Jazz singer Diane Schuur sits in a Manhattan studio, getting ready to record Magic, an album scheduled for release on the GRP label. The chubby performer is bouncing on the couch with excitement. “So round, so fun, so fully packed,” she says of herself, her voice rhythmic and mellifluous even in conversation. Once again her black rhinestoned eyeglasses slip down her nose. “Damn glasses!” the blind artist exclaims, erupting with laughter. “I paid $200 for them, and I can’t see a thing.” She fingers her wrist, checking her braille watch. “It’s 8:40,” she says. “Time to roll. This is going to be so much fun! I can just feeeel it!”
Her ever-present pal, Diana Patton, escorts her into the sound room for a mike check. “Hello, everyone, Deedles is here,” says Schuur, 34, using the fanciful nickname she gave herself as a child. “This is your hard-drivin’ mama talkin’ to ya. Let’s doooo it.” The band rips into a down-and-dirty version of the ’40s blues song “Hard Driving Mama.” Schuur’s hands slide along the braille song sheets, absorbing the lyrics, which she sings with a gutsy growl.
Some of the hottest jazz musicians around are here, smiling in appreciation of this still-rising star. Some have come to play, others to kibitz. One of the latter is sax man David Sanborn. “Diane’s got a great ear,” he says. “She’s a natural singer with an easy way of phrasing in the tradition of the great song interpreters. I’m a fan.”
He’s in good company. Schuur just won her second-straight Grammy as best female jazz singer. The first was for her Timeless album in 1986, the second for her latest, Diane Schuur & the Count Basie Orchestra, which has topped the Billboard jazz chart for more than seven months.
“She’s got an incredible range,” says sax great Stan Getz, who volunteered to be Schuur’s mentor after hearing her wow the crowd with “Amazing Grace “at the 1979 Monterey Jazz Festival. “She can sing almost any style, from scat to country ballads that can tear your heart out. In my opinion, Diane’s got all the equipment to be one of the greats. She’s the logical successor to Ella [Fitzgerald] and Sarah [Vaughan]. No one else can touch her.”
Schuur delights in hearing her name linked with those of her idols. Born two months prematurely, she was blinded when her optic nerves were damaged by excessive oxygen in her incubator. (Her twin brother, David, now a Federal Aviation Administration inspector, escaped that fate.) Growing up in Auburn, Wash., she took comfort in the music of the great jazz singers she heard on the radio.
Schuur started singing at the age of 2—”What a Difference a Day Makes” was an early favorite—and nurtured her passion while attending the State School for the Blind in Vancouver, Wash. “I was very shy, and I couldn’t sing openly,” she recalls. “The other kids made fun of me because I sang like an adult. So I used to shut myself away in a closet to sing.”
An indifferent student at first (“I was bored with ‘See Dick run, See Jane go’ “), she eventually became an avid reader, devouring braille books long into the night. “I’d read till my fingers were raw,” she says. “Reading has widened my imagination and helped me see how other people live.” She particularly enjoys biographies, including those of Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday.
Schuur’s musical talents were encouraged by her parents, David Sr., a retired police captain, and her late mother, Joan. With the help of a few lessons, she taught herself to play the piano, and at the age of 10 started performing at local clubs. “My first gig was at the Tacoma Holiday Inn,” she recalls. “I’ll never forget it. I forgot the words to ‘Unforgettable.’ I have it on tape with my mother in the background saying, ‘Oh, my God.’ ”
Despite that inauspicious start, Schuur worked her way up through Moose and Elk lodges and supper clubs to the Northwest’s top jazz spots and, eventually, the Monterey Festival, where Getz took her under his wing. He helped her get bookings, including a performance at the White House, where her singing was, as usual, electrifying. She’s now a regular on The Tonight Show, where she recently floored Johnny Carson by declaring, “God, you look handsome tonight!” She tours the country regularly, constantly adding to her legion of fans, among them Frank Sinatra and Nancy Reagan. “When I’m onstage, I feel like I want to go out into the audience and hug everybody,” she explains. “It’s really a love exchange.”
When she’s not on the road, Schuur hangs out at the “Deedle pad,” her condominium in Renton, Wash. There she spends as much time as she can with her boyfriend of five years, Paul Killion, a drummer. “I never knew anyone like her before—she’s a complex person,” says Killion. “I enjoy being her eyes.”
“I feel very blessed,” says Schuur. “I’m grateful for what God’s given me but at the same time humbled by it. I want to just keep doin’ what I’m doin’, keep on keepin’ on.”