During a phone interview from her hotel room in Irvine, Diane Schuur is singing a beautiful version of Sarah Vaughan’s “After Hours,” one of her childhood favorites.
“I should be taping this,” the reporter says.
“Just let it go out into the ether,” Schuur says, then laughs. Then she laughs a little harder. Then she begins to cry.
“When I hear ‘After Hours,’ I think about my mom putting that record on,” Schuur says, remembering her mother, who died of cancer when Schurr was just 13. “Even after all these years ...”.
Needless to say, music can evoke powerful emotions. And, through troubled times, Schuur has used music to heal herself.
“There is such a thing as music therapy,” said Ellis Marsalis, noted jazz instructor and father of Branford and Wynton Marsalis.
Both Schuur and Marsalis will present a lecture at Cal Poly on Sunday — “Jazz in the 21st Century: Where Are We Going?” — before performing individual shows. Their visits, along with a performance by bass player/vocalist Esperanza Spalding, is a part of a three-day Jazz Masters series put on by Cal Poly Arts.
The series was impressive enough to make Bill Cosby — a longtime champion of jazz music — go onstage early during his recent performance at Cal Poly just to extol the virtues of the event.
“This is a pretty hip school,” he said.
Blind from infancy because of an overdose of oxygen in her incubator, Schuur turned to music at an early age, singing her woes away in the closet.
As a child, she also taught herself to play piano.
“I guess people say it’s genetic,” said Schuur, whose father, an ex-cop, played piano and guitar, and whose grandmother played piano.
As a child, Dinah Washington’s “It’s a Beautiful Day,” resonated with her and eventually shaped her career.
“I just tried to do everything I could to emulate that song,” she said.
At 17, she recorded her first single — a country tune, “Dear Mommy and Daddy.” Her career would veer toward jazz, but even then it would always be fused with pop.
“Some of the critics panned my stuff for that very reason,” she said, adding, “life is about balance.”
Through hard times — tough relationships, addictions, financial problems — Schuur has always turned to music to heal her. And her own efforts have paid off. She has performed at the White House twice and has won two Grammys, which she keeps on her fireplace mantel near the ashes of departed cats.
Nicknamed “Deedle” by her mother, Schuur is coming full circle and recording a country album.
“I figured, ‘Let’s just shock the world,’ ” she joked.
Teacher and performer
While Marsalis is not as well-known as Schuur when it comes to performing, he’s one of the great jazz teachers, having taught artists such as Harry Connick Jr., band leader Terence Blanchard and, of course, his own sons. Four of his six children are professional musicians, and both Branford and Wynton are considered the top tier of today’s jazz performers.
A teacher at various levels of the educational stratum, Marsalis, a modern jazz pianist, eventually retired from the University of New Orleans. Today, he plays a regular Friday trio gig in New Orleans. But of course, most people want to know about his famous offspring.
“I didn’t necessarily do anything in particular to get them interested (in music),” he said of Branford and Wynton, the two oldest sons. “In high school, they played in a rock band.”
As a younger man, Marsalis said, he too was into a different genre.
“They didn’t call it rock at the time,” said Marsalis, who got his music degree from Dillard University (New Orleans) in 1955.
“At the time, they called it rhythm and blues.”
It was hard for jazz musicians to be successful then, he said. So he pursued education.
“One of the better musicians I knew was a liquor salesman,” he said.
Because he had to work, Marsalis often relied on others to teach his kids. But he still had high standards, which meant his sons went through many teachers. As good as his sons were, though, he had no idea they’d become famous one day.
“How you gonna know that?” he said. “There’s no way to know that.”
Same for Connick, whose major label debut came out when he was just 20.
“Not only was he super-talented, he had great support from his parents,” Marsalis said.
Connick’s father, he remembers, would take his son to Bourbon Street regularly “just so he could sit in with someone old to play with.”
Looking back on his teaching career, Marsalis considers himself lucky that he was able to focus on music.
“A lot of time teachers had to teach other things,” he said. “They had to teach math, science or — heaven forbid — English. I never had to do that.”
Reach Patrick S. Pemberton at 781-7903.