Jazz Instruments and Their Women

Dianne Reeves and Rebecca Kilgore

Dianne Reeves
Dianne Reeves, a black jazz vocalist, has headlined jazz since the 1980s. Though known for her eclectic music choice, Reeves is most notably known for her contribution to jazz. Since 2001 she has won five Grammy awards for Best Jazz Vocal Performance. Her most recent Grammy award came in 2015 for her widely acclaimed album, Beautiful Life (Dianne Reeves, Encyclopedia.com).

Reeves’ career as a jazz artist was almost inevitable. Her mother played the trumpet, her father was a singer, her uncle, Charles Burrell, played the bass. Her musical talents are innate and her appreciation for the jazz was fostered at a young age. She recalls the first record she received from her uncle: “the one I heard first was with Michel Legrand and Sarah Vaughan...it was amazing what [Sarah] was doing with her voice.” (Reeves, lines 27-29). It was from that moment on that Reeves knew that singing was her calling; she wanted to “make [her] own voice” (Reeves, line 40).

 Reeves grew up taking advantage of all the singing groups she could join, participating in choir, jazz bands and madrigal singing groups. Closely working with her uncle, Charles, and jazz pianist, Louise Duncan, (Dianne Reeves, Encyclopedia.com) Reeves began to develop her soon to be famous rhythm and voice. However, Reeves cites her experience with Harry Belafonte as the most notable contribution to her developments as jazz vocalists (Reeves, lines 209-212). With Harry, Reeves began to understand and appreciate the African and Latin undertones and heritage that created jazz.  During this time she began to value the African tradition of call-and-response that has greatly impacted the evolution of jazz. Reeves’ unique style is riddled with African incantation and rich cultural heritage. Though she is most associated with jazz, she also worked with other genres such as R&B, gospel, pop, Latin and African (The Delicious Soulfulness of Dianne Reeves, Huffingtonpost.com). However, her attachment to jazz, a genre that she describes as having very little boundaries, allowed her to be part of all these kinds of music (Reeves, lines 78-79).
Reeves’ success did not come without hardship. To reach center stage, Reeves had to prove herself. She recounts many times during which she had to enter into a new musical group without knowing the tendencies of the instrumentalists for whom she was singing (Reeves, lines 47-49). However, she attributes her success as a vocalists to all of those around her, fellow musicians and family members. Her uncle constantly taught her the importance of preparation, which allowed her to thrive even in the tough performances (Reeves, line 159). She attributes her success to the vocalists and artists that guided her along the way, like Carmen McRae and Cannonball Adderley (Reeves, lines 166-167), who encouraged Reeves to derive her own style while allowing her to emulate the styles of the their own.

As an artists who was dependent on the guidances of artists around her, Reeves is excited about and ready to guide the new generation of jazz vocalists that are entering center-stage. Reeves is an incredibly gifted and vivacious spirit that defined the role of a black jazz vocalist of her era (Dianne Reeves, Encyclopedia.com). Her legacy as not just a jazz vocalist but a storytelling artist is beautifully summed up with her words:

“I wanted to be able to tell stories and use the colors that I gathered from the very beginning of my career to really, really color the words and to really make my point very clear with the lyrics and the stories that I was trying to tell" (Reeves, lines 221-223).
Rebecca Kilgore
Rebecca Kilgore’s success as a jazz vocalist came as a big surprise to her. Unlike many of her peers who grew singing and striving to successful jazz vocalists, Kilgore unexpectedly found a new talent in her 30s. In fact, as a young girl, Kilgore was very shy. She recounts singing in her car, shower and living room, but “the thought of singing in front of people was mortifying” (Kilgore, lines 31-32). She describes herself as a “closet musician” (Kilgore, line 35), for she was never the lead in the plays, she never sang in any musical groups, and she never considered herself a musician.
Her father was a classical musician who wrote choral music for their church in Massachusetts. Surrounded by classical music, Kilgore’s first interests were in classical and folk music. In high school, however, Kilgore discovered a DJ who played classic jazz. Quickly, she became acquainted with the jazz divas of that era: Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald (Rebecca Kilgore, JazzTimes.com). Since then, Kilgore cites Ella Fitzgerald has being her “highest ideal” (Kilgore, line 71).

 In 1979 at 30 years old, Kilgore moved across the country to Portland. When one of Kilgore’s friends decided to quit a jazz group, the Wholly Cats, she decided to tryout to replace her friend. Much to her surprise, Kilgore received the job and took center stage. Kilgore said, “I loved being with musicians, loved learning new music all the time, and it was like a whole new family for me. There was no turning back after that” (Rebecca Kilgore, JazzTimes.com). And that was true. For the first time at the age of 30, Kilgore took center stage as a professional.
Her career rapidly progressed as she widened her horizons by singing for Western Swing, Country and Django derived jazz groups (Kilgore, lines 9-10). In 1991, after Dave Frishberg invited her to his band, Kilgore decided to ‘“jump off the cliff”’ (Rebecca Kilgore, JazzTimes.com) and devote all of her time to music. But that did not come easy for Kilgore. As a woman in an all-male band, she recounts the hardships of life on the road: “It was pretty hard though, life on the road, especially as a woman, being the only woman in a group of men traveling day in and day out” (Kilgore, 66-67).

 Interesting though, Kilgore does not consider herself as a jazz singer: “[she doesn’t] improvise all that much and [she] sticks pretty close to the melody” (Kilgore, 191). She considers herself a singer, in general. This speaks immensely about Kilgore’s approach to music. She is very focused on the music, the instruments, the sound and melody. Her voice is her instrument and her instrument evokes emotions out of her listeners. As one of the best and most successful song interpreters of her generation, Kilgore is a true musician, who works wonders with lyrics, melodies and swings. 


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