Oregon Music News: Oregon’s all-genre music magazine since 2009


The best Jazz gig ever: Heat, humidity, Dianne Reeves and a little girl

By BILL ROYSTON // One memorable night with Dianne Reeves, a little girl and cigarettes.

You need a blade to cut the haze to find the stage.

"Today's high will be a hundred and one degrees with ninety per cent humidity and zero chance of rain. Enjoy your Sunday!"

From the top of the amphitheatre, you could see the steam rising off the Delaware River where even the deformed swans were sweating.

 "Turn off the radio! I can feel it, I don't have to hear it!" someone bellowed from below. Everything, and everyone, was moving, oh, so slowly. There was plenty of activity. A lighting designer had flown in from Vegas the night before, and was directing the crew on what and where to hang additional instruments. The sound company was just beginning to load in when they were introduced to two sound techs, who had just driven down from New York to mix the show. Two Filipino women were hoisting up the 9' Steinway, while the band gear vendor had assorted amps, keyboards, drums, and percussion toys.

There were also members from the sponsor's crew setting up their blue-and-white canopies around the amphitheatre. This was Parliament Cigarettes, and this was opening night of the Parliament Sound Series at Penn's Landing. It was the hottest day of the year, but I was thinking back to a cold day last winter in the New York boardroom of Philip Morris when we sold our souls for mid-six figures to the big tobacco devil.

The first thing you noticed about tobacco headquarters was the series of overhead fans strategically placed every ten feet or so. The second thing you noticed was that lower level staff smoked incessantly, but upper management didn't smoke at all. Fortunately, we were meeting with the bosses. With the fans whirring above us, the main guy explained how Parliament was designed to appeal to young, Caucasian women between ages 14-25. Parliament was inevitably to be their first cigarette. The trick was to make sure they didn't switch brands. With recent advertising bans, tobacco marketing was being stymied, and Parliament's answer was to underwrite large concerts that would attract the desired demographic. The main guy actually promised us full payment within a week. I was surprised how few events they were expecting for so much money. Over the next two hours, we struggled to negotiate that Parliament would NOT give away free product sampling on site. Finally, they agreed, and we had been purchased.

The road manager stood in front of the stage. He was no more than 5'2" with a long, braided pony tail down to his ass. He carried a clipboard and a 2-way radio. He made me flash on Edward G Robinson in "Little Caesar." In this heat, I was more than happy to abdicate and place this guy in charge! He saw me looking down at him, "You're the one paying for all this! Right?"

Yes, I was.

Dianne Reeves is a genuine Diva. And I mean that only in the most positive of terms. She is also the best vocalist on the planet with an incredible 5 1/2 octave range, impeccable taste, and an overwhelming stage presence. In the late 80's, her career was just beginning with a hit single, "Better Days," from her first, self-titled Blue Note album. She was being promoted back then as a true crossover artist, appealing to both an older jazz constituency while also drawing a younger soul/ r&b crowd. While Parliament wanted Hall & Oates or Cheap Trick, I rationalized that Dianne Reeves was the perfect artist for the Parliament Sound Series. She was also my daughter's favorite singer.

With the Penn's Landing summer schedule, our family's weekends were generally Mondays and Tuesdays. Early Monday mornings we packed the car and headed to the Jersey shore. The goal was to be at Ocean City's 39th Street Beach by 9am. We were what older Philadelphians referred to as "Shoeboxers," daytrippers to the shore who carried what they needed for the day in a shoe box. My shoe box contained a few cassettes to musically sustain our 90-minute journey along the Atlantic City Expressway, aka the Jersey Autobahn.

 "Play Dianne Reeves! Play the 'Grandma Song!'" Sara would call out from her car seat in the back. Then, "Play it again, Daddy, play Dianne Reeves again!" The 'Grandma Song' was actually "Better Days," and I can attest from repeated personal experiences that you can play that song 41 times while driving between Philly and Ocean City (more if you get bogged down crossing the Walt Whitman Bridge).

Although early in her career, Dianne Reeves had a big time agent. Like other agents in his sphere, he had loyalties to the large, commercial promoters in each market. In Philly, that was Electric Factory. I had done my research and gave him a fair market offer, which was immediately rejected. Eventually--and to this day I can't believe that I did this--I doubled my offer. A long, non-pregnant pause, and then, "Oh, shit! Now I have to call Larry!"

