As a young girl growing up outside of Seattle, the musically precocious Diane Schuur loved to listen to Dinah Washington, a singer who earned the sobriquet Queen of the Blues for her evocative and often emotionally wrenching vocal renditions. And in many ways, Schuur’s life would play out for a while like one of those blues songs. Born six weeks premature, she lost her sight in infancy when the oxygen treatment she needed damaged her retinas. At two, she barely held on to life through a severe bout of pneumonia. And as a young adult, she struggled with alcoholism and an eating disorder, conditions that left her so depleted that she contemplated suicide.
But if life is a long road, then the decorated jazz singer has come out “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” as the tune goes. A friendly and spirited woman, Schuur long ago vanquished her personal demons. Clean and sober for almost two decades, these days she has health, happiness, a vibrant career and a great love in her life. She’s been happily married to her soulmate, fellow jazz lover Les Crockett, for 10 years now, and during a leisurely day with ABILITY Magazine’s editor-in-chief Chet Cooper and managing health editor Dr. Gillian Friedman at the couple’s home in Dana Point, California, the two tenderly dote on each other.
Schuur also performs and tours on a constant basis—to the tune of about 200 shows a year. Despite the perpetual jet lag, it’s a routine the spunky redhead relishes. A talented pianist as well as vocalist, she plays all over the world, with a concert schedule that takes her everywhere from Boston, Miami and Iowa to Spain, Switzerland and Poland.
“I still enjoy the traveling—it’s a lot of fun,” says the 52-year-old performer, who has twice received the Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocalist. “I just love to do jazz,” she adds. “I love to work.”
And she began working very early. Schuur started singing when she was a tot of two-and-a-half, and by age nine was getting professional gigs. She recalls that as a small child she would often retreat to the closet to be alone with herself and sing. “If there was nothing rhythmically going on around me,” she says, “then I would do it for myself. I would just rock back and forth, doing the two and four.”
She developed an independent spirit quickly and by age four was living away from home, attending the state school for the blind in Vancouver, Washington, where she would study until age 11, a couple hours from home.
“When I did gigs at home,” she explains, “I would go Friday night on the train from Vancouver to Tacoma, where my family lived. My folks would pick me up, I would do a gig Friday night and Saturday night, and then I would go back to the school on Sunday.”
Traveling so often by herself at such an early age, Schuur quickly learned to be self-sufficient—and to bear a lot of responsibility. Because she was getting paying gigs, even as an adolescent she became a bread-winner in a family struggling hard to make ends meet. Her father was a police officer and worked two part-time jobs as well, and her mother—who died of cancer at 31—also worked part-time in addition to taking care of Schuur and her two siblings. But the singer says that despite their other responsibilities, her parents always did everything they could to encourage her musical ambition. A favorite aunt was also particularly helpful, driving her to many of her local shows.
Along with Dinah Washington, the young vocalist found herself listening to Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Patty Page and Tony Bennett, among others. “I followed all sorts of people who were popular within that period of time,” she says. “I just absorbed as much music as I could.”
Schuur made her first splash on the jazz scene when she performed at the 1975 Monterey Jazz Festival. Catching her act there, legendary saxophonist Stan Getz became her biggest advocate—and mentor—and Schuur has been a jazz luminary ever since. For the ensuing three decades she has been winning fans over with her stylistic versatility and her powerful vocal range, which spans three-and-a-half octaves.
She adds that George Shearing, Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles—all blind as well—have also been huge inspirations to her. In fact, one of her fondest memories is of performing with Charles in a 1998 concert for PBS.
Running the gamut in her public television appearances, Schuur also took the opportunity to charm a new generation of young fans when she teamed up with a fellow redhead—Elmo—for a 1996 duet on the classic children’s series Sesame Street.
The vocalist’s latest CD is Diane Schuur: Live in London, recorded at the venerable Ronnie Scott’s, a London club long regarded as one of the top jazz venues in the world. Her 20th album release, it tops a career that started with her 1984 major-label debut (on GRP Records) and has included such popular CDs along the way as Timeless (1986), Diane Schuur and the Count Basie Orchestra (1987), Love Songs (1993), Midnight (2003, produced by Barry Manilow) and Schuur Fire (2005).
And she’s not losing any steam. Live in London, on which she plays piano and is backed by a three-piece band, has drawn strong praise. Reviewing the CD for the Internet publication All About Jazz, critic Vincent Stephens writes, “Schuur’s clear tone, superb diction and pitch-perfect piano scats illuminate the material with aplomb. In many ways she represents exactly what is missing from a lot of contemporary jazz—she knows how to balance jazz technique and feeling with emotional accessibility.”
Dipping into diverse musical genres, Schuur has performed American songbook standards, Latin-flavored music, pop classics, bebop dance, blues ballads and Caribbean jazz. (In fact, it was on a Caribbean jazz cruise that she first met her husband—she was the featured performer on the ship and he was vacationing with the San Jose Jazz Society.)
