Ending on a High Note

By Lorraine Ryan, Burlington Writers Workshop


The Burlington Jazz Festival ended in a reverberating WOW with Diane Schuur’s spot-on vocals and the amazing, toe tapping, finger snapping music of The Legendary Count Basie Orchestra.

Jazz is music with an attitude and if it were personified, it would be Robert DeNiro. “You talking to me?” It knows all about the boundaries but jazz goes beyond the confines and often won’t stay neatly between the lines. And last night’s two entertainers were all about exceeding and excelling past any musical boundaries.

Led by the remarkable Scotty Barnhart, the Count Basie Orchestra entertained us first and immediately transported us to the sound of the Big Band era. It had been the music of my mother’s time when she’d wear her Sunday finest to dance and listen to the exhilarating sounds of big bands that played in many hotel ballrooms in Boston. The music was intoxicating and optimistic, exactly what was needed to lift the spirts of the depression weary and help set a cadence to the upcoming war.

Their music goes light years away from being described as instrumental. In fact, a few songs into their set I began to hear more conversation than notes and I inexplicably thought of Jerry Lewis. This made sense to me later when the orchestra played “Blues In Hoss Flat” and Barnhart mentioned that Basie fan Jerry Lewis brilliantly pantomimed this song in his movie “The Errand Boy,” recorded by the Count Basie Orchestra. (Even if you’re not a Lewis fan, this is worth watching.

Were we talking about attitude? Walking onstage with the aid of her assistant, Diane –attitude with a huge smile–waved enthusiastically at the audience, pausing to bend down and touch the stage with her fingertips. Whether this is one of those stage superstitions or a simple stretching exercise wasn’t explained, but no matter. A mutual attraction between audience and singer was established immediately.

Comfortably seated in a wooden chair, Ms. Schuur, or Deedles as she likes to be called, crooned an improvised number, “Da doo dee dum…This morning I had Vermont maple syrup on my French toast….” The crowd cheered because we love our maple syrup as much as our music.

She dedicated the first song to the victims of the tragic terrorist attack in Orlando, hoping to “hail them on their way to their guardian angels.”

I knew about her perfect pitch and incredible vocal range and listened to some of her songs on YouTube, but hearing her sing live onstage is a completely different experience. She flawlessly executed rich, bluesy low sounds that reached to the depths of her feet or ascended via jazzy chromatically based melodies to a note higher than you would believe possible for a human to sing.

Perhaps because Diane has been singing in front of people for most of her life, she is noticeably comfortable onstage and loves to joke with the audience (her laugh is infectious and long).

She ended the night with an upbeat version of Aretha Franklin’s “Climbing Higher Mountains.”

“I’m climbing higher mountains…trying to get home,” she sang. “My road’s been a little rock on my way home.”

Beginning life sightless was an uphill battle. Finding her way to the top in the music industry full of competition and an easy admittance to an alcohol and drug culture proved a rocky road, especially for someone who fought an eating disorder and alcoholism in early adulthood.

But between soulful and jazzy numbers exquisitely executed, she proudly announced she’d been sober for 26-1/2 years. The road has indeed been a rocky one, but judging by her smile, music and stories, her life and her music have landed on a high note.