Jazz singer Dee Daniels found her place by going somewhere else

Jazz singer Dee Daniels says her first love was gospel music: "I'm so happy that I have that as a foundation. Then there was the blues. The blues is like a first-cousin to gospel. The biggest difference is the story they're telling. And jazz is just another extension of that. I tell students they need to understand the blues, because it is the foundation of jazz."

Jazz singer Dee Daniels says her first love was gospel music: "I'm so happy that I have that as a foundation. Then there was the blues. The blues is like a first-cousin to gospel. The biggest difference is the story they're telling. And jazz is just another extension of that. I tell students they need to understand the blues, because it is the foundation of jazz."

Singer Dee Daniels learned some things when she was starting her career and working in lounges.

"In those days people who came to those lounges were there for a reason," she says in a call from her home in New York. "You'd hear this vast variety of stories and situations that people live in and come to understand how blessed you were. I thought then, 'I'll never allow myself to live in the past.' I'll always be open to new things and moving forward."

Daniels certainly is. Since the mid-1980s she has been a vocalist of choice for some of the top artists in jazz, including Toots Thielemans, Clark Terry, Lionel Hampton, Monty Alexander and Hank Jones. She's performed and recorded her own albums as a vocalist and pianist in both jazz and gospel.

The stepdaughter of a minister, Daniels started in gospel music while growing up in Oakland, Calif. Her family moved to Seattle when she was 17 and, by that time, Daniels was also singing rock 'n' roll and was in well-received bands in the Seattle area.

"I evolved into a jazz singer," says Daniels. "I didn't know anything about jazz except for what little I heard on the radio."

Still, writers reviewing Daniels began to refer to her as a jazz singer.

"At first, I didn't know how I felt about that. What was happening is I was changing the melodies, but I didn't know that was improvisation. I was just working so much and doing that because I didn't want to get bored!"

Eventually, she began to explore jazz and convinced the owner of the Seattle jazz club Parnell's to give her a night at the venue. She learned a set of standards and her musical path changed.

"Then I went to the Netherlands and all I sang was jazz, except for gospel. Jazz offers me another kind of freedom that I can't get from rock, R&B or anything else but gospel."

Daniels only planned to visit for three months in 1982, but ended up spending five years in the Netherlands and Belgium.

"At that point in my life it was probably the best decision I could've made, not only career-wise, but personally as well," says Daniels. "I only knew one person in Holland, so I had to create a life there. I learned so much about myself."

She performed with a number of European jazz stars, but also visiting American artists, including Monty Alexander (one of the first jazz artists whose music she connected with), Hank Jones, Tommy Flannagan and Johnny Griffin.

She doubts that if she had stayed in the United States, she would've had so many opportunities to work with so many greats.

"Having a chance to work with those guys, to learn from those guys, to become my mentors — it was a fabulous experience!"

Daniels returned to North America, married and settled in Vancouver, Canada. She continued gaining a reputation as a performer and also vocal clinician and educator.

In 2001, she established the Dee Daniels Jazz Vocal Scholarship at the Capilano University in North Vancouver. In July, she will conduct the first Dee Daniels Vocal Jazz Workshop in Sitka, Alaska.

Although Daniels has recorded several albums over the years, she says being asked to record her next album is one of the most exciting projects of her career. Daniels will be the first vocalist to record as bandleader for an album on Criss Cross Records. The label caters to serious jazz fans (starting with label founder Gerry Teekens).

"Their catalog is just incredible," says Daniels. "I have a group of fantastic musicians assembled. We all got together and I thought, 'Oh my gosh! This is incredible and we get paid for this!' "

Daniels says she fits in easily with nearly all musicians.

"I have no expectations going in," she says. "I'm there to be part of the unit. I never think of myself as 'the singer with a band.' I'm there to join in and be part of the conversation. We're all there with our various instruments and everyone understand the art of conversation — listening and responding."

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Dee Daniels with the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 12

Where: Bijou Theatre

Tickets: $29.50, available at Knoxville Tickets outlets, 865-656-4444, www.knoxvilletickets.com

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