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Douye: At Last, A Sophisticated Lady

Jim Worsley By

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My daddy used to say, 'It takes a lot to be a lot.' —Douye
On a quiet night if you listen very carefully you can still hear the timeless echoed voices eminating from the golden age of the jazz songstress. Perhaps it is the lingering tone of Sarah Vaughan, or the still haunting expressions of Billie Holiday, or the pure magic of Ella Fitzgerald. Or maybe, just maybe, there is a fresh voice that is the embodiment of that greatness past. Emerging on the jazz scene in 2017 with Daddy Said So and furthering the course with this year's Quatro: Bossa Nova Deluxe, Nigerian born vocalist Douyé has captured the spirit in a captivating manner. If she pays tribute, it is only in the sense that she has connected the dots and cultivated her own unique style in a manner reminiscent of those who paved the way.

Her story is both heartwarming and remarkable. Douye, now residing in Los Angeles, has followed her path of destiny and embraces every moment. Having now recorded with the likes of Ron Carter and Kenny Barron, her journey is fulfilled yet only beginning. Recently, All About Jazz had the pleasure of her company and conversation.

All About Jazz: Taking it from the top, what part of Nigeria are you from?

Douye: I was born in Lagos, which used to be the capital. That is now a state called Abuya.

AAJ: Did you start out singing in your church choir?

D: Yes. Well, I actually started singing at home. My Godmother was the musical director of our local church. She started talking to me about being part of the church choir. Eventually I decided to give it a shot. I went there and sang, and the church members were impressed. That's when I started to sing in public. I was only seven years old.

AAJ: Singing then came instinctively to you? It felt natural from the start?

D: Yes, in my recollection I was always singing at home. I knew that it was part of me. The good thing is that my godmother brought me into the church choir as it gave me a safe place to build my confidence and hone my skills as a singer. Singing came as a real natural feel for me. I hear a melody I like, and I start humming it. If I really like it then I learn the words and start singing it. That has always been like that for me.

AAJ: Your father had a lot to do with your musicality and interest in jazz. Tell us about your dad and that very special bond.

D: My dad was a beautiful person and a true father. I grew up in a middle-class family. My father traveled a lot and that opened up opportunities for me to travel to other parts of the world. He loved jazz. He really loved jazz. He would come home with all the newest jazz and would sit me down and we would listen. For a time just listening, but as time went on, he educated me to listen to the words, to listen to the instrumental parts, listen to how they bend the notes and different things like that. Mind you I was very young, just a little girl. He would just look at me and tell me that I was born to do this.

AAJ: He could see then that you were receptive to it.

D: Exactly. Once he realized that this was my calling there was no holding back. He would introduce me to more jazz. All different types of jazz at that point. There was always music playing in the house. All the African jazz, Brazilian jazz, bossa nova, all types of jazz I was exposed to so that I could have a deep ear as to what to listen for and then find my own sound. It was a very beautiful experience with my father. He gave me a great perspective of a real man and what a real father should be. He passed when I was just eleven years old. He was only with me for eleven years. But with him every day was like Christmas.

AAJ: Wow, what a wonderful thing to say.

D: Of course, if I was wrong about something, he had a way of letting me know. He had a way of schooling me about life. He was a straight shooter and spoke to me with words of wisdom. He didn't fool around, but he also had a very human sensitive side to him. I do miss him so.

AAJ: I'm sure you do. Your dad has had an enormous impact on your career, on your life, remarkably in just eleven years.

D: My entire life, yes. I think it is because he had such a big heart. Also, he was very concerned with social issues. He was concerned about the homeless. He would go out and feed them. My dad was among high-ranking military personnel and he would gather all the people in the neighborhood and feed them. He cared a lot about people. He was a very special man. He schooled me in life as well as in music.

AAJ: It led ultimately to Daddy Said So. An album of elegantly performed standards reminiscent of the golden age of jazz. Let's talk a little about the inspiration behind those song selections and arrangements.

D: I chose all of the songs. These are songs that when I was listening as a child, with my dad, that really touched my heart. "'Round Midnight" was my father's favorite. We would listen to it again and again. (laughing) then he would say let's listen to it again.

AAJ: A classic tune. You had John Beasley on that song, correct?

D: Yes, John lives here in Los Angeles and we have become acquainted. I asked him about doing some arrangements for the record. So pleased that John was on board with that and yes played beautifully on "'Round Midnight."

AAJ: How did you go about getting the likes of Ron Carter, Kenny Barron, and other jazz elites on board with this project?

