Denise King: Making the Tradition New

Victor L. Schermer By

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Denise King is a Philadelphia vocalist who has made the world her oyster with her unique ability to navigate between rhythm and blues and sultry jazz standards. Discovered in the 1980s by an R&B songwriter-producer, King quickly found her way in the City of Brotherly Love with some of the top musicians in both popular and jazz settings. In the New Millennium, she has been shuttling back and forth between the U.S. and Europe delivering stellar performances on both continents. With her smooth and sultry voice, impeccable sense of timing, interpretive depth, and immersion in the tradition of the great singers, King brings out the best in any genre. For example, in just one of her albums, Fever (R.E.D.D. King, 2001), she is equally at home with Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Wave," the unsung ballad, "Never Let Me Go," the Shirelles' pop song, "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," and the rocking "I've Got My Mojo Workin.'" She takes each song on its own merit while adding her unmistakable personal stamp. Among her various projects, she does a traveling Tribute to Sarah Vaughan, one of her idols with whom she shares many fine qualities. King also has a strong personality and life story that can be entertaining and at the same time cut deeply into the soul.

All About Jazz: For a warmup, tell us a few of your all time favorite record albums.

Denise King: I love Sarah Vaughan Swings the Tivoli (Mercury, 1963). Then there's Nina Simone: Wild is the Wind (Phillips, 1966). I could listen to that one all the time. Then it's Ben Webster and Harry "Sweets" Edison, Ben and Sweets (CBS Records, 1962). And anything by Chet Baker. I love Frank Sinatra's In the Wee Small Hours (Capitol, 1955). And I also dig the way Sinatra does the songs "Where or When" and "That Old Feeling."

Early Musical Influences

AAJ: I'd like to go back to your childhood, and then move forward in time, bringing us up to date. Am I right that you were born in Philadelphia?

DK: Yup, born and raised in West Philadelphia.

AAJ: Were there jazz clubs in that neighborhood then?

DK: I don't recall whether they were in West Philly when I was a youngster. But I do remember Peps and the Showboat around Broad Street. Philly was a hot town for jazz at that time (late 1950s-early 1960s) Columbia Avenue (now Cecil B. Moore Avenue) in North Philly was jumpin.' But I didn't get involved in jazz until I was much older. I do know there was a lot of stuff on Broad Street then.

AAJ: At some point, jazz clubs were popping up on 52nd Street in your neck of the woods.

DK: 52nd Street was jumpin.' I know that because my father and my aunt Curtice used to hang out on 52nd Street. It was a very hip place to be. The super-star athletes and everybody who was anybody would hang out at Mr. Silk's Third Base Lounge at 52nd and Spruce. And there was the Acqua Lounge. Things were poppin' then in Philly, but I missed all that. I was still a little kid.

AAJ: What were your earliest exposures to music?

DK: Growing up in a mainly black neighborhood in Philadelphia, most of my early exposure was to R&B, gospel music, and soul music. During my pre-teen years, my sister, who was seven years older than me, was an avid record collector. She ran to the record store and bought every new record that came out. My brothers and I would spend hours listening to Anthony and the Imperials, the Paragons, Gary "U.S" Bonds, who I had a massive crush on, and of course that whole Motown experience and James Brown. Those were my favorites, but once I became a teen-ager, junior high school changed everything about the music I was exposed to. I was one of ten black kids who had to integrate an all-white school in Northeast Philly. The change in music was like night and day. It was the first time I had been exposed to music like the Strawberry Alarm Clock, The Nazz, and The Who. And of course, the Beatles. And my siblings thought I was from outer space when I was listening to Incense and Peppermint! I think those years shaped my approach to music. And around that time, at age 13, I was first introduced to jazz.

AAJ: How did that happen?

DK: I would go and stay with my uncle, Herbert Tatum. He was a jazz fan and a record collector. His favorite horn player was saxophonist David "Fathead" Newman. He lived in the suburbs and had this massive collection. One wall of his recreation room was filled with all jazz records! One hot summer day, I was goofin' off at his place, and I found myself in the room with his records. The first one I pulled off the shelf was Lee Morgan's The Sidewinder (Blue Note, 1964). From that moment I was hooked on jazz.

AAJ: What about that recording hooked you?

