Diane White's career in jazz has been one unexpected twist after another. She started out a trombonist and ended up a vocalist. She thought she would teach music, and now supports herself as a singer. She expected to stay in Ottawa, and now has a career that spans five continents.
This Friday, Ottawa audiences will get a chance to hear her as she is normally heard overseas, in a concert at GigSpace together with pianist Brian Browne.
White was born and raised in Ottawa, studying at J.S. Woodsworth Secondary School in Nepean. Her father was a diplomat, who, however, insisted that his daughter have a stable home and school life. She travelled extensively, she said, but only on long weekends and summer holidays. But that was still a good preparation for her current touring schedule – about nine months every year.
She became a jazz vocalist because of the Nepean All-City Jazz Band, and its director, Neil Yorke-Slader.
With training in classical piano and then trombone and tuba, she naturally gravitated to the NACJB. “And Neil Yorke-Slader needed a singer. I was playing piano one day for a vocal jazz ensemble, and he said, 'You know what, I can find another piano player – I need another singer.' And I said, 'Well, I don't sing.' And he said 'Well, you're going to have to.' ”
“And that's pretty much how I started singing, and we ended up going to MusicFest, and at MusicFest ended up winning all these scholarships to go to different universities for music.”
At Concordia University, she studied both voice – primarily in terms of musical theatre performance – and trombone. But she said her most important teachers from that period – Charles Ellison (trumpet), Dave Turner (saxophone), Ray Anderson (trombone), and Andrew Homzy (tuba) – are all instrumentalists.
Singing like an instrument
Studying trombone and tuba had a “profound effect” on how she approaches singing
“I think I approach it a little bit like an instrument. Instead of just singing a straight melody, I might throw in an inflection that I might have heard Sonny Rollins do in a tune. Or I might have heard Miles do something and I'll just throw my voice that way as a trumpet would or as a saxophone would.
“It also influences the way I listen to music as well. I'm probably one of the worst vocalists for lyrics, because that's the last thing I hear in a song. I listen to the melody and the chord progressions and what's going on underneath, and then finally I'll tune in to the lyrics. And especially if I'm going to interpret a song, I don't hear the lyrics first. I hear what's going on underneath it first.”
Dubai, then Japan, then five continents
After graduating, she returned to Ottawa and had a regular gig singing for five years at the Chateau Laurier. When that ended, she considered moving to Toronto to do more modeling and TV/film work. But, within two weeks, she got a phone call from an aide to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the monarch of Dubai. “He asked me if I wanted to come to Dubai, and I said sure.”
She spent about five years singing in Dubai, and made connections that led to singing in other countries. “[Sheikh Mohammed Al Maktoum] has all sorts of friends all over the world that will come and listen and he himself enjoys music. And somebody hears me there, somebody hears me somewhere else, somebody says, 'Oh you've got to do that; you've got to get this girl.' "
Each year for the last five years, she said, she has been doing a series of concerts in Tokyo, with more booked every year. She also has sung in Brazil, India, Nepal, Italy, Trinidad, Jamaica, and England – with a touring band which includes a drummer from Italy, a Cuban bass player, a Russian trumpet player, and a Thai saxophonist.
“I go back on tour in August, at the beginning of August, and I'll be headed to mainland China and I think I have 80-some shows in China, somewhere. And then after that I go to Thailand, and I have 80 shows in Thailand. And then I'll take a little break in Brazil: I'm working on a couple of things to do in Sao Paulo and then I'll go down to Rio. That brings me up to February and then I'm back in Japan.”
And, no, this wasn't the career she envisions when she graduated: “No, I thought I'd be a music teacher. I did. I thought I'd be a piano teacher, voice teacher, working from my home. That was the plan, and I still have yet to do that. Which I'm not complaining. I'm not complaining at all. Life's turned out a little sweeter than I expected. And it's a good thing that I enjoy travel, so...”
An early exposure to Sarah Vaughan
White said that one singer who really influenced her was Sarah Vaughan: “I always go back to Sarah Vaughan for references on anything really.”
Growing up, she said, there weren't a lot of albums in the house: The Sound of Music, and one album by Vaughan which her father played over and over again. The album contained a wide range of music, she said, everything from The Lord's Prayer to a song called “Pacific Blues” in which Vaughan is describing her first experience in Hong Kong.
Similarly, White doesn't pick the obvious standards in her repertoire
“I do actually try to stay away from the American popular songbook, just because they're so overdone in certain places. So I try to bring out tunes that people haven't heard, and tunes I find challenging and interesting. Anywhere I can hear music, I'll grab it from anybody, anyone.”
The music clips on her website include Art Blakey's “Moanin'” – “that's probably [from] hanging around Doctor Charles Ellison and Dave Turner all those years. They're big on Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.” – and “Afro Blue”, the song by Mongo Santamaria that's best known in the version by John Coltrane.
Performing with Brian Browne: songs that don't get a chance to be heard often
The GigSpace concert will be the first time White has performed with Brian Browne in more than a decade. “And Brian is such an interesting player, and an interesting character. We've kept in contact over the years especially with my travels and what-not, and I've always wanted to do something really special with him, but I never thought that calling him to do a little club gig would justify working with Brian.”
Browne strongly supports playing jazz standards, and White said that certainly would influence the line-up. “But hopefully it will be a different repertoire than people are accustomed to hearing.”
“We're going to do a lot of ballads that really don't get a chance to be heard, for this particular evening. Ballads like "End of a Love Affair"[made popular by Julie London]. Some obscure ballads and some really just fun little ditties. I think a lot of it is going to be us bantering between one another and reminiscing about various times in our careers.”
A really well-respected profession internationally, but not in Ottawa
White said she appreciates the quiet and respect musicians get at GigSpace – the same experience she has overseas.
“I struggle with the Ottawa audiences, which is why I think it's such a great thing that the Alcorns have created GigSpace because you go, people are quiet, you do your concert, and people are happy, and you have that exchange with the audience. They know your name at the end of the show (laughs), whereas some people in Ottawa I've noticed, they say 'Oh, you look familiar' and I would say because I was up there singing to you all night.”
“Tokyo is fantastic. If the concert starts and they have a meal in front of them, they don't touch their meal until you stop singing. It's very, very quiet, and they listen to you. I find that internationally, being a musician it's a really well-respected profession, whereas here the first question is always, 'Well, can you make a living doing that?' Always.”
Ottawa audiences “are very hard, just because they don't listen. A lot of people talk through performances and a lot of places you go to they're louder than the band that's on the stage.”
“The city just needs to be educated in that respect, and eventually, they'll get it. They're quiet when they go to the NAC.”
– Alayne McGregor