D: Like so many things it goes back to my dad. He loved Miles Davis so much. Ron Carter was part of his quintet. He also liked Kenny Barron and of course many others that have since passed away. He told me when I was ten that when you become a woman and you go out to the west if these men are still around then you go fetch them! Find a way to work with them because they are the best. Of course, back then I didn't know what he was talking about. We talked about it, we laughed about it, and it went away. I had started out doing some R&B, but then there was daddy's voice saying, "where is that promise?" So, I decided to move on into the jazz world, that discussion from all those years ago when I was a little girl came back to me. I did a clean and simple basic demo with just piano and voice of the songs I plan to record. I sent them to these gentlemen and hoped that maybe they would be open to working with me. If it doesn't happen then well, I tried. I made an effort. First, I heard back from Kenny Barron's manager. She liked it well enough to pass it on to Mr. Barron. A week went by and I figured that was that. Then she calls me and says that Kenny likes you and would like to work with you. I almost fell over!

AAJ: I'll bet. That's pretty exciting!

D: I just couldn't believe it. After working and recording with Kenny Barron, I told him how much I really wanted to work with Ron Carter. Kenny helped with some advice as to how to get it to him. Ron Carter gets the demo, says he likes my voice, and when would you like to record together. Now this time I actually did fall over!! I mean are you kidding me? Ron Carter? THE Ron Carter? Just like that. He had only a small window the next morning then he was going to be out of town. So, I seized the opportunity. It was time to take it and run.

AAJ: What was it like meeting and working with Carter for the first time?

D: After we agreed on the time and the studio and all that I flew to New York to meet with him. I called him as soon as I got into town and he said to meet him at the studio at 10am and to please be on time. I. of course, didn't want to risk being late. I left an hour early and arrived at the studio at 9:08. Mr. Ron Carter was there already! He was tuning his bass and ready to go. I couldn't believe it. It was delightful. I have so much love and respect for this wonderful man. So diligent and focused. As soon as I walked in, he looked at me and smiled. He said, "You know, I tested you and you passed." (Douye laughs out loud). He just opened up after that to do the work with me. It was just beautiful.

AAJ: It had to be magical to record "Nature Boy" as a vocal/bass duet with such an icon in the history of jazz.

D: You know, I thought to myself that if I was going to have this wonderful opportunity to work with this great man, I don't want a trio or whatever like that. I just want him and his instrument. He asked me how I would like him to arrange it. "How many instruments do you hear?," he asked. He was a little surprised when I told him that I just wanted him and his bass. He is such a master of that instrument. I wanted to keep it simple and for him to be featured.

AAJ: Your dad would have been so proud.

D: Oh yes. I could just feel his presence and became teary eyed afterwards. In a good way, you know?

AAJ: I can imagine. It must indeed be special, not just in this moment, but within your jazz career to be fulfilling both your own and your father's dreams.

D: Yes. Very much so. From the time I was ten years old. And to be able to work all these years later with these gentlemen that were so very appreciated by my dad. Yes, it is very special. He told me I was destined to do this. That I was chosen to do this. That the Gods of music will lead your path. I didn't always understand it all when I was just a child. But I sure do now.

AAJ: Going back, what brought you from Nigeria to Los Angeles? And don't say an airplane because you know that's not what I mean.

D: (laughing) Well, I had spent a lot of time in England growing up. I have family there, so ever since I was five or six years old, I was going back and forth between Nigeria and England. My dad loved England. It is maybe a six to seven-hour flight from Nigeria. We used to vacation in England quite a bit. He always wanted to expose me to the western world. He wanted me to observe some of the western ways of thinking and living. I spent about six months a year in England, so I lived in both worlds. My dad was thinking way ahead, because that has shaped who Douye is today. I'm very appreciative of my heritage but I am very western in my thinking. When I was about eighteen, I realized that I needed to come to America and stay if I really wanted to pursue the career in music. I went to a music school to study voice. I went to a school called the Musicians' Institute. After that, through one of my instructors, I met a gentleman named Terry Shaddick. He is the composer of Olivia Newton John's big hit "Physical." He is quite a bit older than me and became a mentor. He is from England and we connected right away with our British ways of having a spot of tea and that sort of thing. He had the kind of wisdom that I saw in my father. A real straight shooter. He took interest in me because he could see that I was eager to do it and do it well. He especially helped me with writing and composing.

AAJ: What are the major cultural differences between living in Nigeria and living in the western world?

D: Nigeria is very very cultured and appreciative of their heritage. The way they dress. The way they eat. They are very respectful of one's elders. The way they socialize in Nigeria is very different from the way the western world socializes. Still, some commonalities with England, as they are very cultured and respectful there as well. I think what my dad was trying to accomplish was the fact that if I was going to be doing western music that he didn't want me to be closed minded. It was important to be exposed to the western thinking. My sound, my style, my thinking, was all shaped by those experiences. Let me give you an example. I love hats. All kinds of hats. I collect them. In England we always wore hats. We still do. Everywhere you go you wear hats. I decided that they would be a good way to define my appearance and my style as a jazz artist. Thinking back to when I was little and listening to the jazz music with my dad, most of the women back then wore hats. It was the style back then in jazz. I admire that. It's not like that now. But I decided that if I was going to do jazz that I wanted to be like the legends back in the day. I like the way they presented themselves and wanted to bring that back. I have some beautiful hats from the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.

