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Denise King: Making the Tradition New

Victor L. Schermer By

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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

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