Interview: Deelee Dubé

Following her Best International Jazz Collaboration award win at the 2021 Mzantsi Jazz Awards, M Magazine caught up with poet, songwriter and gifted jazz vocalist Deelee Dubé.

Maya Radcliffe
  • By Maya Radcliffe
  • 7 Oct 2021
  • min read

Deelee Dubé is an award-winning vocalist, who made history by becoming the first British winner and recipient of the 2016 Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition, NJPAC (NJ, USA). Today, Deelee is regarded as one of the most gifted vocalists to have emerged from the London scene in many years.

Embodying a stellar African musical lineage, the eclectic tastes of a London upbringing, and a deep love and respect for the jazz tradition. Deelee possesses what the Jazz Times calls ‘a warm tone, genuine blues feeling, and easy rhythmic authority.’

M Magazine spoke to Deelee Dubé to discuss her Mzantsi Jazz Award win, her latest album Trying Times and her impressive musical lineage.

Hi Deelee, congratulations on winning the Best International Jazz Collaboration award at the 5th Annual Mzantsi Jazz Awards. How does it feel to have won?

Hello. Thank you very much for having me. It is a wonderful feeling and I feel very honoured to have received this award and recognition from South Africa, which is a part of my cultural heritage, so this award is particularly special.

Can you tell us a bit about the awards for which you were nominated?

I was nominated in five categories for Best Jazz Album, Best Female Jazz Artist, Best Contemporary Jazz Album, Best Newcomer in Jazz and Best International Jazz Collaboration, and won Best International Jazz Collaboration for my debut album Trying Times which was released digitally and globally in December 2020.

This album came about through my signing to the Concord Jazz label and is my first debut released on a major label in the US. It was recorded between 2017 to late 2018 between the US (Systems Two recording studios), Vienna and London, so there was a lot of travelling and transferring of files involved! For this recording project I collaborated with US-based and two-time Grammy nominated Venezuelan Jazz pianist, Benito Gonzalez, who produced the album and has a good track record of playing alongside the likes of Kenny Garrett and Pharoah Sanders. He works as a leader and spent seven years as a member of Kenny Garrett’s band and has his own very distinctive sound which is sonically evident on the production of this record. It also has Corcoran Holt on double bass and mark Whitfield Jr. on drums. We had a horn section on the first track on the album Trying Times (originally written by Donny Hathaway and Leroy Hutson, and first released by Roberta Flack in 1969 for her debut album First Take) which included Eric Wyatt on Tenor Saxophone, Duane Eubanks on Trumpet, and Andrae Murchison on Trombone.

The original song Still Trying was written in collaboration with English pianist and composer Alex Webb featured Russell Malone on electroacoustic guitar. Preceding the album’s release, I was delighted to receive recognition from Susan Moross (daughter of the late American composer, Jerome Moross) and the Jerome Moross Company for my interpretation of the great standard Lazy Afternoon (which also featured acclaimed US guitarist Russell Malone). I was also honoured to receive praises from the late, great Chick Corea and his management, who applauded my interpretation of 500 Miles High as ‘impressive’ – it all counts! So overall, I have been blessed to have collaborated with these brilliant players and great personnel on this recording project.

Your father was the famed South African jazz pianist Jabu Nkosi and your grandfather another legendary figure from the country’s music scene. How much did your impressive musical lineage influence the course of your career?

From as far back as I can remember, I have always had this strong sense of purpose in music, coupled with the awareness that my father and grandfather were notable figures in South African jazz music. I suppose this has intuitively fuelled my drive to pursue a career in music, so I’d like to think that I am continuing my father and grandfather’s patrilineal musical legacy which is mostly implemented on my own musical terms and through my own creative lens and happens to be in jazz.

My father, Jabu Nkosi, was a well-known touring jazz pianist who worked with a plethora of notable figures in the South African jazz music scene. He had a career which spanned as far back as the late sixties and often collaborated with the likes of Barney Rachabane and Sipho Gumede amongst many other renowned figures. He often crossed-collaborated into soul jazz, world music, folk and South African pop music. He featured on various musicians’ albums and played at many shows as a session musician. He definitely wasn’t afraid to blur the lines, which is something that I also happen to lean towards. I developed a strong affinity for jazz and jazz and blues influenced music very early on in my career — just after studying at the BRIT School — at this crucial time when I happened to be exploring music and finding myself, jazz had chosen me.

What music did you listen to growing up?

Mostly music from my mother’s vast and eclectic vinyl collection which ranged from South African world music to American soul and jazz, commercial pop and rock, indie, Indian classical music, electronic dance, western classical music, folk and country and bluegrass (Jim Reeves) combined with popular music a lot of mainstream radio music.

Aside from my childhood favourites, I’ve kind of ceased from favouring celebrity culture as I have matured and developed more of a deep appreciation and respect for any kind music that sounded good to me.

'Whenever I have something to say and share, writing songs and poetry serve as an effective portal in which to channel through.'

You reached the semi-finals to the UK Songwriting (UKSC) Contest. What would you say are your biggest strengths as a songwriter?

