Dialogue Fall 2012
Features Section pages 54-57
Blind Jazz Legend Diane Schuur
By David Block
Legendary jazz vocalist/pianist Diane Schuur’s versatility and sheer range of mastery are hard to match. She won two Grammy awards and made over 20 albums. Schuur has performed with legendary artists, such as B. B. King, Stan Getz, Barry Manilow, Maynard Ferguson, Stevie Wonder, and many others. Country, jazz, pop, you name it, she can sing it.
Schuur was born blind, due to retinopathy of prematurity. ROP occurs in some premature babies when abnormal blood vessels and scar tissue grow over the retina. “My twin brother (David) and I were born two months premature,” said Schuur. David can see perfectly, but he has some hearing loss.
Schuur treats her disability like an inconvenience, not a handicap. When she works with people, she focuses on her singing, not her blindness.
As far back as she can remember singing was in her blood. Schuur’s parents loved music, and she loved to sing. “I was scatting at an early age,” said Schuur. (Scatting is vocal improvisation with wordless syllables.)
At 10, she performed publicly for the first time at a Tacoma Holiday Inn. “My aunt arranged it,” said Schuur. She sounded good. Unfortunately, she forgot some of the lyrics to the song, “Unforgettable.” “I improvised and did fine, but I heard my mother in the audience mutter, ‘Oh my God.’”
From age four and a half to eleven, she attended the Washington State School for the Blind. She had no problem traveling 150 miles by train on her own and living away from home. “I was too young to know that I was doing something gutsy.” At times, she was unhappy because some of her housemothers were mean, and some of the children bullied her. “I was different. Besides that, I’d sing a lot, and that seemed odd to them.”
She had no idea how or why her parents transferred her to public school. It was the 1960s, and it was still difficult to place blind and partially sighted children into public schools. “I don’t know what my parents did. They never told me.”
At public school, teachers’ aides helped her keep up in class. She befriended other public school misfits because they were nicer than the popular students or the teachers.
One of her worst childhood experiences was losing her mother at age 13. “I began over-eating,” said Schuur. “At times, I still miss my mother.” In 2007, the 40th anniversary of her mother’s death, she began working on her album, SOME OTHER TIME. When she completed the album in 2008, she dedicated it to her mother.
In 1971, Schuur met country and western singer/record producer Jimmy Wakely at an Elks Club. She was just 17 when she auditioned for him. He liked the Schuur sound and invited her to cut a 45 RPM record at his studio. She recorded DEAR MOMMY AND DADDY. “Sales were fairly good,” Schuur remembered.
Her blindness did not impede her success. Wakely spoon-fed her the lyrics. When she recorded albums in studios, she had the lyrics transcribed into braille. She’d read and sing simultaneously. Whenever she performed on stage, she memorized the songs.
In 1975 at an opera house, she met Ed Shaughnessy, the drummer/bandleader of Energy Force. She auditioned for him, and he invited her to perform in his band. She gained a lot of exposure when they performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival. At the festival, she performed with legendary saxophonist, Stan Getz. Getz asked her to join his showcase in their performance at the White House.
Schuur has performed at the White House three times: Twice during the Reagan presidency and once during the Clinton presidency. She never performed for, or met President Reagan. However, he sent her a personal thank-you letter because she gave him a copy of her debut album, PILOT OF MY DESTINY (1982). She met President Clinton. She enjoyed carrying Socks, the Clinton family cat. “Socks sat with me when I played on Margaret Truman’s piano.”
Schuur won the Grammy for Best Female Vocalist–Jazz Category two years in a row. She won for TIMELESS (1986), and she won for DIANE SCHUUR AND THE COUNT BASIE ORCHESTRA (1987). On both occasions, “I was rendered speechless,” said Schuur. “It was like ‘wow!’ … like getting the keys to the city. It was very surreal. That’s how it came to mind. It was [like] when my husband proposed to me or when I met Frank Sinatra … monumental.”
Other Memorable Moments
In 1994, Schuur’s album, HEART TO HEART (WITH B. B. KING), was released. B. B. King introduced her to the veggie burger. “I never had one before, and he wanted me to at least try it, so I did. I liked it.”
In 2003, she worked with Barry Manilow on her album, MIDNIGHT. When he arrived at her hotel suite, “my cat hid under the bed and refused to emerge until after he left,” Schuur remembered. “I don’t think Barry noticed. My cat never hid from anyone before.” Manilow is a dog person, according to Schuur.
Earlier this year, Schuur released her latest album, Diane Schuur Live (2012). To learn more, log onto www.dianeschuur.com