Within an hour, I had a message to have lunch the next day with Larry. The first thing that I noticed upon entering the Electric Factory offices was a larger-than-life, framed Bob Dylan poster that was signed, "To my best friend, Larry, thank you for all that you've done! Bob." It would be an understatement for me to say that I was a little nervous.

Larry turned out to be nice guy. Kinda. "You're paying her way too much! You've inflated her value for years to come," he said with resignation as we entered his favorite restaurant. Yes, but in this case I have the money, I wanted to say, but fortunately held back. I was there to listen. After we had ordered, he spread his linen napkin across the table between us and pulled out a Sharpie. He started drawing, "This is Pennsylvania and Philadelphia. This is New Jersey and Atlantic City. This is Maryland..." As he drew a big circle around his creation with emphasis, "And this is mine!"

I got it. By the time we had finished our lunch, we agreed that from now on if I was going to spend more than $10,000 on artist fees, or if I booked anything other than jazz, I would call Larry first. And I did. Sometimes he would say no; and sometimes he would say ok. We were cool. I guess. I must admit, however, that the morning after our lunch I did think twice before starting my car. We had our Dianne Reeves date.

"Do you really think we'll draw 8,000 on a Sunday night in this heat?" The head of security had approached me from behind as I watched the road manager directing traffic. Every Wednesday morning we had an all-hands-on-deck meeting on that weekend's events where I gave my best estimates for attendance. Security, parking, maintenance, and the food vendors wanted to know, but no one at our meeting had ever heard of Dianne Reeves. Sonny and Grover had each played to capacity at 10,000. This seemed excessive.

 "We'll see!" I said, but I wasn't sure. I retreated towards the roadie. "We're ready to soundcheck," he reported. "But I'm going to leave Dianne at the hotel until the hair and makeup ladies  arrive."

 "We're here!" chimed three women from the side of the stage. Dianne's management was pulling out all the stops. Makeup. Hair. Lighting designer. Sound techs. This was not just another gig. This was a big deal for us, and for her. The road manager shrugged, "I guess I'll bring her over now."

"Great! Remember, I just need a few minutes privately with Dianne once she's settled, " I said. There was someone else for whom this was also a big deal.

 "Sure. After hair and makeup."

The band arrived. You know the band is really special when the maintenance crew stops what they're doing to observe soundcheck. It was two hours before we would hit, but significant numbers of audience were already showing up. The band hurriedly wrapped things up and retreated to air-conditioning and deli platters.

Dianne arrived, and was immediately ushered back to her dressing room trailer. We exchanged pleasantries, and I explained how my daughter idolized her. I told her about trips through New Jersey with the 'Grandma Song.' She looked at me quizzically. For a moment, she stopped all the madness around her. She wanted to know everything I could tell her about Sara. I stammered until the chaos in the room had returned. You can detect an extraordinary person by the way they treat others.

Then, Parliament Cigarettes arrived in force. Tens of freshly scrubbed youth wearing blue-and-white striped blazers descended upon the amphitheatre and the growing audience. THEY WERE PASSING OUT 4-CIGARETTE PARLIAMENT SAMPLE PACKETS TO ANYONE WHO WOULD ACCEPT THEM! Think fast! I grabbed that same head of security, Walt, who was a former professional wrestler, and we went over to the primary Parliament canopy. The main guy from New York greeted us. I reminded him of our deal about no product distribution on site. He smiled and looked me right in the eye, "I lied."

I countered, "This is Walt. He is our Director of Contract Enforcement." Walt was brilliant. He took one step towards the Parliament guy and uttered, "My little sister died from lung cancer."

In far less than a moment, the freshly scrubbed youth in their blue-and-white blazers with free cigarettes had disappeared. Gone. And not to return. Like I said, you can detect an extraordinary person by the way they treat others. Damn, I felt really good! Then, I turned around... There was Sara Royston in her red velvet dress, white tights, and black patent-leather shoes. In hundred degree heat.

We started to walk backstage, but Walt stopped us. We were thirty minutes from starting, but the amphitheatre was overflowing. "We're under control, but we were both wrong, 'cause we're already over 10,000! The parking lots are full so they're shutting down. And maintenance is stressed." I thanked him. For everything. I promised to be accessible for any last minute decisions. Repeat, we're under control!

