Miss Justine: The Many Moods of a Philly Jazz Treasure

Victor L. Schermer By

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"I ... was blown away by [Miss Justine's] unique mastery of the jazz idiom, so completely faithful to the music that it seems to run through her rather than be 'performed' in any artificial sense of that term.
—Victor Schermer
Jazz vocalist Miss Justine (Justine Keeys) is a Philadelphia phenomenon. I first heard her sing several years ago, and was blown away by her unique mastery of the jazz idiom, so completely faithful to the music that it seems to run through her rather than be "performed in any artificial sense of that term. Thus, Justine is a "natural in several respects. For one thing, she has the "gift —the intuitive sense of phrasing, timing, and dynamics that is never forced, but rather an expression of the song itself. For another, she is a remarkably sincere and unaffected person. She just comes from the heart. And this is reflected in her singing. The result is a unique jazz experience that has universal meaning and appeal.

Miss Justine leads a low-key life in a suburb of Philadelphia and performs at various clubs and other venues in the area. She came up with the likes of John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, and other musicians who visited her family and jammed with them. Ultimately, she chose to pursue her career locally, which makes her singing startling: when you hear it, you feel you are listening to an all-time great vocalist. And you are.

After so many years of performing, she very belatedly just came out with her second CD, The Many Moods of Miss Justine (the first was Tasty, released in the late 1990's), featuring a group of some of the Philadelphia area's finest musicians. It offers a wonderful sampling of what she can do. I thought to honor the occasion by interviewing her, and she graciously agreed. I called her at her home on the morning of July 21, 2005. Here is what transpired.

All About Jazz: Let's start out with the "desert island question : If you could bring some recordings to that desert island, what would you take with you?

Miss Justine: That's really hard... Just one?

AAJ: However many you want.

MJ: Early in my life, early on, I would have just said Sarah Vaughan. Later, I would say Nat King Cole. And now it's Shirley Horn. I'll just say those three —there are many others.

AAJ: How about Billie Holiday? When you sing, there are echoes of Billie.

MJ: People tell me that a lot, and I guess she must be there, but it wasn't until later in life that I really appreciated her. When I was really young, she didn't do anything for me. And then later on, I said, "Wait a minute, whoa! What was I missing? I think my formation was more with Sarah and Carmen McRae. Billie came after I had fully developed as a singer. You know, we're always learning and trying something new and different, so I probably got something from Billie too. Now I love her. But when I was trying to learn to sing, in addition to my mother and my sister, it was Sarah and Carmen.

[Miss Justine's grandson interrupts the interview, and we both chuckle over it. I'm reminded of the interview I did with pianist Jim Ridl, when the family cat, Pekoe, jumped on the kitchen table. Nothing is sacred!]

I thought that I'd just be by myself during your interview, but I had to shift around and took one of the kids for the day.

AAJ: So, how did you come up as a jazz vocalist?

MJ: My mother —our family lived in North Philadelphia-made sure we were exposed to all kinds of music. When I was a teen-ager, everyone was listening to rock 'n roll and rhythm and blues, but we also had jazz in our house. We went to all the musicals, and to the Dell for classical music. [Robin Hood Dell is an amphitheater in Fairmount Park in Philly. For many decades it served as the main outdoor concert venue in the city, until the Mann Center for the Performing Arts came about. The Dell is still used for some events. —Eds.] My mother used to write skits for my three older siblings. They had a little group-they would sing in harmony, tap dance, and joke. I was the fourth in line. I started singing when I was 3½ years old. My mother put me on a talent show: the Stanley Broser children's hour. I did various things for a while, and then I stopped completely. I was very stubborn, and did not want to sing. I just wanted to play sports, basketball. That stopped the singing until I got to be 18 or 19. My older sister, however, was singing, and did a lot of club work. I started doing that, too, but I was really kind of shy. I had to be pushed all the time. I guess I still have that going on. I guess it's just my nature to need a push sometimes.

The musicians knew me because of my sister, and also because my house was open for jam sessions. We had a piano.

AAJ: Do you remember some of the people who came to the jam sessions then? There was a lot going on in Philadelphia at that time, wasn't there? Coltrane, McCoy Tyner...

