Miss Justine: The Many Moods of a Philly Jazz Treasure
MJ: First, I would say, learn the song- the way it's written- before you improvise or go all the way out with it. Learn how to speak so that you can be understood when you sing, so that the lyricists will be happy that you sang it. Too often, I cannot understand what they're singing. To me, the lyrics are very important. I'd just like to know what's being said- does it mean anything to you- have it mean something to you. Read it first, and have it mean something to you. Then you can deliver it better.
AAJ: Lester Young, "Pres, the great saxophonist, said the same thing you need to know the words of the tune.
MJ: The words, yes.
AAJ: So, when you're singing, are you listening to the words, the melody, the instrumentalists, or what?
MJ: I'm focusing on what I'm singing. I do listen to the guys absolutely. But I really want the audience to know what the song is about.
AAJ: It's the meaning of it, what it's communicating.
MJ: Yes. Absolutely.
AAJ: Do you ever have memories when you're singing?
MJ: Not so much. I guess like an actor. During that time you're doing that role, that part. Sometimes I can feel caught up in it.
AAJ: Now what on earth made you choose "Peter Gunn for one of the songs on the album?
MJ: Ooooooooohhhh! You know, I had a record of Sarah Vaughn doing some Mancini. And I never heard anyone sing it before or since. I'd thought I'd throw it in there.
AAJ: I had no idea even that there were lyrics. So, now, I know this is difficult: you were so very close with your husband, Jimmie Keeys, who very recently passed away. What would you like people to remember about him?
MJ: Number one, he was a humanitarian. He was always helping people, doing something to help somebody else. That was one of his beautiful things. And his personality. He always had a joke, always laughing. Always pushing me without him, I wouldn't have been singing.
He was an entrepreneur. He had a bar newspaper, called The Voice for many years. And he was a promoter for golf tournaments and concerts.
AAJ: John Coltrane emphasized the spiritual aspect of music. He talked about music as the expression of his soul, his spirit. I often ask musicians about their spiritual life. Do you have any thoughts about that?
MJ: Well, I feel that my soul, which is where I sing from, it's a God-given talent that I have. I thank Him for that every day that he gave me something that people enjoy. I don't care what you call that Force. You can call it God, you can call it Judah, you can call it Allah, you can call it Buddha, whatever I think it's all One.
AAJ: Coltrane had the same idea- he never adopted one single religion, always seeking.
MJ: Well, no, I grew up in the Christian Church. But I do believe we are all One, so far as Who we worship.
AAJ: And music makes that point too, because it's universal.
AAJ: Did you ever sing Gospel, by the way?
MJ: You know, I've done religious music, but not Gospel. My voice isn't a gospel-y voice. I love it, but I just don't have that voice. I've done faith-based music like "One God. But not gospel I don't have the right sound. You do what you feel you do the best. I grew up in an A.M.E. church. The music there is not gospel. It's more "anthem-y in that sense.
AAJ: What do you do when you're not working? How do you relax and enjoy yourself?
MJ: Well, when I go out, I love to go to good restaurants- especially seafood. And I go to hear some good music, go to a good show. I like to read. I can curl up in a chair, put on my CDs, and just read. I like biographies of people I've admired especially. And I like mysteries. One of my favorite authors is Walter Moseley, The Devil in the Blue Dress. And I also like Mary Higgins Clark. Sidney Sheldon. As a kid, there was Langston Hughes. But then I was a partner in a book store, called My Solitude, where we sold African American literature. I found out about J. California Cooper, Maya Angelou, Tony Morrison. I read a lot of those things.
AAJ: What's coming up for you musically?
MJ: I'm doing my Friday nights at La Collina in Belmont Hills with Tom Lawton, 7:30- 11:30. And every other Thursday with Tom at L-2 in Philly. Then I do my concerts in the homes of jazz fans. The hosts and I send out invitations for a limited number of folks. The next one is going to be in September in Villanova. I also have a jazz picnic every year. Coming up soon. All the musicians are there: Bootsie Barnes, Tom Lawton, Tony Williams, to name a few.
AAJ: Sounds marvelous. A feast of sounds. Well, it's as if we're just getting started, but I see that time's up. This has been a great interview, Justine. Thank you so much for speaking with me.
MJ: Thanks, Vic.
Photos courtesy of Kathy Ridl, Dreambox Media.