DK: It was just the groove of it, the feel of it. The music appealed to me in a different way from what I'd been listening to previously. It made me think, it made me introspective. I think it taught me how to really listen. It was incredible how the musicians interacted with one another! It was the most amazing thing I had ever heard.

So after that, I found myself on a lot of days in uncle Herb's family room listening to the collection. But I wasn't exposed to the jazz vocalists until a little bit later when my cousin Cynthia told me she was crazy about Nina Simone. The first song I heard her sing was "Wild is the Wind." It blew my skirt off! Her voice and her interpretation were fantastic. I was kind of a Bohemian and artistic kid, and listening to Nina Simone just took me there. So, after that, listening to the jazz singers was a whole new world.

And then, when I heard Sarah Vaughan, it was over!!! I was cooked! This may sound bizarre, but I had dreamed a melody when I was young, and didn't know where it came from, and then I heard Sarah Vaughan sing it! It was "The Nearness of You." To this day, it's my favorite song. I recorded it, and it was the top tune in Philly for fifteen weeks. So Sarah was my inspiration. And my jazz education didn't come from music school; it came from listening to these great singers.

AAJ: Your voice is so fine, transparent, and artful, that I can't believe you haven't had voice training and a formal musical education.

DK: No. I somehow became my own teacher. It comes from listening. I listened to Nina, Sarah, and Frank Sinatra, who is one of my favorite singers. I would always listen to Sid Mark's radio shows, "Friday with Frank" and "Sunday with Sinatra." I listened to Frank's and Sarah's phrasing and interpretation, and what I learned from them was that you had to tell the story. You don't need vocal gymnastics or pyrotechnics, just tell the story. The person who penned the particular song was telling a story, and I feel that the singer's job is to convey that story in the tone that the song was written. I started my career rather late compared to some other singers. I was an old lady by then!

AAJ: Now wait a minute! Your bio says that you got your start when were sitting on a stoop singing, and some guy from Philadelphia International Records heard you and encouraged you to do it professionally. It's unlikely that happened so late in life.

DK: I was thirty years old at the time. By industry standards, I was an old lady. I was raising my kids. I was actually sweeping the front of my house, and I sang all the time!

AAJ: So you had no intention of being a professional singer until that guy came along?

DK: Even when he came around, being a singer wasn't even something that was on my radar. His name was Rahman Rasheed from Philadelphia International Records. When he walked by, I had a job as a medical assistant at a major teaching hospital. He was a good friend of mine, and he stopped in his tracks and shouted, "Hey girl, you can sing!" And I was like, "I can?" And then he said, "I have this gig comin' up, and I want to audition you for it." I had no idea what he was talking about, but he said the magic words "I will pay you." I was raising three boys who inhaled food like a vacuum cleaner, and I'm thinking, wow, I can buy more milk, cereal, tennis shoes, for my boys. So I agreed to do the audition.

AAJ: Philadelphia International was all R&B back then.

DK: It was all R&B. The first thing I did with him was an outdoor festival at a park in downtown Philadelphia. He was part of the writing team at Philadelphia International, and he invited me there to demo his songs for him. And there I met Dexter Wansel, the keyboard player and composer/arranger who had a big influence on the "Philly Sound." We became good friends, and I started doing some live performances and recordings with him. Then, at one point I did a horrible gig that I didn't even get paid for, and I was thinking of quitting, but that's where I met the jazz saxophonist Sam Reed. Years before we met, he had been the band director for the Uptown Theater in Philadelphia, which was a "must play" venue on the chittlin' circuit. ["The 'Chitlin' Circuit' is the collective name given to the string of performance venues ... that were safe and acceptable for African American musicians, comedians, and other entertainers to perform in during the age of racial segregation in the United States ..."—Wikipedia.] Sam heard me at a place called Dino's, and called me for a gig. It's like every time I would be ready to walk away from this business, something good would happen and it would keep me locked in. And the gigs kept getting better and better. And then one day, I realized that I liked it! It hit me like a ton of bricks that this is kinda cool! I think this is what I should be doing with my life! And then I started to take my career much more seriously.

The Jazz Career

DK: Then, I had an opportunity to work with some of the more experienced Philly jazz musicians like Sam Dockery, Arthur Harper, Jimmy Oliver, Lex Humphries, Wayne Dockery, Jymie Merritt, Bootsie Barnes, the list goes on and on. And these older guys told me, "Look, if you want to sing, you better step up to the mike, and really hit something!" I've always had a really good ear, and I could tell when it was my time to step in, but I still had a lot to learn, and these guys taught me well.

