Celebrating jazz diva Denise Perrier

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When California eased Covid-19 restrictions on June 15, allowing live music to return to indoor venues, I quickly set my sights on the Royal Cuckoo, the Mission’s invaluable outpost for the blues, jazz and early R&B. I’d seen several outdoor performances earlier in The Pandemic, but there’s nothing quite like a piece that echoes the idiosyncratic splendor of music.

Among the dozens of regulars delighted to be back at the neighborhood bar dressed in bric-a-brac, many musicians came to celebrate with the house band featuring living singer Lavay Smith, sister of Cuckoo co-owner Bill Miller. , trumpeter Bill Ortiz, and Chris Siebert, stationed behind the bar of the club’s Hammond B-3 organ. But what made the evening feel like an exceptional occasion was the presence of Denise Perrier, the veteran jazz and blues singer who is both the grande dame of the Bay Area scene. and a kind of mother to many singers who have followed in his footsteps.

After spotting Perrier sitting nearby, Smith offered a few songs in his honor as Perrier soaked up the music and greeted a constant stream of friends and fans, including pianist Steve Lucky and singer / guitarist Carmen Getit. The air frail and moving at her own pace, Perrier was not ready to sit down with the group, and it was clear that the heart problems that had haunted her for several years were taking their toll. Perrier is now in hospice and we are on the verge of losing an artist whose talent, generosity and deep connections to the populist roots of jazz embody the best of American music.

Local legend, generous mentor

Although Perrier spent her early years performing internationally, she has been at the center of the local scene since the 1980s, playing numerous jazz spots in the San Jose area of ​​Napa. With her warm, velvety contralto and irresistible sense of swing, she delivered pieces of early blues and jazz at Enrico with Mal Sharpe’s Big Money In Jazz Band and 1930s standards with Trombonist Bryan Gould’s Swing Fever at Panama Hotel in San Rafael. She has presented her own tributes to Bessie Smith and Dinah Washington at nightclubs like the Plush Room and Rrazz Room and has delivered standards at Yoshi’s with the Junius Courtney Big Band.

His performances were masterclasses in phrasing, set design, and finely-tuned tempo control, but Perrier also served as a moral force outside the bandstand, treating young singers as family to embrace rather than one. threat to his job. Rhonda Benin had worked primarily as an R&B singer and was just beginning to make her way onto the jazz scene when another singer, seemingly jealous of having landed a prime spot at the Art & Soul Festival in Oakland, took over. makes a sharp point about inexperienced artists who get opportunities. they didn’t deserve.

Sitting at a table with several other singers, including Perrier, “she didn’t say my name but I knew everyone knew who she was talking about,” recalls Benin. “It was embarrassing and it hurt me. The following week I played at Enrico’s, and Denise walks and sits in the front row. Oh no, the queen of jazz. It will tell. I sang ‘Moon River’, and she sat there and cried and after the set. She gave me a hug. It was all I needed to know. I was on the right track. I will never forget him. Since then, it’s special between us. She made some great friends with my mom. We sit close and talk at length with each other.

Perrier’s support for other performers on the stage appeared frequently on November 12, when more than a dozen singers joined several dozen other friends and admirers at a Zoom party to mark his 82nd birthday (a celebration which began when the Mayor of London Breed declared Nov. 12. 1 Denise Perrier Day in San Francisco). Kim Nalley was one of the singers on the call and spoke often of Perrier’s open-arm embrace when she started making a name for herself in the early 1990s in San Francisco.

In an interview before her Freight & Salvage 2019 show “Ladies Sing the Blues” with Perrier and Tiffany Austin, Nalley recalled her first meeting with the veteran singer when she went to see her perform in the bar at Galleria Park Hotel. “Denise made her entrance coming down the stairs in formal dress, in Bessie Smith fashion, just dazzling,” said Nalley. “As soon as I introduced myself, she was so nice to me. She asked me if I had any flyers and gave them to the people at her concert. His generosity is unmatched. She has helped me throughout my career. I started going to Russia because of Denise. She brought me there for the first time.

Even as his health deteriorated, Perrier worked on one final giveaway for his fans, putting his soul into a recording that saxophonist and producer Howard Wiley compares to Billie Holiday’s farewell album, “Lady In Satin.” . It’s a project that they’ve been talking about ever since Wiley produced Tiffany Austin’s nationally acclaimed debut album in 2015, “Nothing But Soul,” “and we were finally able to work through quarantine,” he said. -he declares. “Spending time with Denise Perrier was one of the best things. I call her Queen. Listening to her sing “Where do you start?” So easygoing and suave, she has all this experience. Just resilience, to be able to function when time is of the essence. “

Her latest album, “Denise Perrier & the Novosibirsk Philharmonic Orchestra” from 2013, was a lavish ballad session that documented her deep ties to Russia. For the new album, Wiley lined up a world-class group with Count Basie Orchestra pianist Glen Pearson, bassist Ron Belcher and drummer Darrell Green. The great pianist George Cables accompanies Perrier on “St. Louis Blues” and “Round Midnight”.

