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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...

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