The valley’s first lady of jazz

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Bill Marchese

Jazz singer Diane Schuur tops the bill at the Palm Springs Women’s Jazz Festival, Oct. 9 to 11.
Photo courtesy of Diane Schuur

By age 2, Diane Schuur’s future as a singer and musician seemed to be her destiny.

Born blind with perfect pitch, she could carry a tune as a toddler. She taught herself to play the piano by ear at age three, sitting on her father’s lap. By age 9, she was singing in public and earning her first professional gigs in hometown Tacoma, Wash.

A brilliant jazz vocalist, the Cathedral City resident grew up to win two Grammy Awards (with five nominations) and has earned rave reviews around the globe.

Had things been different, she said, “I would like to have been a commercial airline pilot.” Her brother, David, a retired commercial pilot who owned a stunt plane, flew acrobatic loops and dives for the fun of it. “Exciting. I still like to fly,” she said.

And fly she does, with concert performances in Quebec, Canada, then to Riga, Latvia near Russia, followed by the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. — all within a 10-day period in July. On average, she does 150 concert hall, club and college dates each year around the country and around the world, racking up millions of air miles. Like a wish coming true, Schuur is in the air almost as much as a commercial pilot.

She will travel only a few miles, though, in October as the headliner at the third annual Palm Springs Women’s Jazz Festival. Schuur will perform at the opening night concert at the Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Art Museum.

Early years

Nicknamed “Deedles” as a child, her father was an amateur pianist and her  mother, known for a large collection of records, was a fan of Duke Ellington and Dinah Washington, one of Schuur’s major vocal influences. Still a toddler, Diane learned to sing “What a Difference a Day Makes,” one of Washington’s hits.

“I learned a lot about music in 1964,” she recalled, “when we bought a new stereo record player at home. It was the year Dinah Washington died.”

 She studied piano at the Washington State School for the Blind, which she attended up to age 11 and later took voice lessons at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma.

The long road from childhood performances at a Tacoma Holiday Inn to the more recent concert at the Kennedy Center of the Performing Arts spans several decades and a lucky break summed up by two words: Saxophonist Stan Getz. Getz first heard Diane sing “Amazing Grace” at the legendary Monterey Jazz Festival in 1979 and a friendship soon developed. She performed in Monterey again in 1988 and 1992. In 1982, Getz asked her to join him at the White House.

Getz later played on three of Schuur’s three, “Deedless” in 1984, “Schuur Thing” in 1985 and with Jose Feliciano in “Timeless’ in 1988.

Career highlights

Her musical collaborations include the Count Basie Orchestra, Barry Manilow, B.B. King, Ray Charles, and Jose Feliciano, among countless others, and have resulted in numerous #1 Billboard Chart recordings, including “Pure Schuur” and “Heart to Heart” with B.B. King.

Schuur has appeared on PBS and many other television specials, including “Sesame Street.” She has performed at the White House on multiple occasions, including an invitation by Nancy Reagan in 1987 as a vocalist with the Count Basie Orchestra. She was also a musical guest along with Stevie Wonder at the Kennedy Center Honors when he received his prestigious award. 

She continues to tour and perform extensively at major concert halls and venues around the world. Schuur proved her staying power through the 1990s and into the 2000s, first with a series of hits, including “Talkin’ ’Bout You, Pure Schuur” and then nearly an album a year from then on. With the late B.B. King, she made “Heart to Heart” in 1994, which topped the Billboard charts at number one.

Late in 2003, Schuur released “Midnight,” featuring original songs written for her by Palm Springs resident Barry Manilow, who also performed with her on the album. Her second live album, “Diane Schuur: Live In London,” was released in June 2006.

Her latest album, called “I Remember You (with love to Stan and Frank), was released in 2014, the year she capped a 30-year recording career. The album includes songs recorded by Frank Sinatra and Stan Getz, including classics “s’Wonderful,” “Nice and Easy” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” At home in Cathedral City

The walls of her home are filled with memories from the past. A large abstract painting signed by Frank Sinatra dominates one wall. You can see photos of Schuur with Presidents Ford and Clinton, Governors Schwarzenegger and Reagan, and A-list performers Sinatra, Jose Feliciano and Ray Charles and many others.

Not once did she name-drop any of them during the interview. The only name that came up repeatedly was “Puss-Puss,” her big, fluffy gray cat, rescued from the shelter and now a purring companion who roams the house and the furniture like a Queen with a capital “Q.”

Schuur has integrated both jazz and blues in her extensive repertoire. The future of both is a bit uncertain “because it’s not taught to young people in most schools, and it’s not popular on TV shows like “The Voice.”

Schuur sings and records music written by other people. She does not write her own music, she said, “Unless I fall in love.”