Sara and I reached the dressing room door. I knocked. "Come in!" Dianne responded. She was now alone. She had her back to us as she was doing last minute primping into a full-length mirror. She could see us through the reflection in the mirror...

 "My name is Sara Royston. I am four years old. And when I grow up, I want to be you."

It wasn't a Pause. It was a complete Silence. Slowly, Dianne turned, winked at me, smiled at Sara, and with nothing but pure sweetness in her voice, whispered, "Good choice!" 

We got a ten minute cue, but Dianne sat down with my daughter. They talked about how Sara wanted to become a doctor. Dianne grabbed her hand and with that same sweetness confided, "Keep your eyes on the prize! Always remember that. Promise?" Sara promised, and she was ushered out to my office where she promptly fell asleep. She never heard one note of music.

Walt was back. Somehow we crammed 12,000 people into the amphitheatre, but you literally couldn't move! There were spillover crowds out on to Chestnut Street and into town, as well as along the shoulders of I-95. "Let's call it an even 15k!" He turned to Dianne, "Mam, whenever you're ready, I have a group of officers to form a wedge to get you safely to the stage, and they'll be there at the end of the night to get you back here."

Almost speechless, Dianne thanked him. "15,000 people? This is the biggest show of my life!" And then she did it: with two feet firmly planted, she raised her head and arched her back reminiscent of a thoroughbred. She took a deep breath, "I'm ready. Let's go!"

Over the years, I have worked with Dianne numerous times.  Each time there was that thoroughbred moment, but it never failed to amaze me. We turned the corner and were met with a literal wall of people. When we reached the top of the stage steps, she said "Thank you for this!" I suddenly realized that I hadn't been on stage in nearly seven hours. Dianne's road manager was the best. He and I took a second and looked out at this gigantic, beautiful patchwork quilt of black & white, male & female, old & young. We shook hands, and he cued the band.

Dianne started with Mongo Santamaria's "Afro Blue," and the crowd went wild. Three songs in she intro'd "Better Days" as the 'Grandma Song,' and dedicated it to little Sara, who was sound asleep. The audience was euphoric. It went on like that for two hours. I tried to do my customary walk around the perimeter of the amphitheatre, but there was simply no passage. No problems, just no passage.

I retreated back to the side of the stage. The wings were filled with VIP's in suits and dresses, who were not capable of dancing, boogeying their brains out in hundred degree heat (or maybe down to 95 by now). "She's finished her set list and she's playing from her head now," the road manager confided. "I have no idea how or when she's going to finish."

But eventually she somehow did. Security formed their wedge again. Rock 'n Roll like the Rolling Stones, I thought! As we entered the trailer, I looked at Dianne. I had never seen a human being perspire so profusely. After several hours of running purely on adrenaline, we were just starting to feel the heat. She collapsed into a folding chair, "Did Sara get to hear her song?" No, she was still asleep in my office. "Oh, well, " she smiled, "We'll have to do it again! Soon!"

And we did. Again in Philadelphia, then Wilmington, Reading, Rehoboth Beach, Pittsburgh, and eventually on to Mt Hood, Bellevue, and several gigs in Portland. Wherever I've gone, Dianne Reeves is there. In every case, we ended up talking about that first time at Penn's Landing. The best jazz gig ever, we would both say.

The last time that I saw Dianne was over ten years ago when she appeared with the Oregon Symphony. I introduced her to the audience that night as "The First Lady of the American Songbook." I meant it, but Dianne didn't like it. Too bold, even for the heir apparent to Sarah Vaughn?

Dr Sara Royston is now a physician in residence at Harvard Medical Center. A few years back, she drove down to Connecticut as Dianne's guest to see her perform. Sara was appalled. Dianne was playing in an old tent in front of a bunch of seniors. How do I explain to my daughter that not all gigs are great gigs? Oh, well...

I had finally attained exhaustion that evening, but I remember scooping up little Sara off my office floor and heading home. We must have made it safely, because the next thing I recall was laying in bed the next morning with a kiss on my cheek, "Thank you, Daddy, for Dianne Reeves!"

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