By Barbara Corbellini Duarte
Jazz singer Dianne Reeves has performed for President Barack Obama at the White House. George Clooney hired her to record the soundtrack to his film “Good Night, and Good Luck.” She has won five Grammy Awards, the most recent one this month. And she is no stranger to Carnegie Hall.
Yet for Reeves, the most important moment in her career took place at a talent show in Denver when she was 12 years old. Onstage for the first time, with her junior-high classmates and teachers in the audience, Reeves sang the Edwin Hawkins gospel song “Joy Joy.”
“I could feel a part of me that I didn’t even know really existed,” she recalls in a phone interview. “I felt caught up. I’ve never felt like that before. I’ve wanted to chase that particular feeling for the rest of my life.”
On Friday, Feb. 20, Reeves will appear with R&B and jazz singer Phil Perry at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami. The show, titled “Soul 2 Soul: Voices of Love,” is part of the center’s Jazz Roots series. She’ll likely perform songs from “Beautiful Life,” the album of originals and covers (Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” Ani DiFranco’s “32 Flavors,” among others) that won Reeves her recent Grammy for best jazz vocal album.
Reeves, 58, has performed and collaborated with many iconic musicians, such as Paul Simon and James Taylor, but she says few people have influenced her career as much as Dennie Williams, the choir teacher who organized that talent show in Denver.
“The interesting thing about it was, we were at the beginning of busing in Denver,” Reeves says. “There was a lot of pushback from parents about all these black and brown students being bused into the neighborhood. But at school we found, as children, that we liked each other. We liked being around each other.”
Williams, who is black, noticed the students were getting along.
“She decided to put together a show that represented all of us,” Reeves says. “She wanted us to stand on each other’s shoes.”
Reeves says life inside the school and in the surrounding neighborhoods began to change after that show.
“People saw the power of the kids,” she says. “The next year, we started to have more broad studies of different ethnicities. The history classes weren’t doing this at that time.”
Reeves stays in touch with Williams. Her former teacher is 83, and still conducts choirs.
“I just talked to her yesterday,” Reeves says. “She’s always been in my life as a person … that I go to talk about a lot of things throughout my entire career. She’s always been there.”