Naturally sassy

Denise King sings it her way in the Hot Jazz series

Denise King (photo credit: PR)
Denise King
(photo credit: PR)
As a female jazz vocalist, you could do a lot worse than model yourself on the performance, style and unrepentant gall of Sarah Vaughan. During her four-plus decade career, the late great diva, who died in 1990 at the age of 66, earned herself a bunch of sobriquets. Her peerless musicality and delivery led critics and fans alike to call the Divine One, while her sense of mischief and sexy stage demeanor spawned the epithet “sassy.”
Denise King certainly sounds like she also fits the latter nickname as audiences in Ganei Tikva, Jerusalem, Herzliya, Modi’in, Tel Aviv and Haifa will discover when the sexagenarian American singer struts her stuff as the next guest artist in this year’s Hot Jazz series. All told, King will give eight performances here between December 19 and 26.
As critics have pointed out, predominantly with great enthusiasm, over the years Vaughan had an almost inborn tendency to mold numbers to her own spirit.
She would take standards and take a flight of fancy betwixt the notes and tempos in the sheet music. Even when she was just an aspiring teenager, when she might have been expected to be in awe of the more senior members of the ensemble she was fronting and, to toe the line, she would invariably do the number in question as per the chart until close to the end, and then she’d slip in some sonic or rhythmic departure.
“She almost never sang anything straight,” notes King. “Every one once in a while she would, but she was always adding her own special twist to everything.”
That suits King to a tee.
“I tend to take liberties,” she admits. “There are, of course, times when I sing a song straight down, but I often try to make the song my own. I always try to add a different flavor to it.”
Early on in her career, Vaughan was frequently berated for her individualistic take which, if you consider the definitively improvisational nature of jazz, is really anathema to the very core of the discipline. King says highlights events movies television radio dining that she, too, has taken her fair share of flak for charting her own course through a work.
“I’ve had people say to me, ‘Why can’t you just do it all straight down? Why can’t you just sing it?’ I just told them, ‘That’s not what I do. I like to have fun and go basically where the music takes me,’” she says It’s a fair bet that King’s Israeli audiences will have fun too when she teams up with her seasoned Israeli sidemen of French-born saxophonist Jess Koren, pianist Yonatan Riklis, bassist Dor Samoha and drummer Shai Zelman.
One thing King and Vaughan do not have in common is the stage of life at which they first took the stage.
While Vaughan burst onto the scene at 18, when she won a talent contest she had not initially considered entering, King was considerably further down her personal timeline when she first mixed it with a band in public.
In fact, King had no designs on becoming a professional jazz singer at all. She was well into the adulthood continuum and was a divorced mother of two with a full-time job as a nurse at a hospital in Philadelphia.
Mind you, it wasn’t as if she wasn’t aware of the doings of Vaughan and other leading lights of the jazz vocalist pantheon, such as Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra.
“I’d been listening to this music since I was 12,” recalls King. “Sarah Vaughan was hands down my favorite. She was one of many I got into.”
There was a helping hand or two on offer from people close to the teenage King.
“My uncle introduced me to jazz, and my cousin introduced me to singers,” she says. “The first was Nina Simone. I don’t know how I stumbled upon Sarah Vaughan. I think it was a radio show on an AM station that played jazz all the time. I heard her, and I was hooked. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The songs I heard her do were ‘The Nearness of You’, ‘Polka Dots and Moonbeams’ and ‘The Shadow of Your Smile’. It was amazing that this woman could do what she was doing with her voice.”
Notwithstanding all the vocal jazz gems to which King was exposed in her youth, it still took a while before she was thrust into the limelight herself. And, even when it eventually happened, it was very much down to the intervention of Lady Luck. One day, when King was outside sweeping her front stoop and happily singing George Gershwin’s timeless standard “Summertime,” a family friend walked by and caught her dulcet tones. The passer-by was also a musician and music writer and well connected on the Philadelphia jazz scene. He was so taken with King’s rendition, that he arranged for her to try out for a local club. She passed the audition, and the rest is history.
“By industry standards, I was an old woman when I started,” says King. “I never intended to be a singer.
When I passed the audition and I was I told I would be hired and heard the magic words ‘I will pay you,’ I was amazed. I thought, ‘They’re going to pay me money to sing, to do something I love!’” Several decades of recording albums and globe trotting on, King is still doing what she loves.
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