Bringing hope through song
It was a long, winding road that took Dee Daniels from childhood gospel singer to internationally acclaimed jazz singer.
But Daniels, who performs on Saturday, Aug. 17, at Sylvan Lake’s Jazz at the Lake Festival, believes she’s finally doing what she was always meant to do — bringing people hope through song.
“My ultimate goal is to be a catalyst,” said the Vancouver resident, who sees herself as a conduit between the source of inspiration, “whether it be God, love, the universe or your higher self — whatever you want to call it,” and her audience.
Her aim is to use storytelling songs “to touch people the way they were meant to be touched.”
Whenever Daniels sings about life’s pain and losses, as well as blessings and bliss, she connects with people on a personal level. This was borne out “hundreds of times,” when strangers have approached after concerts to say her music has made a big difference in their lives.
“People have come up to me and said, ‘I was so despondent before I came here. I don’t know what made me come . . . but I feel hopeful now.’ The first time I heard that, I didn’t know what to say. I was so touched that it brought tears to my eyes,” admitted Daniels.
The Oakland, Calif., native has always loved to sing but wasn’t always a professional singer.
Although at age 11, she was paid to lead several gospel choirs and play piano at church, Daniels graduated from college with an arts education degree and started working as a visual art instructor at a Seattle high school.
She loved her creative-minded students, but alarm bells began ringing at the sight of the older “burned out and bitter” teachers. “I thought I will only do this for three years,” she recalled.
Before her first year was up, Daniels was recruited by friends to sing in a rock band that also sidelined in R and B music.
The band was so successful, she was performing six evenings a week. Soon teaching art five days a week became untenable, so she quit to officially join the band, which was renamed Dee Daniels and Dynamite.
Daniels took private voice lessons with Seattle coach George Peckham, who had mentored Ann and Nancy Wilson of the band Heart and others, to expand her vocal range from “about an octave and a half” to four octaves.
But she also learned that a voice could be a fragile thing.
Whenever the guitarist in her rock band broke a string on his instrument, she began visualizing her voice likewise snapping against the “wall of amps” she had to project over. “I thought, if I break my voice ... I’m done.”
Daniels quit the band, hired a accompanist with a Hammond organ and began singing pop standards.
“Jazz came much later. It was an evolution,” recalled the singer, who eventually got sick of performing cover songs the way people were used to hearing them and began putting her own spin on the music.
“I would change the melody. I didn’t know the things I was doing was improvisation. I just heard different things inside the melody that I wanted to explore. But next thing you know, members of the media were calling me a jazz singer. I said, ‘What are they talking about?’ ”
A good friend told Daniels that she should take the jazz descriptive as a compliment.
And over time she came to realize that “jazz provides you with a greater freedom (to interpret) music than I had ever had before.”
Daniels, who looks to Sarah Vaughan, Barbra Streisand and Etta Jones (and Etta James) for inspiration, finally found her true calling.
The mother of a 25-year-old daughter moved to Canada nearly 30 years ago after meeting and marrying the Canadian graphic designer who created her concert posters. “It was love at first sight,” Daniels recalled, with a laugh.
She has recorded with many jazz notables, including Toots Thielemans, Houston Person and Clark Terry, and has also performed to acclaim around the world.
In 2011, Daniels was named artistic director of the Frank DeMiero Jazz Festival, which is dedicated to jazz vocals with about 60 participating schools in Washington State. Her other distinctions include a plaque on Vancouver’s Granville Street Walk of Fame; a 2002 induction into the B.C. Entertainment Hall of Fame, and a command performance for the king and queen of Belgium’s 25th wedding anniversary.
Daniels’ objective — both in the jazz standards she selects to sing and in the original material she writes — is finding subject matter that rings true. “I pass on songs all the time because if I can’t make it real to me, then I can’t make it real to my listeners,” said the singer, who searches for lyrics with universal meaning.
“It doesn’t matter what culture you come from or what language you speak, the same elements of human nature exist around the world. People want to hear about life experiences in general.”
Although Daniels has performed several times with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra and also at the Calgary jazz festival, this will be her first appearance at Sylvan Lake’s Jazz at the Lake. She’s looking forward to it — especially as her friend P.J. Perry will be playing as a member of her backup quartet.
Tickets to the 8 p.m. concert at the Alliance Community Church at 4404 47th Ave. in Sylvan Lake are $35. For more event and ticket information about the Aug. 15 to 18 festival, visit www.jazzatthelake.com.