Q&A with Vocalist Deelee Dubé

One of the things I’ve enjoyed most since finishing Queen of Bebop and introducing it to the world is people contacting me to tell me what Sarah Vaughan has meant to them. They’ve shared their memories of the first time they heard Sarah’s voice and how it changed their worldview. They’ve told me about their favorite recordings, attending her concerts, and meeting her. Musicians have explained how she influenced their artistic paths, and some have shared their tribute albums to Sarah. Each of these stories has deepened my understanding of the Divine One and her legacy.

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That’s why I was so excited when the London-based vocalist and songwriter Deelee Dubé reached out. Last fall, she won the fifth annual Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition. This was a big deal! A field of 145 contests from all over the world was narrowed down to 5 finalists, who then performed for a panel of judges that included jazz luminaries Dianne Reeves, Sheila Jordan, and Christian McBride. As winner of the “Sassy Award,” Deelee received $5,000, a record deal with Concord Music Group, and appearances at the Montreal Jazz Festival. “[It was] one of the most outstanding and most important moments of my life,” Deelee explained. “My entire life has always been about music, and to me, life is like a song, a journey which draws parallel to that which we call 'jazz.' It's all about improvisation and being in the moment.”

Deelee has graciously agreed to share more about her path to music, what jazz means to her, and, of course, how Sarah Vaughan has shaped her as an artist. Enjoy!

Tell me more about your life in music. How did you first get started on your journey to jazz?

My journey to jazz began in my early twenties, just around the time when I had graduated. My ears and eyes were very open and I was in exploratory mode, searching for my voice as it were; experimenting and experiencing different styles. But I was always drawn towards jazz, and it was something that even others could always hear and they’d often point it out to me. Eventually, what we call “jazz” had eventually chosen me, and I have to say that it was one of those “eureka” moments! I was driven to perform as much as possible, attending jams, and every possible gig that came in sight, I just knew that it was something that I had to do, to keep on performing, learning about my craft and discovering my own voice and developing as an artist and performer.

One of the things I love about jazz is that it encourages and values personal creativity and freedom. It allows artists to take a familiar tune, or standard, and make it their own and tell their own story. What story are you trying to tell with your music?

Well, this is something I’ll often allow the listener to ascertain. But as far as I am aware, my voice is my story, it’s all encapsulated within my voice quality and tone. I do know that my journey has not been a simple, straight forward one. I have experienced some huge dips and great peaks, but that is life, and that is why I love “jazz” because it renders the freedom to convey a story of life through vocal or instrumental delivery and performance. Jazz is life. I particularly like to sing songs which somehow resonate, songs that I can relate to and interpret in my own heartfelt and soulful way.

What does a song like “Tenderly,” which Sarah Vaughan first recorded back in 1947, mean to you? Why do you choose to sing it too? (And, for the record, you sing it beautifully.)

Thank you, Elaine. First and foremost, I like a song which lends itself well to the singer, which pertains itself to the personal connection and interpretation of the voice and emotions. “Tenderly” happens to be just one of those standards that I feel a personal connection with and I’m therefore able to feel and resonate with it on meaningful and emotional level. We have all been there, in and out of love, but “Tenderly” is also special in that it lends itself well to the longing heart, one who perhaps longs for that tender moment and that loving experience. It is a stunning ballad which also brings out the best qualities in my voice.

While researching Queen of Bebop, time and again vocalists told me how important Sarah Vaughan was to their musical development. How has Sassy influenced your singing? What have you learned from listening to her?

Yes, well Sarah has definitely influenced me on so many levels, that not only includes my musical development, but also where her principles of being a woman in jazz were concerned. Vocally, I am inspired by Sassy, as well many other female greats, but it’s the intrinsic quality of Sarah’s voice which somehow happens to bear some kind of semblance to my own. I have learned to utilize the best qualities of my entire vocal register without hesitation, as if it were a stringed instrument or a horn. I know that this was a technique and gift which Sassy had developed early on in her career. She treated her voice as an instrument and behaved as a real musician, and that is just one of the things that I admire greatly about her, because that is where real freedom exists. She was also aware of her outstanding technical and theoretical skill, which she utilized extremely well. Everything about her voice was incredibly outstanding, from her pitch-perfect intonation to her breathing technique and control, and this was all partly due to her early passion and drive which shaped her ability to perform to perfection throughout her career to the extent where it became somewhat effortless. The rest was just a divine gift. These are qualities that I also have, and given my personal drive, effort and vocal range, it only takes listening and learning from Sassy’s great example for me to elicit the optimal qualities in my performance and delivery.

Last fall, you won the fifth annual Sarah Vaughan International Vocal Competition. What did this accomplishment mean to you?

 Deelee with John Schreiber, co-founder of the Sassy Awards and CEO of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.

Deelee with John Schreiber, co-founder of the Sassy Awards and CEO of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.

Winning this competition has been a great honor, but also further testament to the fact that honest talent, hard work, perseverance, and patience are virtues that one must hold dear to, granted that one believes in oneself. I am also aware of the importance of keeping the idiom alive, and in view of the music, which also bears great significance, winning this competition has allowed me to demonstrate and convey the impact and influence that Sarah Vaughan has in my life and voice as a whole. It's through her divine prowess (her gift) that I have learned how to discover a great deal about who I am as an artist and musician. It is a great honor to be continuing her legacy through this victory, which clearly marks a bright milestone within my life and career.

Who and what else has influenced you musically?

I am influenced by music that moves me. Of course, as I have journeyed on, I have experienced stages of listening to various kinds of music, and I have developed quite an eclectic taste in music as a result, but I think that is where the beauty also lies in being a true artist and music lover: versatility. As a child I grew up listening to Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, The Supremes, Madonna, Mariah Carey, Chaka Khan, Tina Turner, James Brown, Sade, Aretha Franklin, Miriam Makeba, Marvin Gaye, and many others.

Can you tell me more about your upcoming projects? I know that you are a songwriter as well. Do you have any plans to include original material?

I am currently in the process of completing my upcoming album which is due to release during the early quarter of 2018. I am also embarking on some exciting collaboration projects with great musicians and an orchestra. I am quite imaginative and often full of ideas, therefore songwriting usually serves as a creative way of expressing thoughts and communicating feelings across through poetry and song. The new album will include some original material and I’m looking forward to sharing it with you all.

To learn more about Deelee, her upcoming performances, and albums, visit her website or Facebook page.