]
AAJ: The wages aren't much better today, right? [laughter.] By the way, did you take singing lessons?
MJ: No, it was my family who taught me. I took piano lessons for a while. The problem was that I could play by ear, so mother thought I was learning to read music, but when she found out I was faking it, she stopped paying for the lessons!
AAJ: Once you started getting serious about being a vocalist, who influenced you?
MJ: Well, I was singing around with just about all the musicians in the Philadelphia area. And I started doing some work in the Bahamas, Atlanta, and places like that. So, then I met Gerald Price. Gerald had been everywhere- he's a fabulous pianist. He really became my mentor at that time. He heard something in me that blended well with the music that he liked to do. He said, "Justine, I'm tired of runnin' the road. How about if I stay home with my wife now, and you and I work together? I'll take care of the music, and you do the business part. I felt great about that, because he gave me a lot of confidence in myself. Then, we were together for about fifteen years or so. We just did all the different clubs. We had a really good working relationship. He's been my main mentor.
AAJ: Now, I'm taking a shot in the dark. Is there some Kansas City influence on your singing? When you perform, it's almost as if I'm in a club somewhere in KC in the nineteen thirties or forties, with the likes of Basie, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young.
MJ: That sounds good to me, but if it is, it snuck in. Gerald had traveled a lot, been to Europe and all over, so there may be a bit of that sound in me from working with him.
AAJ: What would you say you learned from Gerald Price?
MJ: The dynamics: when to be soft and when to sing louder.
AAJ: Your use of dynamics really comes through beautifully on your new CD, The Many Moods of Miss Justine. Now, there's a mystery about you. It appears that at one time in your career, you were on your way to stardom and fame. You sang on the same shows with Tony Bennett, Johnny Hartman...
MJ: I opened for Johnny Hartman a couple of times, once in Atlantic City. And once in Philadelphia, there was a club near the Broad Street Station, and I opened there for him. He was a really nice man. I was also on shows with Tony Bennett and also Ray Charles.
AAJ: You were getting up there on the pantheon, where you deserve to be. What happened?
MJ: Well, you see, I always had a lot of home obligations. That was always my priority. I said to myself, "If I can just sing, I'll be happy. And I've been fortunate enough to always work. I love to sing, I love the music.
AAJ: We in Philadelphia are very lucky to have you.