Diva doppelganger: Paying tribute to the greats of jazz

Diva doppelganger: Paying tribute to the greats of jazz McGill University

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McGill Reporter
July 27, 2000 - Volume 32 Number 18
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 32: 1999-2000 > July 27, 2000 > Diva doppelganger: Paying tribute to the greats of jazz

Diva doppelganger: Paying tribute to the greats of jazz

Ranee Lee

| Walking among the throng of guests assembled at the Spectrum during a press conference announcing the line-up for the recent Montreal International Jazz Festival, Ranee Lee exudes confidence and charisma.

Which is natural or somehow expected from the multifaceted singer, given she's one of the country's most respected jazz vocalists.

Lee -- who's enjoyed a second career as a voice instructor for the Faculty of Music's jazz program since 1989 -- is very much in her element as she works the Spectrum crowd comprised of journalists, jazz enthusiasts and hangers-on who've turned out in droves for the free lunch.

Actually, Lee's so busy chatting with fans, a gushing Concordia colleague, and La Presse entertainment gossipeuse Francine Grimaldi that she has no time to eat from the complimentary buffet because it's time for our interview. Being deprived of her meal, however, doesn't diminish Lee's enthusiasm for her sujet du jour: her Jazz Fest shows.

Titled "Dark Divas The Musical," the one-woman show is a mixture of monologues and songs that pays homage to some of the great female jazz and blues singers of the last century.

Lee visibly percolates with passion as she talks about "Dark Divas," an act where she will slip under the skin of seven legendary black singers: Billie Holiday, Josephine Baker, Lena Horne, Pearl Bailey, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald.

Playing Holiday is a return to familiar terrain for Lee. She earned rave reviews and the Dora Mavor Moore Award for acting for her portrayal of the fiercely talented but tragic Holiday in "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill."

Lee's acting and singing chops continue to draw praise -- the debut of "Dark Divas had critics singing her praises. There are no firm plans for more performances, but given its reception at the Jazz Fest, it seems a safe bet that the musical will resurface.

The production was preceded by a double CD that's also called Dark Divas." Recently released by Canadian independent label Justin Time, the record is Lee's seventh album.

"My record company immediately stood up behind this project," says Lee, still marvelling that Justin Time gave her the benediction to record a costly double album, which most music makers are reluctant to produce.

Yet there's no need to fear for her record company; "Dark Divas" is sure to recoup its investment. With Lee's luxurious vocals, the record is filled with finesse and people-pleasing jazz gems, including "Makin' Whoopee" and "Fine and Mellow."

As in the musical, Lee sings the songs in the styles of the different women who made the tunes classics. In an interview withThe Toronto Star, Lee says she doesn't try to "mimic" the singers so much as "evoke their spirit."

According toMaclean's, Lee succeeds. "On stage, Lee moves with ease from the French repertoire of Baker to Bailey's comedic delivery of 'Toot Toot Tootsi' to Fitzgerald-style scat."

Lee admits she was a little frightened of tackling this collection. "I still am," she says, laughing heartily, acknowledging that while most of the songs she covers are now considered standards, each is eternally associated with the icons that first sang them. "But this project was too important for me not to take it on. In a way it chose me. When I started thinking about it three years ago, I'd often wake up in the middle of the night to write some of the monologue at my computer."

Another element about "Dark Divas" that worried Lee was the record's title -- the diva part -- that's been used to excess in describing Céline, Barbra, Shania et al.

"After noticing how much the diva name was bantered I wasn't sure I wanted to continue with it," she says. "But it was my initial, instinctive choice and I stuck with it."

As for the "Dark" portion of the name, she adds, it isn't just about complexion. "Edith Piaf and Judy Garland were dark divas, too," she says, noting she singled out black singers because they share the same musical style as well as dramatic lives. Holiday was a drug addict saddled with a succession of miserable men as her lovers; Baker and Horne saw their careers threatened by racism.

Having the opportunity to record a tribute album, Lee says, was a great way to introduce a new generation of jazz lovers to pioneers of the musical genre. "Today young people might know these songs, but only through people like Holly Cole," she says. "People just don't look back to the music's history."

Unlike Lee, 57, who grew up in New York City and received a jazz immersion towards the end of the music's glory days. "Thank goodness there are events like the Montreal Jazz Festival," she says, to keep people interested in the groove.

Like the musical, the CD is garnering strong reviews.The Toronto Sun labels it "dark and delicious," whileThe Toronto Star states "her supple voice brings affection and sincerity to every song."

Lee's life has been wonderful compared to some of the tragic divas she portrays -- she's still happily married to her soul mate, has three grown children, is stepmother to four more and grandmother to 10 -- but she has no difficulty delivering pathos to her divas.

Surprisingly, the woman who has twice been named asThe Jazz Report's pick for Canada's female jazz vocalist of the year didn't begin her career in show business as a singer. She started off as a dancer, then played drums and tenor saxophone with different groups before becoming one of the country's top jazz vocalists.

Lee is also a part-time TV and film actress. Which begs the question: Any more talents? "I paint and sew," she smiles.

But of all her avocations, Lee stresses, teaching at McGill has turned out to be one of the most rewarding. "Not only does it allow me to give back to students," she says, "I too learn, since I have to put into words the techniques and methods that I take for granted as a singer."

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