Jazz vocalist Diane Schuur was born blind. She was also born with perfect pitch, which she used to teach herself piano as a child in Tacoma, Wash. Schuur began performing professionally in 1963, at age 10. Since 1979, when she was discovered by saxophone great Stan Getz at the Monterey Jazz Festival, she has been regarded as one of the finest voices in contemporary jazz.
The two-time Grammy Award winner's most recent album, I Remember You: With Love to Stan and Frank, is an homage to Getz and Frank Sinatra, icons whom she considered friends and mentors. The record is composed of 12 songs that Getz and Sinatra recorded, interpreted through arrangements by famed pianist and composer Alan Broadbent — and, of course, by Schuur's exquisitely expressive and versatile voice.
Backed by the Legendary Count Basie Orchestra, with which she's performed for more than 30 years, Schuur headlines the 2016 Burlington Discover Jazz Festival with a show on Sunday, June 12, at the Flynn MainStage. Seven Days recently spoke with Schuur by phone from her home in Palm Springs, Calif., about Getz and Sinatra, her nickname and her cats.
SEVEN DAYS: Would you prefer if I call you Deedles?
DIANE SCHUUR: If you don't mind.
SD: Quite all right with me. How did you get that nickname?
DS: Oh, my mom gave it to me. She used to call me Deeds, Deedle Bee when I was a kid. I must have been singing it, probably scatting, and Mama just came up with it.
SD: There is such a mythology surrounding Frank Sinatra. But you knew him quite well. What was he really like?
DS: Frank Sinatra was a very interesting person. He was a good host. I stayed at his house. Barbara Sinatra puts on these fundraisers for abused children. And they needed someone to replace Liza Minnelli in 1988, so they came up with my name. So I went to do the fundraiser and stayed at one of the bungalows at Frank Sinatra's house. I had a really good time. Back then, I was still tippin' and trippin'. I liked to drink. I don't anymore. I've been sober for 26 years. But Frank was very kind. He actually gave me a painting that hangs in my kitchen. It's an abstract oil painting that he did, which is really cool.
SD: Did you ever talk about singing? Did he teach you anything?
DS: No, not directly. Just through his recordings. That's how I picked up some of the phrasing that he did.
SD: I've always thought that's what separated him from other singers of his era. His phrasing was amazing.
DS: I think so. Phrasing was a big part of what made him so unique. He was a jazzer, yet he delivered a lyric in such an eloquent, classy way.
SD: How about Stan Getz? What was your relationship with him like?
DS: Well, I won't go into too much detail about that. [Laughs] But I will say that he really was a mentor of mine. He taught me that less is more. Especially as far as interpreting a song, to build up a song and not give all of the stuff away the first couple of notes. Every song has a story, and he really taught me that.
SD: What was it like working with Ray Charles?
DS: He certainly was a character. It was nice working with him. He had a special that we did in November of 1998. I had a beloved cat die the same month I did the special with Ray Charles. That was on the 9th of November, and he called me on the 10th and we talked for an hour about the pets we'd had.
SD: What was the cat's name?
DS: Oh, her name was Weedles.
SD: Well, of course.
DS: [Laughs] Weedles or Miss Weedell or Weeds. She had a little goatee. I had her for 13 years. She was wonderful. I really loved her. I have a cat now, Phyllis. But my former pet sitter was named Phyllis, so it was easier to call the cat Puss Puss. She's very devoted to her mama.
SD: Straying from pet names for a moment, are there artists you haven't worked with whom you'd like to? Who is on your wish list?
DS: Oh, gosh. There aren't that many of us old traditional jazzers left. If Michael Jackson had lived, I would have liked to have worked with him in some capacity. That would have been cool.
SD: You've performed all over the world, at Carnegie Hall, several times at the White House. But I imagine being on "Sesame Street" must have been a career highlight.
DS: [Laughs] It was fun. I had a good time with that, working with Elmo.
SD: You've been nominated for five Grammy Awards and won twice. Something you always hear people say is that "it's an honor just to be nominated." Is that true, or did you really want to win?
DS: Oh, I think it's an honor just to be nominated.
SD: Still, it must be pretty amazing to hear them call your name and win.
DS: Oh, it was. It was really neat.
SD: That's the understatement of the day. Switching gears, I've been fascinated by the recording of "September in the Rain" from 1964, when you were 11. What goes through your mind when you listen to that recording now?
DS: I knew how to be a belter back then, that's for sure. And a lot of little girls don't have that kind of power that I did in those days. I think that's what people were fascinated by.
SD: At what point did you start learning to do more than belt and be more expressive?
DS: I think life experience taught me that. Falling in and out of love, the different things that happen in life. I think that comes through in my latest releases. Actually, my country album [The Gathering, 2011] really expresses that.
SD: I was wondering about that album. What inspired you to do a record of classic country songs?
DS: Ray Charles did a few, and they were great. But since Mama was so into jazz and my father was so into country, I thought I'd explore that. I've always had an appreciation for country music. It's just another way of telling stories.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Schuur Thing"