AAJ: And you got guidance on the job from some of the best of the best musicians.

DK: I learned a lot from them, including bandstand etiquette. I learned not just how to be a singer, but to be a player, to work along with the musicians as part of the group.

AAJ: I like the phrase "bandstand etiquette." You can tell when the singers and the group are working together rather than flouting their own egos. It's important that you all connect with and respect one another.

DK: It's important to know how to conduct yourself on the bandstand. This is a collective effort; we are creating something together. You have to learn the rules and learn how to share the stage.

AAJ: One of the things that I like about how you work and which is rare among jazz vocalists is that, when you choose to, you can be very entertaining and involve the audience. I've seen you whoop up a storm with the audience.

DK: For a long time, however, I was really shy, I wouldn't even talk to the audience. It was Sam Reed who helped me overcome my shyness. One night, we had a gig, and between tunes, Sam told me, "You can't just stand there—you have to talk to the audience." I said, "I can't do that! I wouldn't even know what to say." So after that little exchange, Sam snuck up behind me, and he goosed me with his horn! [Laughter.] And he made the loudest noise! And I jumped up and shouted, "Oh! Oh my God!" And he just laughed and laughed, and I said to the audience, "I better say something to you guys or I'm gonna get goosed again!" And everybody just fell out laughing!

What that taught me was that people really want to like you. They want to be engaged, and be pulled into this experience. They want to know that you're accessible. I let people know I'm just like them. I don't want to be put up on a pedestal. When I go on stage, I want to have fun and just be who I am. I want to send people home from a show with a sweet memory.

AAJ: In the swing era, people danced and got up close to the stage or bandstand. With bebop that changed, for good reason, because the music was meant to be listened to seriously. But I think something was lost, the element of participation.

DK: And today it's important to bring audiences back to jazz. We wonder why jazz is less popular today than before, and I think that part of the reason is that people don't think it's fun anymore. They think jazz is this long-haired, heady music. You have to behave yourself, you can't have fun. So I want my audiences to really enjoy themselves, even get up and dance. I think if we embraced that part of the music again, we'd see more people come out. I just did a gig at Petit Journal Montparnasse in Paris, and I reminded the people to get up, dance, enjoy themselves. We have to remind everyone that it's OK to have fun, clap your hands, dance. That might bring more of them back to jazz.

AAJ: You may have a good point there!

DK: It's working for me, so much so that, when I get back to the States, I'm going to try to plan two jazz dance parties with Duane Eubanks and his wife and manager, Aleta. Once, I had people do a line dance to "Stolen Moment!" They loved it!

AAJ: On another note, we have some great vocalists and instrumentalists in Philly who, in my opinion, should be on the world stage, but they seem to prefer to stay and work locally most of the time. I admire your decision during part of each year to tour in Europe and wherever the work takes you. What led you to do the international thing?

DK: Once again, that was all by accident. When I decided to do music full time, I felt I wanted to go at it with all I've got, so I would never regret what I did. So I grabbed my first "full-time" gig, which happened to be in Japan. But then in the 1990s, I repeatedly sent this club La Villa in St. Germaine du Pres a hundred press kits, and they ignored them for a long time. But then they had a cancellation, and the manager Dany Michel called me and invited me to Paris to do a week-long gig. And so I went to Paris and did the gig. It was incredible! It was sold out every night, the musicians were great, and Danny said, "Great! We're gonna have you back!" I was excited, of course, but they never called back! So—fast forward from the 1990s to 2008, and the pianist from that gig, the pianist sent me a message on Facebook, and said, "If you can get here to Paris, I'll help you find some work." Well, I didn't remember him from Adam, but I thought, "What do I have to lose?"

AAJ: So what happened?

DK: Well, I didn't have much money, but I sold all my jewelry and electronic gadgets, and I reserved a round trip ticket and an apartment in Paris! And the pianist got me some gigs, and then he got me hooked up with a record label that was looking for a new face, and he plugged me into that. So I signed with Cristal Records. We did two records together, and we did a lot of touring. From 2008 to2012, we toured around Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Luxembourg, and Belgium. So every year from April to September, I've been on tour.