This latest CD is a good example of her penchant for mixing together a variety of musical styles. The wideranging tunes on Live in London include pieces by Duke Ellington, James Taylor, Cole Porter, Stevie Wonder, Percy Mayfield and others. The album closes with Schuur’s signature song, an a cappella version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
And the accolades keep coming. In recognition of her consistent talent, this year the Disability Rights Legal Center (DRLC) has chosen to honor Schuur with its DREAM award (Disability Rights in Entertainment, Arts and Media). Eve Hill, executive director of the Los Angeles-based organization, explains, “We chose Ms. Schuur because she demonstrates that people with disabilities are not inherently limited by society’s expectations. People with disabilities can do whatever they dream of doing if they work at it.”
Hill notes that professional music is a tough business, and no one is given a free pass—you simply have to have the talent and the will to survive the competition. That—and only that—is why Schuur has thrived in her field, Hill concludes. “Ms. Schuur is a fantastic singer and pianist, and people buy her CDs and go to her shows not out of pity or charity because she’s blind, and not because she’s an inspiration, but because she’s really good. That’s what people with disabilities really want— to be as good as they can be at what they choose to do, and to be recognized for their abilities rather than their disabilities.”
The singer is being honored at a gala celebration billed as Hot Coffee and Cool Jazz, where DRLC is presenting its Corporate Award to Starbucks Coffee Company.
But spend even a short time with Schuur, and you’ll notice that her musical talent is not the only thing about her that shines. Her vibrant personality can be as refreshing as her vibrant vocals. She’s a down-to-earth sort—a performer, for example, who maintains a close friendship with the president of her fan club—as well as a candid person who’s always been comfortable talking about her personal struggles.
Not that she’s somber company. Far from it. She’s chatty, irreverent at times, bawdy on occasion and always happy to hear a joke.
In fact, her lifelong love of humor may have led the noted comedian Bob Newhart to become one of her earliest and most stalwart supporters. He became a huge fan after Schuur performed as the opening act on one of his shows—when she was 11.
Schuur is quick to poke fun of herself, and no topic is off limits—not even her blindness. She recalls a technology conference she attended in California State University-Northridge (CSUN) several years ago that presented—among other products—new technologies to help musicians who are blind. Schuur, Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder were all there. “Three blind mice,” she quips.
Schuur also has her own colorful way of talking, with rhyming nicknames for everything. Her friends know her not as Diane, but as Deedles. Her husband is Rocket Crocket, or sometimes just Rocket. The couple’s dog, Tootsie Roll, is alternately referred to as Toots, Tootser and Tootsie, and the singer even has a special moniker for her cell phone (Flipper) and her house (the Rocket Pad).
As expected, the Rocket Pad has two big Baldwin pianos in it, but it’s the computer room in the back of the house that Schuur is excited to show her visitors, eager to demonstrate some of the things she can do with her computers, machines and software.
Schuur grows as giddy as a teen-ager when she talks about the various technology products she owns. She’s very appreciative for the myriad of things she can do with them—things that make daily life better not only for a person who is blind, but for any touring artist who is traveling far away for long periods of time. Like the ability to download hundreds of books to her computer, surf the Web or read email with JAWS for Windows screen-reading software, or listen to a TV show on a computer in Europe at the same time it’s airing in her house in Orange County.
Computerized books, in particular, have added a whole new dimension to Schuur’s life. She uses Kurzweil 1000, a software product that allows people who are blind or low-visioned to access printed and electronic materials. The documents are converted to text and read aloud, using a variety of natural-sounding voices that can be modified to suit each listener’s preferences. (The inventor, Ray Kurzweil, is a pioneer in the fields of optical character recognition, text-to-speech synthesis and speech recognition technology.)
Downloadable books have also dramatically changed Schuur’s travel routine. Her husband points out how much bulk has been eliminated now that the couple no longer has to carry thick Braille books with them on tour. “We used to carry a big suitcase around full of those for her to read,” he says. “Now she reads books out of a computer.”
“How many titles do you have now, Deedles?” he asks his wife. “Almost a thousand,” she answers. “As an example, I just downloaded the Holy Bible the other day, the New International Version. It’s over 2,000 pages long, and I was able to download it onto my little computer—I still think that’s pretty cool.”
“We just keep buying more and more technology,” Crockett remarks with a smile.
Schuur also likes discussing her Slingbox (or, to use her vernacular, Slinger), a product from Sling Media that also provides a big assist for those long trips away from home. Using the Slingbox and an Internet-connected computer or mobile phone, Schuur can watch and control her home TV in Dana Point—which gets more than 200 channels, to her delight—from anywhere around the globe. (She knows it sounds odd for her to say she’s watching TV, but she notes, “That’s just using the language. I pretty much know what’s going on, and if I don’t I just ask. I mean, I know if they’re smooching!”)
