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Denise King: Making the Tradition New

Victor L. Schermer By

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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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