Keeping Up with Diane Witherspoon

By Francesca NemkoDiane Witherspoon


Question: What's a talented, experienced Jazz singer doing counting the population for the US. Census Bureau? When I discovered that Diane Witherspoon was helping Uncle Sam determine how much we've grown in the past decade, I decided to ask the source, Diane herself.

"Well, I like the job," she told me in our telephone interview in May. "It's good to he in a supervisory position again."

Of course, Ms. Witherspoon is quite familiar with supervising others, having organized numerous bands to back her over the years. In fact, that's an aspect of her career that she's still involved in, although she confided to me that what she'd really love is to have someone write some "really fancy arrangements" for her. If you've heard her most recent CD, You May Never Know (KOCH Jazz), you have found her in not only the company of some of jazzdom's finest musicians, but performing the music of none other than the great pianist-arranger Cedar Walton, and giving heartfelt interpretations of the lyrics of John & Paula Hackett.

When we last read about Diane in Jazz Now, it was in the cover profile by Phavia Kujichagulia in November 1991, and much has happened to this exquisite song' stylist since then. In addition to the aforementioned CD, she appeared with Bay Area musician and bandleader Ghasen Batamuntu on his 1998 recording, Life on Uranus, as well as on Kujichangulia's 1999 CD entitled The Human Race. I wondered out loud to Diane why, given her experience and expertise, we don't see more of her. Was that her choice, perhaps because it is a rather grueling life?

"Not exactly," she replied. "I think the reason is a combination of circumstances. Number one, I have three children that I've raised pretty much by myself. 1 chose not to be away from them as they were growing up.

"The second reason," she continued, "is that, even to this day, I have a problem knowing people that are connected, and in this business it's who you know and a matter of some luck. You never know when someone can approach you who's very powerful and can promote you. But I've never run into that person."

Jazz Now has certainly done its part considering that this is the second cover story on Ms. Witherspoon. No other musician has that distinction. Maybe, too, I offered, there a heavy price to pay (I was thinking of other artists who have become hugely popular but had pretty tough personal lives).

"That's true," Diane said, "and one example is my sister Shirley. She sang with Duke Ellington and when her daughter was about a year-and-a-half, she went on the road with the band. She wasn't very happy, though; she had this big success from the outside looking in, but inside she was really miserable. She left the band when she wasn't supposed to and Duke said to her: 'Hey, if you leave now, don't come back.' So, I didn't want to make the sacrifices that affected what I consider more important -- my family. But my youngest daughter is now eighteen. So, the older they get, the more I'm leaving. It's time to put myself up on the front burner."

Although you'll still not see Diane's name listed frequently at many of the local Jazz clubs, this too is My choice. She points out that she doesn't care to work in those arenas any more.

However, she has been heard at most of the major venues around the Los Angeles area, where she now resides, such as Lunaria, Monsoon Restaurant in Santa Monica, Catalina's in Hollywood, the snazzy Cinegrill at the Roosevelt Hotel, plus numerous festivals. She often is called to grace the ranks of a big band at the new addition to the Southland Jazz scene, the Casino at Hollywood Park Race Track.

"I stay busy," she said, "with many calls to work casuals. I was in a concert series this year, at Manhattan Beach, called Classical Sands. And I was featured with a big band at a benefit event at the Beverly Hilton, attended by the governor of California.'

As is often the case with homegrown talent, they often tend to be appreciated and valued more highly abroad. Diane is now making annual visits to either Tokyo (with pianist Andrew Ostwald), or Bangkok, Thailand. "I'm in the same place for three months," she elaborated. "In Japan, it's the Park-Hyatt Hotel, and in Bangkok, I'm at the Oriental Hotel. The King of Thailand's daughter, the princess, who lives here in California, visited one night while I was there.

"At the Oriental (which is a world-class establishment), I have a house band that's truly multi-cultural: the saxophonist and bassist are Russian; the drummer is African-American; there are two pianists who alternate, one from Indiana and one from Germany, as well as one who is a native of Thailand. We never have any rehearsals; from the day I first arrived they just said 'give us a list of tunes and keys you want them in...'"

Diane Witherspoon is really coming into her own now, since she's dispensed with her motherhood duties. She can be found in the prestigious company of such local dignitaries as Teddy Edwards, Billy Higgins, Red Holloway, George Bohanon and, of course, Cedar Walton, among others. She's recorded and appeared in concert with John Clayton, and once "subbed" for an ailing Etta James on a recording date. "What happened," Diane explained, "was that I supplied what is termed a 'scrap track.' I laid down all the vocal tracks, then when Etta was ready, they simply lowered my voice and she substituted hers. I was selected for this gig because I'm a pretty quick study in the studio. It was fun, and of course when I heard the finished product, I knew every line of Etta's songs."

All in all, then, Ms Witherspoon has been anything but retired from her first love. She feels that she has the energy and enthusiasm to devote herself to her career full-time. Before the end of this year, expect to see another CD for Koch, and probably more personal appearances in a variety of settings. Watch for her name and check out this seasoned and mature singer who chooses to do what most enhances her.

by Francesca Nemko

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