MJ: McCoy used to be at our house all the time, with John Coltrane and even Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Rollins. Even today, Sonny will tell you he remembers my mother. And McCoy married my younger sister. But that has nothing directly to do with my singing. It may have to do with my listening and picking up sounds, etc. McCoy and my sister divorced, but he says he's still my brother-in-law. They were married for 20 years. A lot of musicians came over there, and they were jammin' all the time.

AAJ: So you were exposed to it, but not heavily into it.

MJ: Exactly. I never thought I was that good —I knew my sister was excellent.

AAJ: Is your sister well-known?

MJ: She's deceased now. Her name was Rosemary Davis. My sister and my two brothers —they were called the Davis Kids. And they did a lot of talent shows.

AAJ: So at that time, you were just hanging out, but when did you get interested in singing, jazz, etc?

MJ: Probably when I was around 18, I started sneaking in those clubs, and listening. The musicians knew me, and they would get me up there to sing, so that's when I really started performing.

WIDTH=200 HEIGHT=286>AAJ: The Great American Songbook?

MJ: Yeah. The standards. Ellington. Cole Porter. The stuff Sarah did. I don't know why this sticks in my mind, but the song I sung at age 3½ on that talent show was "I Don't Want To Set the World on Fire. I still know that tune.

AAJ: That's a pretty intense song for a 3½ year old!

MJ: There was always music in my house. My mother loved it, she played piano. We all did something in the arts. So, that's the background.

AAJ: Then you decided at some point to go professional.

MJ: I started getting hired at little clubs around, getting paid very little. Fifteen dollars for a job! [The small jazz clubs to which Miss Justine refers proliferated in Philadelphia after WWII through the 1960's. They were the spawning grounds for some of the greatest jazz musicians of all time, notably Tyner, Coltrane, Benny Golson, Mickey Roker, and the Heath Brothers, to mention just a few. —Eds.]

AAJ: The wages aren't much better today, right? [laughter.] By the way, did you take singing lessons?

MJ: No, it was my family who taught me. I took piano lessons for a while. The problem was that I could play by ear, so mother thought I was learning to read music, but when she found out I was faking it, she stopped paying for the lessons!

AAJ: Once you started getting serious about being a vocalist, who influenced you?

MJ: Well, I was singing around with just about all the musicians in the Philadelphia area. And I started doing some work in the Bahamas, Atlanta, and places like that. So, then I met Gerald Price. Gerald had been everywhere-he's a fabulous pianist. He really became my mentor at that time. He heard something in me that blended well with the music that he liked to do. He said, "Justine, I'm tired of runnin' the road. How about if I stay home with my wife now, and you and I work together? I'll take care of the music, and you do the business part. I felt great about that, because he gave me a lot of confidence in myself. Then, we were together for about fifteen years or so. We just did all the different clubs. We had a really good working relationship. He's been my main mentor.

AAJ: Now, I'm taking a shot in the dark. Is there some Kansas City influence on your singing? When you perform, it's almost as if I'm in a club somewhere in KC in the nineteen thirties or forties, with the likes of Basie, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young.

MJ: That sounds good to me, but if it is, it snuck in. Gerald had traveled a lot, been to Europe and all over, so there may be a bit of that sound in me from working with him.

AAJ: What would you say you learned from Gerald Price?

MJ: The dynamics: when to be soft and when to sing louder.

AAJ: Your use of dynamics really comes through beautifully on your new CD, The Many Moods of Miss Justine. Now, there's a mystery about you. It appears that at one time in your career, you were on your way to stardom and fame. You sang on the same shows with Tony Bennett, Johnny Hartman...

MJ: I opened for Johnny Hartman a couple of times, once in Atlantic City. And once in Philadelphia, there was a club near the Broad Street Station, and I opened there for him. He was a really nice man. I was also on shows with Tony Bennett and also Ray Charles.

AAJ: You were getting up there on the pantheon, where you deserve to be. What happened?

MJ: Well, you see, I always had a lot of home obligations. That was always my priority. I said to myself, "If I can just sing, I'll be happy. And I've been fortunate enough to always work. I love to sing, I love the music.

AAJ: We in Philadelphia are very lucky to have you.

