Credit: Jim Newberry

Dee Alexander is a versatile jazz singer who leads her own straight-ahead quartet as well as the more exploratory Evolution Ensemble. She recently received a prestigious 3Arts Award. Peter Margasak

The story about how I got started starts with my mother. She would play her albums on Saturday and Sunday mornings—Eddie Jefferson, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane. I remember just laying there and listening while she ironed and singing along.

I was very influenced by the Supremes and James Brown and Donna Summer and Minnie Riperton. I did join a couple of bands, but I wasn’t fulfilled singing R&B. It wasn’t until I started singing jazz that I felt really at home. There was a freedom in jazz and all of the different chances you could take.

A good friend of mine, Theophilus Reed, took me to a place on 14th and Michigan called the Progressive Art Center. It was a big loft and when I walked in there were all of these really cool people; it was an avant-garde scene. I sat down and Rita Warford and Iqua Colson were performing and I was just enthralled by how bold they were, their big jewelry, their colorful dresses, their hair just all over their head, and what they were singing. I didn’t quite get it at the time but they were making all of these different sounds and I was mesmerized.

In the 80s, I went to one of Von Freeman‘s fests. I was there to watch but someone invited me up to sing and so I got up and sang. And then Jimmy Ellis gave me his card and he simply said, “Hey baby, I gotta gig for you.”

He invited me down to the Moosehead Lounge on Harrison. I worked there for about three months and I was kind of like just hanging out around the city going to jam sessions. I was probably about six or seven months pregnant and Ken Chaney called me and asked me if I would come down because the singer working with him wasn’t able to make it that night. So I go down here in this white dress and I’m big as a house. Periodically, after my son became a little older, I would go down and sit in, and then Ken called me and I worked with him on and off for about ten years. He really opened me up to improvisation and being uninhibited and just being open creatively.

It was an education working with “Light” Henry Huff, too. We got together and we started rehearsing, and he formed the group Breath with Yosef Ben Israel and Avreeayl Ra, and he wrote all of this wonderful music.

With Ken I learned the dos and the don’ts. There was a lot of stuff going on in the clubs, if you know what I mean, and I wasn’t involved in any of that. My mother was always concerned about me, I guess because she came up with Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington and she was just so concerned about the drug thing or alcohol—and half the time I was sitting in the club sipping coffee just trying to stay awake. Everybody else was tripping over themselves and I’m stone sober.

I was working like a dog, I tell you. Ken was working a lot and sometimes we would work a five-nighter—I’d work Tuesday through Saturday and I’d get up and go to my day job. I have been working the same job through all of this. I work at the University of Illinois at the Office of Research Services. I prepare the paperwork for four campuses for grants and contracts. I’ve been there for 22 years.

I worked with Ken for about ten years and then I just felt like it was time for me to move on and start my own thing. I went back to R&B but it wasn’t really fulfilling. It paid the bills fairly well but every weekend you’re doing the same song.

Then, as fate would have it, I went to visit [Light] and he was on oxygen and thin as a rail. I sat down next to him and he looked me in my eyes and said, “I want you to take care of my music for me.”

So with the help of his family I gathered most of his music. And then all these great things started happening for me. At first I attempted to bring Israel and Avreeayl and possibly Douglas Ewart together to kind of re-form Breath, but it just didn’t work. I think it was just Light’s way of saying something, because he was always striving for different approaches to his music. I knew that he had an affinity for strings, so I put together the Evolution Ensemble with Rashida Black on harp and Tomeka [Reid] on cello and James [Sanders] on violin, with Ernie Adams on percussion. We took a lot of his music and rehearsed it and reshaped it and re-created it and it was absolutely mind-blowing the way the music touched the audience and the way we were touched by the music as well.

We did a performance at the Orvieto Jazz Festival in January 2011. We had been working on this Jimi Hendrix tribute and they wanted an encore and so we did Jimi Hendrix for the encore and they went insane. After the performance the promoter came up to us and gave us a proposition to do the tribute at the Umbria festival at the big arena. We’re going back again this December to release a CD that we recorded last summer in Italy on Egea Records.

The promoter for Umbria was at the Newport Jazz Festival last summer and my name came up and all of a sudden I’m getting an e-mail inviting me to do the Newport Jazz Festival next year. I attribute that to hard work and staying on the path and remaining true to myself. Light’s really pulling strings for me on the other side. I’m always keeping his music alive and keeping him alive.

Roger Sosner, the seller

Index: 2012 People Issue

Zain Curtis, aka Teen Witch, the DJ