Denise King: Making the Tradition New

Victor L. Schermer By

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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.



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