My influences taught me the power of music


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I used to look for my father inside closets and behind doors. He died when I was two years old and I eventually realised he wasn’t coming back and stopped looking for him. I recall his laugh. My mother, Vada Louise, said I would always smile as soon as he opened the front door. He was in hospital a lot and I recall trying to push his wheelchair with Mum.

While I didn’t get to know my father, I still feel like he is a guiding light in my life. People have always told me he had a great voice but I never heard him sing. He died in his late 30s.

I was born in Detroit and moved to Denver, Colorado, with my mom and my older sister Sharon after Dad died. Mom was a nurse and she died in 2012 from cancer. She was everything to me. 

Mom married my stepfather, William Andrew, when I was seven. He was a great influence. He was a postal worker and worked hard to provide a good family environment. He was supportive of my desire to be a musician. 

My maternal uncle, Charles Burrell, was a huge influence on me and my career. He introduced me to a lot of great recordings, from Billie Holiday to Ella Fitzgerald. When he knew I wanted to be a jazz singer, he was the one who found instrumentalists and singers to aid me. 

My cousins were more like brothers to me. One of them is George Duke [award-winning musician], who was an extraordinary figure in my life from my teenage years right through to when I signed to the Blue Note label and he produced my albums. He showed me how to find my voice and my own place within music. He also made me feel like I had authority. George, who was 10 years older, was one of the cousins who always treated me like the queen bee. 

My first kiss happened with the boy next door when I was 11. He loved animals just like I did. One night, my hamster was very ill and we stayed up and tried to save it by giving it a mixture to help it live through the night. When my hamster died he hugged and kissed me. 

My art teacher at George Washington High School, Mr Zamantakas, was an inspiring figure. I liked him because when I was 15 and my music career was starting to take off, he found me crying in the hall. The problem was my touring schedule – it was overwhelming. He told me I have to learn how to say no. A few years later, in 1976, I left Denver to pursue my career in LA.

One of the first people I met in LA was musician Billy Childs. We formed a fusion band together called Night Flight. We bonded over music. 

I’ve dated a few musicians in my life and it’s kind of always been that way for me. You unite through creativity and share that process and more together. I’ve never been married or had children.

There is a certain kind of fire that happens when you fall in love with a musician. I guess you understand one another because you’re connected by a creative desire. I travel with a majority of men in my band. Sometimes the testosterone is too much but we know how to give each other space.

I had a few celebrity crushes when I was growing up, including Eddie Kendricks from the Temptations. And I loved Marvin Gaye – I thought he was everything and instantly fell for his voice. I met him in the late ’70s when my guitarist boyfriend Spencer Bean – who was playing in Marvin’s band – asked me to drop by a studio in LA where they were recording. 

I remember seeing Marvin for the first time. I was like “wow”. It was his voice that stood out as well as his presence. Marvin looked at me and asked, “Is he taking care of you? Does he love you?” I answered, “Yes, of course.” Marvin made me melt in that moment. He looked at Spencer and said, “You take care of her.”

My friend Harry Belafonte is an activist and musician, an extraordinary man who has dedicated his life to human rights. He taught me the power of words and that music can be used to heal and educate people. Through his career he has always been gracious and I love being on stage with him. 

I got to work with George Clooney in 2005 when he asked me to be in his film Good Night, and Good Luck. I thought he wanted me to play a small part, but when I got the script I was very much in the film.

George is the real deal and there is no image he’s hiding behind. I asked, “Why did you pick me, George?” He said, “My aunt Rosemary [Clooney, also a singer] loved you.” I had no idea he knew much about jazz.

I remember sharing a dressing room with Rosemary in LA. We did some shows together, she became a friend and we connected. George wanted me to sing live in the film – he understood that about jazz. He engaged with me the whole time. He is a true gentleman.

Dianne Reeves performs as part of Vivid Sydney at City Recital Hall, Sydney, on June 6 and at the closing night of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival at Arts Centre Melbourne Hamer Hall, on June 11.

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