Diane Schuur. Picture: Supplied

Distinguished American jazz pianist Diane Schuur often feels she’s “channelling” greats artists like Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan and Nancy Wilson when performing their material on stage.

Schuur will be one of the many musical highlights at the upcoming Standard Bank Joy of Jazz when she shares the stage with the reigning Standard Bank young artist of the year for jazz, Thandi Ntuli.

Backed by the Standard Bank National Youth Jazz Band, these two performers will be featured on the Diphala Stage, one of five stages being used during the three-day event from September 27 to 29 at the Sandton Convention Centre

In an interview, Schuur, who is nicknamed Deedles, talked about her blindness, her working relationships with Frank Sinatra and Stan Getz, and her positive attitude to life.

This will be her second visit to South Africa, having performed in Johannesburg in 2001. “I am really looking forward to performing there again,” she said.

When told of her collaboration with Ntuli and the National Youth Jazz Band, she told me: “I love seeing young people playing and experiencing the music, I expect to be inspired.

“I plan to be spontaneous on stage, so there are always surprises in my show. I might reach for a John Coltrane song, or a Beatles number. I normally include one of my more well known songs, Louisiana Sunday Afternoon, and I’ll certainly pull out some material from my latest CD, I Remember You - a homage to two of my mentors, Frank Sinatra and Stan Getz.”

Asked if she had any particular favourites and why, she responded: “I grew up with jazz standards, sung by American greats such as Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan and Nancy Wilson, so I often feel I’m channelling them on stage. And the Great American Songbook is a well I go to often when I need that perfect lyric to express what’s going on inside me, and in the world.”

Her early experiences are of her parents’ wonderful jazz collection. “These records were my first exposure to the world of music,” she said. “When I was young, I had the opportunity to meet George Shearing, who was also blind, and I learned that no visual disability need get in the way of sharing the gift of song.

“I absorb inspiration from all facets of life, music and otherwise. I’ve been fortunate to work with some amazing artists and producers and they have each shared their individual talents with me, so I carry a piece of each experience with me. For example, if I perform The Very Thought Of You, I still conjure the arrangement that Dave Grusin created for me.”

What was the thinking behind her paying homage to Sinatra and Getz?

“Stan Getz was a great friend, as well as a mentor. He taught me that less is more when singing into the microphone. The microphone can be your friend. You don’t have to shout out every note. He also instilled the importance of enunciating while singing the words to a song.

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“I had the honour to perform with Sinatra as a replacement for Liza Minnelli, who was ill. Everyone was against it except Frank. He gave me a chance to be part of his group. Once I started singing, the audience responded quite positively. We had many intimate conversations about life and my blindness.

“He ended up painting a beautiful abstract canvas for me, which hangs in my home. He said to me I have seen so much beauty in my life; I wish I could give you my eyes for one day to see this beautiful world we live in. Then he realised I could see it too, in my own way.”

Schuur’s career highlights include honouring Stevie Wonder at the Kennedy Center in DC and getting to sing I Just Called to Say I Love You directly to him.

She has also performed at some of her country’s most heralded locations, such as Carnegie Hall and the White House. “Those are seared into my memory.”

Schuur revealed that she still undertook tours, but not as many as when she began her career. “I recently had a conversation with Quincy Jones and he urged me to keep getting in front of a microphone and keep singing to audiences as long as I am able.

“I’m selective about the concerts I accept as I want to be in comfortable settings, with audiences who appreciate jazz. This Autumn I will be headlining four shows at New York’s famed Lincoln Center, performing my Count Basie project with a big band. American jazz has traditionally been appreciated by cultures around the world, so a lot of my time is spent flying overseas. Music is indeed an international language.”

Asked what advice she would give young musicians, she said: “Making a living as a performer has its challenges. So my advice is to always follow your heart, but be grounded and realistic. 

"It takes years and a winding path, filled with joy and disappointment, to find success in the entertainment world. And success is relative, because playing a small club can be as rewarding as making it to a festival stage in front of 10000 fans. It is the way you share your art that really matters in the end, not the night’s paycheck.”

The state of jazz in the US, she said, had always had its cycles. The music industry is in a state of flux and jazz was flowing along with changes brought on by the digital revolution.

“There is a flood of options now to discover music, and I know jazz is alive and well because there is room at the table for new young innovators and seasoned traditionalist like me.”

She added that she firmly believes that singing and playing the piano is what she was put on this earth to do. “Frankly, I simply can’t do anything else. I keep gratitude in my heart daily for this blessing.”

For more information on the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz, log on to the website.

Ticket prices are: Opening night: R700; day passes R795; weekend passes: R1350.

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