The pianist and I went our separate ways, and it hasn't been easy to rebuild my solo career, but my friends in Italy kept me working, I did some master classes as well, and then business started picking up. So I'm thrilled to be on the road on my own now. There's no place else in my life that I'd rather be.

AAJ: So this summer, you'll be traveling around Europe?

DK: Yes, in fact tomorrow morning, I leave for Belarus, and then I have a master class and workshop in Italy, and a gig coming up in Spain. But I also want to perform more in the States. I've worked in New York several times at Dizzy's Club Coca Cola under the direction of my dear friend Todd Barkan. I'd like to do more in the States, and my "I have a dream" concert would be to perform at Carnegie Hall, not to mention Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, and the Opera House in Sydney, Australia! I'm doing a "Tribute to Sarah Vaughan" show, and I'm getting good crowds for it. I did it in Philadelphia at the Barnes Foundation, accompanied by a string section, and it was very well received.

The Vocal Tradition and Beyond

AAJ: When I think about your singing style, the following singers come to my mind as being somehow connected. Tell us if you have any thoughts about each of them. The first is Betty Carter.

DK: I absolutely love her. I love her boldness and inventiveness. She really made a huge impact on the lives of many young musicians. I have a lot of respect for her. She was a teacher and a mentor. I especially like that she taught many musicians the art form of how to work with singers. And she had that special energy.

AAJ: Say more about what you call the "art form of working with singers."

DK: Some sidemen just think you can just wing it with the singer. That's not good. They have to watch the singer and listen to where she's going with the tune. They have to learn the musical language of the singer. Not everybody can do that. A drummer on one of my gigs stopped and told the musicians, "You've got to watch the singer, see what she's gonna do. Pay attention to what she's doing." And the flip side is that the singer must also be prepared and see herself as an instrument.

AAJ: That would probably be especially true of Betty Carter as her singing became increasingly complex and free. OK, how about our treasured Philly vocalist, Miss Justine? Do you know her work?

DK: Of course, I know Miss Justine well! I love her, and I've always felt that she should be more well-known. She made a decision to focus on her home life and her family. The same was true of Evelyn Sims.

AAJ: Are you familiar with Kansas City's Deborah Brown? I mention her because of her European experiences and her style which has a similar swing to yours.

DK: Yes, I have heard of her. But, unfortunately, I'm not that familiar with her singing. But I agree that a singer has to swing.

AAJ: Do you know J.D. Walter?

DK: Yes, I know J.D. His whole approach is very unique and innovative.

AAJ: Do you yourself ever go out on a limb in a "free jazz" sort of way?

DK: I never have and usually don't. All though there have been occasions where I work with musicians who were more free. It gave me an opportunity to stretch. But typically I stay in my lane—I do what feels right for me. That's why I don't scat. Ella was the master of scat. If I can't do it with that ease and flow, it's not happening. When I scat, it feels forced.

AAJ: Do you currently have a regular group of sidemen, or do you get them on location at particular venues?

DK: I have guys I work with here in France as well as in Philly and Italy. I consider them part of my working band. In Philly, it's pianist Aaron Graves, bassist Lee Smith, drummer Byron Landham, trumpeter Duane Eubanks, and saxophonist Abraham Burton. In Paris, it's Tony Match on drums, Peter Giron on bass, and Chris Culpo or Julien Coriatt on piano. In Italy, it's Massimo Farao, Aldo Zunino, and Marco Tilotti. They're my friends and co-creators. They're my life. They give me everything I need on that bandstand. And we enjoy what we do together. That's important.

Ultimate Concerns

AAJ: You seem to very at ease with yourself. Is that related to any spiritual philosophy or practice?

DK: I don't believe in religion. In my opinion, religion is behind so much dissension and so much confusion and chaos. But I do believe in God. I've had many experiences in my life that point to the existence of a God. Two years ago, I was on a flight from Philadelphia to Belgium, and I became very ill. I actually had a hemorrhage, I was bleeding out. It happened three hours into the flight, and we were over the Atlantic Ocean. We had five hours to go, and I was bleeding to death. I was lying on the floor of the plane, and my blood pressure was dropping. The only reason I'm here today is by the grace of God.

AAJ: Was there a doctor or nurse on the plane?