MJ: It's sad now that there aren't many places where people really listen to jazz. There's so much else going on. Gerald and I would often work in restaurants, etc, where we were not the main focus, but we would give a concert once a year. We did it at the Philadelphia Art Museum and elsewhere. We'd sell it out, and the people were there for the music. And we would just have a ball. And that kind of rejuvenated me to continue on.

Recently, I started doing a living room series. We go to people's homes. It's so nice. You have a limited number of people. I've enjoyed it so very much. You have to try different things to keep this music going.

AAJ: Do you have any recollections of Johnny Hartman —one of the greatest singers, in the opinion of many?

MJ: The only thing I could say about Johnny is that the way he comes over in his music, the soft demeanor, the gentleness —that's the way he really seemed to be. He was very warm, always had a smile. I just loved his voice. I got "I Just Dropped By to Say Hello from him —it's on my new CD.

AAJ: When I heard you at L-2 the other night, I noticed you sang several of the tunes he recorded.

MJ: They weren't songs he wrote, but he inspired me to sing them by the way he did them.

AAJ: You've performed in the Philadelphia area with many of the guys. Who are some of your favorites to have worked with?

MJ: Gerald, of course. Don Wilson. And, of course, Tom Lawton. I also love Jimmy Gaskins. Eddie Green. They're all pianists.

AAJ: Other instruments?

MJ: I go for the bass solos. Darryl Hall.

AAJ: Did you ever play with Al Stauffer?

MJ: No, but I did know Al. There's Matt Parrish —he's on the CD. And Lee Smith.

AAJ: The Many Moods of Miss Justine is a marvelous recording. How did the idea develop to do it?

MJ: Actually, it just came out of my head. I thought, you know, people hear me with a big band, or just a pianist. Each group gives a different feel —many phrases, many moods. I tried to give the feeling of what it's like to work with the different instruments. It affects the way you approach the music, the tunes. It was great to add the horns, which I love, but I don't usually have the chance to work with them now.

AAJ: Related to what you're saying, one of the things that impresses me about the album is the feeling of a spontaneous, live performance as opposed to a "canned recording. One thinks of Rudy Van Gelder, the famous sound engineer, who had a knack for helping the musicians loosen up and really groove. How did you get the recording to have that live feel?

MJ: Well, first of all, it's the closeness we have-the musicians. We can have fun together. We're laughing, talking, everybody's supportive and jumping into the music. When we recorded the tune, "I'll be Seeing You (in All the Old Familiar Places) with just the guitar, it was a tribute to my late husband, Jimmie Keeys. So Twig [Gerald Smith -Eds.] and I were doing it. I was filling up with emotion as I was singing, and just trying to get through it without breaking up. When I finished it, I said, "O God, I really blew that! Guys, we're gonna have to that over again. And as I turned around, the whole group is all there with me. They all put their arms around me, and said, "Nope. We're gonna leave it just like that! That's perfect!

So, I think the spontaneity comes from the friendship and intimacy that we have together. I've been very fortunate in my musical career to work with many wonderful musicians. People think the singer is the star, but no, it's the group that does it. It takes all of us to make it sound good. And if any singer thinks they're rising above that, they're wrong. They have a lot to learn.

AAJ: I agree —the best jazz vocalists sing as if they're jamming with the group. They tend not to over-dominate.

MJ: When Gerald and I had our group, we would dress alike, even me. Even when I wore a dress or a gown, I'd get the tailor to make ties out of that material for the guys! We were all coordinated and we were all together. The message was, "We're working together, members of the team. I think that's very important.

AAJ: Do you ever do duets with other singers?

MJ: You know, not really.

AAJ: If you were to do so, who would you choose to do it with?

MJ: I'm a little different, and it may not blend with many other women vocalists. But there's one young woman coming up, whom I really like and relate to —that's Joanna Pascal.

AAJ: She's marvelous. I reviewed her recent album. She's very talented.

MJ: She really does a good job.

AAJ: By the way, if you were to give advice to an up and coming woman vocalist who really wants to be faithful to the music, what would you tell her?