AAJ: Which vocalists inspired you at an early age?

D: There are four that I still listen to every day. Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan. I listen to them for different reasons. They all have different character. I mostly listen to Sinatra for his confidence. When he sings a song, you can hear the confidence in his tone. You can hear that he knows what he wants to do and just comes out and does it. With Ella it is much about her timing and phrasing. She starts with a bend and ends with a bend. She had a different style. Sarah, as well, for timing and phrasing but in a different way. She had a melancholy feel to her singing. She could go high and then bring it really down. Go high and round. Then, of course, with Billie I listen for mood. She was so good with color in songs.

AAJ: Yeah, Billie Holiday really expressed the many feelings and emotions involved in her music.

D: Yes, very much so. I have tried to take elements from all of them in shaping my own sound and style. I listen to others, of course. But I find myself always going back to these four. My ear calls me back for different things. They are my masters. I listen to them every day. It's so amazing that every time I listen that I still hear something different.

AAJ: That's perhaps the most remarkable element of listening to jazz.

D: Yes, I think so too. Sometimes if I am in a bittersweet mood, I can feel every (with emphasis) bit of the emotion that Sarah Vaughn is trying to convey. Then it's just wow, how did she do it? She did it so clean and simple yet truly magical. It just doesn't get any better to me. I have so much respect for those artists. I so wish I could have met them.

AAJ: We can be thankful that they all left us such a large and wonderful volume of work that will live on forever. Let's talk then about your new record, Quatro: Bossa Nova Deluxe. It's a gorgeous record. What led you in the direction of bossa nova?

D: I wanted to do something different. It's doing well on the charts. Daddy Said So was a vocal jazz record of timeless standards. I wanted to do an entire album of something different, not just put in a couple of bossa nova tunes. I was inspired by the many people of African heritage that are now in Brazil. I have been to Brazil and I thought it would be interesting to do a project that mixes the sounds of African jazz with the Brazilian bossa nova. As an artist I wanted to do not only something unique but that also showcases a part of me. The African percussion sounds aren't quiet. There is generally a bounce to them. The Brazilian percussion and rhythms are different. The samba and Latin sounds bring in different elements. It was quite challenging really to infuse all of that. But I'm quite glad that I did.

AAJ: Again, you were joined by a bevy of talented musicians. It is a very strong jazz drenched record instrumentally as well. How did this project all come together?

D: I worked with a gentleman named Zack O'Farrill. He helped steer me out of my comfort zone. He knew what I could do and helped me not to be afraid to just let loose and do it. When we did "Aqua de Beber," at the end of that track it was all just letting it ride, just letting it go. When I was doing it, I didn't even know where all that came from. I just allowed myself to be free and let it go. The record all came out very naturally. We didn't plan it as much as we just let it happen. We didn't want it to be overly structured, again just to let it go. It's doing well on the Latin jazz charts, so we are very happy about that.

AAJ: The song selection flows seamlessly. It's a well-chosen collection of compositions including many from Antonio Carlos Jobim. A personal favorite of yours?

D: Yes, these are all my selections and yes, I love Jobim's work and have so much respect for him. I felt like you can't really do bossa nova and not do his music. I gave tribute to him. He is the Godfather of bossa nova.

AAJ: You perform frequently in various clubs in the LA area. Are you looking to take the show on the road?

D: Yes, I am going to get out there a bit. I am going to Florida in July and then the east coast and the Midwest in October. I want to put my name out there and have some fun performing. I always have my musical director and pianist, Aaron Provisor, with me. He knows me and my music so very well. We practice together every week. So, I am very comfortable and confident of always being able to give a strong performance anywhere we play.

AAJ: Well, having seen and heard you perform live a couple of times now, I certainly know that to be true. I admire your work ethic.

D: Thank you very much. My dad used to say, "It takes a lot to be a lot."

AAJ: Oh, I like that quote. I like that a lot.

D: Yeah, it takes a lot to be a lot. It's very true, you know. Artistry is timeless. I want to always be careful to do my best work and make sure that what I create will last a lifetime. You take someone like John Coltrane. It took a lot for him to do what he did. But it's timeless, it lasts forever. My dad told me when I was maybe eight years old that I wouldn't be able to touch or hug everyone in the world personally. That my music, my records will define me. I always think of that and want the name Douye to always be thought of with the highest quality of work possible. It is very important to me to always be authentic. People should know me and understand the kind of person I am by listening to my music. Daddy said so.
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