Experience Dianne Reeves—the Jazz Vocal Powerhouse Who ‘Filled Ella’s Shoes’

NEA Jazz Master and 5-time Grammy-winner headlines this year’s “Jazz Under the Stars!” Festival finale at Frost, joined by a quintet and orchestra and the all-star SJW 50th Anniversary Band

The headliner of this year’s Stanford Jazz Festival finale, “Jazz Under the Stars!” (July 30, Frost Amphitheater), Dianne Reeves is arguably the greatest living practitioner of the jazz vocalist’s art—as well as an NEA Jazz Master and five-time Grammy-winner.

But decades before the accolades, just like our own summer campers in the Stanford Jazz Workshop, she began her jazz journey humbly—as a 12-year-old choir singer and later high school jazz band member in her home city of Denver, CO. That high school band won a nationwide competition that led to a performance at 1973’s National Association of Jazz Educators Conference in Chicago, where the teenaged Reeves was heard—and soon after, hired—by trumpet and flugelhorn master Clark Terry. At this point, Reeves enjoyed another opportunity common to our SJW summer campers: learning directly from a top-tier professional touring musician. (In fact, Terry himself was in residence at SJW years later, in both 1996 and 2000.)

As Reeves said upon being proclaimed an NEA Jazz Master: “I had the good fortune to attend ‘living’ schools of jazz. I was able to learn directly from, and be mentored by, the masters—the first being Clark Terry. It was the most fertile soil any young aspiring artist could hope for. That was 45 years ago, and the lessons I learned—which still resonate with me daily—made this day possible.”

Elaborating on her apprenticeship with Terry in a later “NEA Jazz Moment” interview, Reeves said, “Through that experience, I realized that the music was a kind of language and that there was a conversation going on on the stage musically that, at that time, I wasn’t a part of, and I knew I wanted to be a part of the conversation. I’d hear Clark play something, and I would answer and I started to understand, like Abbey Lincoln said, ‘Jazz is a spirit,’ and it’s something that you feel inside and you don’t think about.”

In another early opportunity of the kind that most young jazz artists do not have, the teenaged Reeves was called upon to substitute for the great Ella Fitzgerald—quite literally “filling her shoes”—when the iconic singer was suffering from altitude sickness before a scheduled performance in Denver. As Reeves related the story for an “NEA Jazz Moment”: “So they tell me, ‘You have to go on because Ms. Fitzgerald is not going to be here, and we need you to come upstairs and sing a couple of songs. We have a band and, you know, we’ll work it out.’

“Her wardrobe was still unpacked and still in her dressing room, where I had met her the night before. Well, the next night, she wasn’t there, and I’m sitting in her dressing room, looking at all of these gowns, and there was a pair of periwinkle blue, patent leather pumps sitting off to the side. And, I just put my feet in them and I went on stage, and I sang the three songs in her stead, and the whole time, I was looking down at my feet, you know, thinking, ‘I have on Ella Fitzgerald’s shoes.’”

Today, of course, jazz vocalists the world over dream of filling Dianne Reeves’ shoes. And her peers hold her in the highest regard as well. As Wynton Marsalis has said, “She has one of the most powerful, purposeful, and accurate voices of this or any time.” In terms of institutional recognition, in 2002 she was named the first creative chair for jazz for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, a role in which she helped build the organization’s jazz presence in the L.A. community. In 2018, she was the Monterey Jazz Festival’s Showcase Artist and became the first female recipient of the festival’s Jazz Legends Award—joining a lineage including Dave Brubeck, Quincy Jones, Wayne Shorter, and Herbie Hancock.

But while her achievements are filling the jazz history books, the true magic of Dianne Reeves is still to be found on stage. As the New York Times wrote of a Jazz at Lincoln Center performance, “The most admired jazz diva since the heyday of Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday, Ms. Reeves has a keen sense of herself as a custodian of [the] jazz vocal tradition…. Almost everything she does has the aspect of a semi-improvised tone poem.” Reviewing a performance at London’s iconic jazz club, Ronnie Scott’s, the Guardian hailed Reeves as “the torch-bearer of the great  Sarah Vaughan’s operatic-jazz legacy… [a] passionate, fearless, and technically astonishing artist.”

Experience the magic and majesty of Dianne Reeves for yourself as she takes the stage at Frost on July 30 in “Jazz Under the Stars!,” fronting both her ace quintet and a full jazz orchestra. Also performing that evening is the stellar SJW 50th Anniversary Band, a septet of renowned instrumentalists, most of whom were SJW campers as teenagers: trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, drummer Eric Harland, saxophonists Joshua Redman and Yosvany Terry, bassist Larry Grenadier, and pianist Taylor Eigsti. With outdoor dining options on hand—including bring-your-own meals plus food, fine wine, and other beverages available for purchase at the venue—“Jazz Under the Stars!” promises to be a singular and unforgettable night of live jazz, as well as a fitting finale to the 2022 Stanford Jazz Festival and the 50th Anniversary season of the Stanford Jazz Workshop.

“Jazz Under the Stars!”

Saturday, July 30, 7:30 p.m.

Frost Amphitheater

Tickets start at $34 for SJW members/$40 for non-members

Food/beverages and VIP reserved-table packages available for purchase