As child I would often write short stories which developed into poetry as I grew up. I often enjoy writing poems about my deepest feelings and experiences and sometimes a lot of my poems are turned into songs. I tend to channel my innermost feelings, emotions and experiences through words and melodies, and sometimes it is meaningful and works very well, and I think that is a strength. Sometimes I like to use words that rhyme and narratives that tell a meaningful story, conversation or message. I also like to use words figuratively to convey a message and poetry (and art) allows me to do this. Other times I like to be more direct in communicating a message or story to transport the listener to that place in my imagination and heart where they can instantly resonate with the words and lyrics. I like to write songs that are relatable to the listener, lyrics that speak to personal experiences and to the times. Whenever I have something to say and share, writing songs and poetry serve as an effective portal in which to channel through.

Where songwriting is concerned, I tend to draw a lot of influence from the likes of Joni Mitchell, Jeff Buckley, Stevie Wonder, Leonard Cohen, John Lennon, Paul Simon, Joan Armatrading, Michael Jackson, Cree Summer, Gil Scott-Heron, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Carole King, Roberta Flack, Jill Scott, Jim Morrison, Billie Joel, Carly Simon, James Taylor, Cat Stevens, Laura Nyro, Odetta, Donny and Lalah Hathaway, Bob Marley amongst others.

Would you agree that reading and writing poetry can improve a person’s song writing?

Absolutely. I’d like to think that reading and writing poetry is somewhat interconnected to writing songs, at least that is how I view it. On a literacy level it is definitely efficient in that it fuels the imagination and perhaps broadens the scope of vocabulary and language.

'It is important to be daring and to consciously seek ways to challenge yourself.'

Your 2020 album Trying Times features top US players including guitarist Russell Malone and Benito Gonzalez. What would you say are the key differences between the US and UK jazz scenes and how does that translate into the music?

Well, the first key difference that I should mention is that fact that America is the home of jazz, therefore the jazz scene in my opinion comes across as more authentic, homegrown, audacious, daring and vibrant. I also feel that they are a step ahead of the game with the blending of different cultures and idioms and that’s what enables it to be of great quality as a melting pot and cultural hub, sonically and performatively.

I also think the gender disparity between male and female players is gradually levelling out, but there is still a way to go and the same goes for the UK. The UK jazz scene is somewhat innovative in the sense where new sounds and current trends are often being (fearlessly) fused with the original artform, which makes it current and appealing to new audiences.

I think the UK scene is indeed thriving with its current new wave of players and sounds and this will perhaps enable jazz to appeal and communicate to much younger generation of audiences and subsequently allow jazz to evolve from a UK standpoint. Duke Ellington puts it perfectly as he once described jazz as a ‘tree with many branches that reach out to many directions, that stem and branch out to far and distant lands like the Far East where it picks up an exotic blossom and at the end of each twig there are many different shaped leaves and many varied coloured flowers.’ I think that I would ascribe that to the jazz scene over here in the UK and elsewhere, as branches with twigs of many different shaped leaves and coloured blossoms that translates into distinctive and unique sounds, nuanced interpretations, rhythms and styles pertaining to the jazz art form by way of its original influence. It is important to be daring and to consciously seek ways to challenge yourself.

'I think we need to raise our standards in supporting and celebrating the lesser seen and heard and it’s a joint effort.'

Recordings led by women formed only one-fifth of the top 50 albums NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll over 2017 to 2019. Do you still notice the gender disparity within the genre? Do you think that things are improving?

Certainly. I think we have only just managed to scratch the surface, but it’s a start. It is good to know that the ball has started rolling albeit slowly. I think we need to raise our standards in supporting and celebrating the lesser seen and heard and it’s a joint effort. Women in jazz need to be genuine in their supportive efforts towards each other and in this way this collective force can perhaps help generate more visibility for women within the genre as well. With that said, we ought to continue to be as mindful as possible about all of these very important disparities: equity, diversity and inclusion – as there is still a long way to go with so much that still needs to be changed.

How has a lack of live music impacted you over the past 18 months? Have you discovered any unexpected career opportunities in its absence?

It goes without saying that the lack of live music over the past year or so has impacted most of us artists and musicians quite drastically, as it is my main outlet and source of income, however the lockdown unearthed many different career opportunities and new ways of delivering music to unlimited audiences by way of social media and livestreaming. I was honoured with the opportunity to deliver an exclusive performance as part of the Royal Albert Home sessions and my debut performance for the Brecon Jazz Festival online was recorded remotely between London and Granada, Spain with Juan Gallardo’s trio. Both virtual events were quite historical in that they were the very first of their kind for the aforementioned organisations. It brings to mind a quote by Sun-Tzu, A Arte da Guerra, ‘In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.’ Words of wisdom indeed.

In addition, things really did take an unexpected turn with Concord so I have spent most of these past 18 months teaching (at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama) running virtual and in-person voice and singing workshops and sessions, as well as promoting and investing into my self-released and self-funded debut album, which went on to win an award for Best International Jazz Collaboration. I worked very hard to make it happen and financially funded it independently. So, in an unexpected way, I used the time to my advantage and turned all of these unexpected events into DIY career opportunities during the peak of the pandemic, which I am mighty glad I took.

What’s next for Deelee Dubé?

I’m super excited to be returning to the Royal Albert Hall for Late Night Jazz in the Elgar Room this autumn on the 28 October 2021 and Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club (upstairs) on the 23 November 2021. I’m currently working on new ideas and material towards my next upcoming album, as well as an impending possible UK and European tour in 2022/23 to support the physical release of my award-winning debut album, Trying Times.

Thank you once again for having me. Peace & Love.