Denise King: Making the Tradition New

Victor L. Schermer By

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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.
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