MJ: First, I would say, learn the song-the way it's written-before you improvise or go all the way out with it. Learn how to speak so that you can be understood when you sing, so that the lyricists will be happy that you sang it. Too often, I cannot understand what they're singing. To me, the lyrics are very important. I'd just like to know what's being said-does it mean anything to you-have it mean something to you. Read it first, and have it mean something to you. Then you can deliver it better.

AAJ: Lester Young, "Pres, the great saxophonist, said the same thing —you need to know the words of the tune.

MJ: The words, yes.

AAJ: So, when you're singing, are you listening to the words, the melody, the instrumentalists, or what?

MJ: I'm focusing on what I'm singing. I do listen to the guys —absolutely. But I really want the audience to know what the song is about.

AAJ: It's the meaning of it, what it's communicating.

MJ: Yes. Absolutely.

AAJ: Do you ever have memories when you're singing?

MJ: Not so much. I guess like an actor. During that time you're doing that role, that part. Sometimes I can feel caught up in it.

AAJ: Now what on earth made you choose "Peter Gunn for one of the songs on the album?

MJ: Ooooooooohhhh! You know, I had a record of Sarah Vaughn doing some Mancini. And I never heard anyone sing it before or since. I'd thought I'd throw it in there.

AAJ: I had no idea even that there were lyrics. So, now, I know this is difficult: you were so very close with your husband, Jimmie Keeys, who very recently passed away. What would you like people to remember about him?

MJ: Number one, he was a humanitarian. He was always helping people, doing something to help somebody else. That was one of his beautiful things. And his personality. He always had a joke, always laughing. Always pushing me —without him, I wouldn't have been singing.

He was an entrepreneur. He had a bar newspaper, called The Voice for many years. And he was a promoter for golf tournaments and concerts.

AAJ: John Coltrane emphasized the spiritual aspect of music. He talked about music as the expression of his soul, his spirit. I often ask musicians about their spiritual life. Do you have any thoughts about that?

MJ: Well, I feel that my soul, which is where I sing from, it's a God-given talent that I have. I thank Him for that every day —that he gave me something that people enjoy. I don't care what you call that Force. You can call it God, you can call it Judah, you can call it Allah, you can call it Buddha, whatever —I think it's all One.

AAJ: Coltrane had the same idea-he never adopted one single religion, always seeking.

MJ: Well, no, I grew up in the Christian Church. But I do believe we are all One, so far as Who we worship.

AAJ: And music makes that point too, because it's universal.

MJ: Great.

WIDTH=200 HEIGHT=303>AAJ: Did you ever sing Gospel, by the way?

MJ: You know, I've done religious music, but not Gospel. My voice isn't a gospel-y voice. I love it, but I just don't have that voice. I've done faith-based music like "One God. But not gospel —I don't have the right sound. You do what you feel you do the best. I grew up in an A.M.E. church. The music there is not gospel. It's more "anthem-y in that sense.

AAJ: What do you do when you're not working? How do you relax and enjoy yourself?

MJ: Well, when I go out, I love to go to good restaurants-especially seafood. And I go to hear some good music, go to a good show. I like to read. I can curl up in a chair, put on my CDs, and just read. I like biographies of people I've admired especially. And I like mysteries. One of my favorite authors is Walter Moseley, The Devil in the Blue Dress. And I also like Mary Higgins Clark. Sidney Sheldon. As a kid, there was Langston Hughes. But then I was a partner in a book store, called My Solitude, where we sold African American literature. I found out about J. California Cooper, Maya Angelou, Tony Morrison. I read a lot of those things.

AAJ: What's coming up for you musically?

MJ: I'm doing my Friday nights at La Collina in Belmont Hills with Tom Lawton, 7:30-11:30. And every other Thursday with Tom at L-2 in Philly. Then I do my concerts in the homes of jazz fans. The hosts and I send out invitations for a limited number of folks. The next one is going to be in September in Villanova. I also have a jazz picnic every year. Coming up soon. All the musicians are there: Bootsie Barnes, Tom Lawton, Tony Williams, to name a few.

AAJ: Sounds marvelous. A feast of sounds. Well, it's as if we're just getting started, but I see that time's up. This has been a great interview, Justine. Thank you so much for speaking with me.

MJ: Thanks, Vic.

Visit Miss Justine and Dreambox Media on the web.

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