As a teen in the ’70s, jazz singer Dianne Reeves had a weekly gig at the Warehouse, a restaurant and music venue in Glendale that paid $250 each weekend. During her year-and-a-half stint there, her first extended professional club run, Reeves met legendary jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, who was slated to perform for multiple nights.
But Fitzgerald was only able to the first night because of the altitude, says Reeves, who’s being inducted into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame and will perform at the Paramount Theatre on Tuesday. The next night, Reeves was asked to sing a few songs. While she was getting ready for the set, she noticed that some of Fitzgerald’s things were still in the dressing room, including a pair of periwinkle-blue patent-leather pumps.
“And I put them on,” Reeves says. “She had very narrow feet, but I got my feet in them. I put them on, and I sang, and I looked down at them the whole time. I don’t even remember what I sang. I came back and I put them right back, and I just felt glorious.”
Reeves got her start singing in junior high and at George Washington High School, where she was in the madrigal group, concert choir and jazz band. Long before she landed her gig at the Warehouse, she watched Ike and Tina Turner, Mongo Santamaria and Les McCann all perform there. School, as she recalls, was a fruitful time for her creative development.
“I had really great art classes," she remembers. "Really great art teachers. Arts played a very important role in having a place to express yourself uniquely. That’s why they’re so important for young people, even today. I was in the jazz band — I loved that. It just kind of blossomed from there.”
Reeves, who grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, says she was motivated to become a singer by the times she was living in.
“The music was really open and free, and people were listening to everything,” she says. “You never heard the word ‘genre.’ It was just real open. And it was cross-generational, which I loved. And people were talking about the civil rights movement and Vietnam War. A lot of the artists had taken their music to be a healing force in the world. You listened to all kinds of music. When you would go through the record store, the records would just be in alphabetical order. That’s what influenced me the most, was the access to music without boundaries.”
Reeves was also inspired by the musical family she was born into; her father was a singer, and her mother played trumpet. Her uncle and fellow Colorado Music Hall of Fame inductee Charles Burrell would bring Reeves albums by great jazz instrumentalists and singers.
“That was really great, because I just spent time listening to them, and sometimes we’d discuss the different singers and the thing that I caught onto right away,” Reeves says. "I loved all kinds of music. At that time, Motown music was very present in my life. There was just all kinds of music going on.
“Everybody had their own sound," she continues. "It was all about uniqueness and developing that. From the R&B, gospel, all those artists — everybody was different. And in jazz, the same thing, except in jazz music there would be...a lot of people would sing the same repertoire, like from the American songbooks. But the thing that really stood out to me was you could listen to all of them: Billie Holiday, Ella, Sarah, Carmen McRae, Betty Carter, Nina Simone, all of these, Nancy Wilson. And they could sing the same song, and it would be totally different. So that’s when I realized I had to find my own voice.”
Reeves, who was born in Detroit but raised in Denver, continued that search to find her own voice when she moved to Los Angeles in 1977. East High School graduate and Earth Wind & Fire singer Philip Bailey, who is also being inducted into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame on Tuesday, was starting his own band at the time and was looking for a female vocalist, so he invited her to Los Angeles. That same year, both Reeves and Bailey recorded on trumpeter Eddie Henderson’s jazz-funk album Comin’ Through, and Reeves also sang on her cousin George Duke’s album, From Me to You.
While in Los Angeles, Reeves worked in clubs, doing a variety of gigs like working with Latin bands, including Tito Puente’s group, or with famed tenor player Stanley Turrentine.
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“I did all kinds of stuff,” Reeves says. “It was amazing. I was developing my palette and my colors and my experiences. I think it was finally a culmination in 1987 when I started recording with Blue Note Records.”
Reeves would go on to record more than a dozen albums for Blue Note, winning Grammys for three of those albums as well as another Grammy for her soundtrack for the film Good Night, and Good Luck, which she also appeared in, and one for Beautiful Life, her most recent on the Concord imprint.
After stints in Los Angeles and New York, Reeves moved back to Denver in 1991 and has been here ever since. She says she loves it here. She can hop on a plane, fly to either coast or across oceans, no problem, and she’ll meet her bandmembers (who live in California, New Jersey, Missouri and Georgia) wherever they’re playing, maybe rehearse new material at sound check and then take the stage.
Colorado Music Hall of Fame Induction Concert: Jazz Masters & Beyond, with performances by inductees Philip Bailey and Larry Dunn (of Earth Wind & Fire), Dianne Reeves and Her Band, Ron Miles and Bill Frisell and a tribute to Charles Burrell with Purnell Steen & Le Jazz Machine, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, November 28, Paramount Theatre, $49-$99.