DK: Well, there was a pediatrician, and I said to him, "You'll never forget this big baby!" [Laughter.] There was also a nurse, but they wouldn't tell me anything. They monitored my blood pressure and made sure I was comfortable. But during that time, I believe I was near death, and I saw what people call "The Light"—and it's magnificent! It was the most magnificent thing I have ever seen in my life! And I wanted to go to this light, to inspect this light. It opened like a portal that was hazy and gossamer around the edges. The colors were brilliant, like an opal. Looking at this Light, I felt in my spirit my family, my friends, my life. And I said to myself, "I don't want to go." I saw that Light three times. The last time it came, I felt in my spirit, "Not yet! I have work to do." I passed out, and when I woke up, they were telling me they were getting ready to land.

AAJ: You're describing what is called a "near death experience."

DK: And that's exactly what it was. As it pertains to spirituality, I know now that there is something else, something more. And I also know that you have to get still and quiet to get in touch with that spiritual side. Sometimes, when I say to people, "I had a gut feeling," that feeling is nothing but spirit in my opinion. I've had many things happen that convince me that there is a Higher Power. And what happened on the plane cannot be understood any other way as far as I'm concerned.

AAJ: It sounds like what you went through changed you very deeply.

DK: But I've always been a very spiritual person. My earliest memory of a connection to a Higher Power happened when I was seven years old. I wanted to go on a class trip, but the night before, I got the worst stomach ache I ever had. I prayed the way a seven year old does, and I told God, "If you make my stomach ache go away, I will love you for the rest of my life!" And the next morning, I woke up, and the stomach ache was gone, boom! The deal was sealed.

AAJ: That's a good deal to make! A lot of folks make deals that don't work out so well!

DK: Yes, it was a good deal. And every aspect of my life is spiritually guided. I don't do anything without first getting still and quiet. Some people call it meditating. I don't do anything without consulting my Higher Power, my Higher Being.

AAJ: To relate this to music, the great trombonist J.J. Johnson emphasized how important it is to be still when you play your instrument. J.J.'s was absolutely still when he played, except for his arm moving the slide. I suppose that gave him great accuracy and concentration, but maybe it also helped him connect with an inner source. That stillness seems very important in many ways.

DK: It gave him focus. Sometimes I'll just sit in a chair with no external stimuli. No music, no TV, nothing. And I'll just be still and let my mind pay attention to my thoughts, pay attention to what's coming into my consciousness. The Universe speaks, and you have to be still to hear it. You have to go inside for direction and for clarity. And it has served me well.

AAJ: That's interesting: you're a musician who loves silence. And part of music itself is silence.

DK: And sometimes the silence between the notes is the most beautiful.

Message to Young Singers and Musicians

AAJ: As an experienced musician, what would you like to tell those talented young musicians and vocalists who are often going to schools where they learn things like harmony and how to sing or play their instrument, but they don't have much hands-on experience playing gigs?

DK: Music school can be very sterile. They should start listening to everything they can get their hands on, but especially to the masters. Once I was teaching a master class, and I mentioned Dinah Washington, and nobody knew who she was! That's sacrilege! In a way, I'm a preservationist, because a lot of these young singers just don't know who their predecessors are. They need to listen to and discover as many singers as they possibly can, even those who are not so well known. Like Gloria Lynne is someone they should be listening to. And Dakota Staton and Johnny Hartman.

More importantly, these young singers have to remember that they are not just singing words and notes. They're telling a story. I tell them, "Do you know what the song is about? Do you know the story? Sing it like you know what the story is about! When you sing these stories, your audience should be moved!" Once I had to do a gig at a Senior Center, and I was at first thinking it was a chore, but I saw this lady sitting with her gloves on with her purse and her pillbox hat. For some reason, the song "As Time Goes By" popped into my head, so I sang it. At one point, I looked at her and she was crying. And after the gig, that lady came up to me and said, "Baby, you're too young to know these songs. My husband of fifty years passed away a few months ago. And you sang our favorite song!" That was one of those experiences that taught me how important it is to tell the story in the song.

So these young singers have to learn to tell the story, listen to as many singers as possible, and they also have to learn bandstand etiquette. That education is not going to come from the classroom. It's only going to come from jumpin' in that water and swimmin' with those musicians. Today's young singers and musicians must get out to the clubs and sit under those who have paved a way for them. Respect and listen, because you really don't know everything. It's not all about you. It's about the music and the audience and connecting on a higher level through this music. Yes—absolutely study in a classroom setting, but your real education will come from club hopping and sitting in. That's when it gets real.

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