The team that produces the album is raising funds to master it and release it through a GoFundMe campaign that raised more than half of the $ 20,000 goal. Each time the project is released, it will add significantly to Perrier’s incredibly thin discography, a situation that speaks to a DIY career conducted without label backing. His closest contact with a national forum as a recording artist was contributing several tracks to organist Brother Jack McDuff’s 1992 album “Color Me Blue,” Grammy nominated, on Concord. Jazz (known for championing singers, it was a Bay Area label that could have been a great fit for him).

As a young player making his appearance on the Bay Area scene around the turn of the century, Wiley knew Perrier primarily “because he was out there,” he said. “Darrell Green and I would see her at 3:39 am walking around Valencia with a cocktail, looking like a queen. Where did you have a cocktail at 3 in the morning ?! ”

She should have been well known on the national stage, but “there’s this thing going on in the Bay Area, this weird vortex, where we have some of the most talented people, but there just isn’t a lot of resources, ”he mentioned. “Denise was a black woman here alone, with no institutional or corporate support. “

A house full of music

Born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and raised in the town of East Bay in Albany, Perrier grew up in a house filled with music. His half-brother, bassist Paul Jackson, was a founding member of Headhunters, Herbie Hancock’s pioneering 1970s funk fusion group. His sister-in-law, Joyce Jackson, was an accomplished flautist and composer. When he finished high school in the late 1950s, Perrier was performing with The Intervals, a jazzy vocal group that performed in formal wear on the supper club circuit.

At a concert at the Fairmont Hotel, Louis Armstrong took on the comedy and was impressed enough to make his way to Las Vegas. This gave Perrier a chance to mingle with jazz greats like Dinah Washington and Ella Fitzgerald, but she also had to deal with Vegas’ notorious treatment of black musicians.

“Black artists worked in the main rooms, but were not allowed to live in hotels,” Perrier told me in a lengthy interview in 2002. “Ella once cooked me black-eyed peas on a hotplate in one of those caravans where musicians live. We think this stuff is ancient history, but it wasn’t that long ago, really.

Perrier was first offered to work abroad at a concert in 1965 at Esther’s Orbit Room in West Oakland, which led to an extended stay in Australia. Her down gig led to years of performances in Asia, as she bounced between Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines and South Vietnam, where she spent two years playing for the troops during the height of the l American military engagement.

It wasn’t just a desire to explore new countries and the opportunity to work regularly that drew Perrier abroad. It was the quality of the work that was offered to him. “As a relatively unknown artist, I have had the experience of working with large groups,” said Perrier. “I was on television; there was excitement and a certain type of grooming that was invaluable to me, although I didn’t think about it at the time. There was a lot of work in contexts that I couldn’t have gotten into the US so quickly and there was a sense of adventure.

When Perrier returned to the United States in the early 1970s, she moved to New York and, after five years, returned to the Bay Area. She garnered considerable attention with a series of performances exploring the music of Duke Ellington and George Gershwin, and a memorable tribute to Dinah Washington, “Unforgettable”. But Perrier never lost his desire to travel. She performed frequently in Europe and Japan, where her brother Paul Jackson settled from 1985 until his death in March.

When she spoke about opening new doors, it became clear why she was so deeply aware of the power of well-placed words or gestures. She made the first of a dozen trips to perform in Russia in 1997 after her Soviet-born seamstress put her in touch with an entrepreneur who was running a group in Russia. “He said, ‘The Russian people would love you. I will call the mayor of my city, where there is a big party for the 850th anniversary of Russia, ”said Perrier. “And, less than a month later, I received an official invitation to Russia, and I was elated to death.”

Just as she supported young singers, she befriended some of jazz’s greatest singers. Etta Jones, an inimitable songwriter best known for the sultry hit “Don’t Go to Strangers”, has spent a lot of time in San Francisco. They ended up becoming precious companions, and when Jones joined her in the studio for one of her first recording sessions, Perrier recalls receiving wise advice “to always come with the lyrics written down, no matter how much. many times you’ve sung a song, “she said.” Because there’s something about being in front of that mic. So she sat there and wrote the lyrics to my song.

Mentored by masters, Perrier has spent her career giving back the love she has received. With many singers she has taken under her wing in search of the next generation, Perrier’s legacy will be felt for a long time to come.


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