Which brings us to the subject of soap operas. Schuur finds it particularly relaxing when she’s out of the country touring to be able to watch her favorite American daytime soap operas. She likes visiting Budapest, Hungary—but she likes it better if she still gets to watch “The Young and the Restless.” True pleasure.
If Schuur has any problems with her computer when she’s on the road, she can always ring up her computer technician, Dave Rigby, and work with him using Citrix Online’s software GoToMyPC. “Wherever I am, he can log in to my computer, as long as I’m at a high-speed connection, and we can work in tandem,” she explains. “So that’s pretty cool.”
For his part, Rigby says working through the software issues with Schuur is something he really enjoys, and something he’s learning from as well, because he has to think harder about how to map out computer answers for her. “I can see the screen and she can’t, so I have to think about and describe to her the changes I’m going to make before I actually do anything, so she can figure it out.”
He notes how impressed he’s been with Schuur’s delight and natural skill in using a wide range of technology. “She’s remarkable,” he says.
Schuur’s music fans have often echoed that sentiment. For her, performing in clubs and concert venues around the world is something she cherishes. When she performs, Schuur says, she always tries to give her audiences a fun and memorable experience, with lots of laughter and good vibes. A show—like life, after all—is about the road traveled, not about the destination. “I hope to take them on a really cool journey,” she says with a smile.
by Paul Sterman
Besides honoring Diane Schuur at this year’s Hot Coffee and Cool Jazz gala, the Disability Rights Legal Center is presenting Starbucks Coffee Company its Corporate Award, U.S. Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) its President’s Award, and the law firm of Quinn Emanuel its Co-Counsel of the Year Award.
For more information about Diane Schuur, visit www.dianeschuur.com www.myspace.com/dianeschuurlive
For more information about the Disability Rights Legal Center, visit www.disabilityrightslegalcenter.org
In 1953, born almost two months premature, Diane Schuur and her twin brother survived by the miracle of modern medicine. The growing advances in medical technology for neonatal care allowed the delivery of very high concentrations of oxygen to their tiny, undeveloped lungs. Unfortunately for Schuur, the oxygen also caused an eye condition called retinopathy of prematurity (ROP), which left her without vision. (Luckily, she notes, her brother’s vision was spared).
As it turns out, Schuur was part of an epidemic of ROP in the 1940s and early 1950s, a time when the condition was the leading cause of childhood blindness in the U.S. Shortly thereafter, scientists determined that reducing the oxygen supplementation for premature infants to the minimum effective level would reduce the incidence of ROP.
Today, ROP primarily affects infants who are born at 31 weeks gestation or earlier (full-term is 36 to 40 weeks) and who weigh less than 1,250 grams (about two-andthree-fourths pounds) at birth. According to the National Institutes of Health, of the 3.9 million infants born in the U.S. each year, about 28,000 weigh 1,250 grams or less, and about half of these infants will develop some degree of ROP. The smaller an infant is, the greater the risk, so as technology advances and more very premature infants are saved, the incidence of ROP is likely to climb even higher.
In about 90 percent of cases, ROP is mild and gradually improves, leaving little or no permanent damage. But other cases are more severe, and ROP causes blindness for an estimated 400 – 600 infants each year, making it still one of the most common causes of vision loss in childhood.
Prematurity is such a critical risk factor for ROP because the blood vessels in the retina (the visual center that lines the back of the eye) normally develop in utero in an environment of relatively low oxygen. During the second trimester, blood vessels begin forming in the center of the retina and move progressively outward toward the edges, and they don’t complete their development until about 38 weeks of gestation. When infants are born prematurely, they are suddenly exposed to higher concentrations of oxygen from the necessary incubators and ventilators. In these high-oxygen environments, the growth of the retinal blood vessels stops abruptly. In milder cases, normal vessel growth gradually resumes, but in more severe cases it doesn’t.
When blood vessel growth fails to resume normally, the oxygen-starved edges of the retina react by producing a chemical called vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) that causes abnormal blood vessels to grow and spread throughout the retina. These abnormal vessels are fragile, and when they break they cause fluid buildup and scarring that can ultimately pull the retina away from the eye wall (a process called retinal detachment, the mechanism by which ROP causes blindness).
Fortunately, these days technology for careful monitoring of oxygen levels is available to reduce the chance of ROP. Additionally, laser surgery (burning) or cryotherapy (freezing) can be used to remove the edges of the retina, stopping the release of VEGF and slowing or reversing the growth of abnormal vessels. These treatments destroy some peripheral vision, but they save the center of the retina responsible for the majority of sight.
In the most advanced stages of ROP, other surgical procedures can be used to ease the pressure against a retina that is detaching and help it lay back against the eye wall. A partially detached retina may still repair itself if further detachment is prevented. In cases of complete detachment, advanced surgery can sometimes reattach the retina if performed in a timely manner.
For all treatments, the amount of vision restored varies, from complete restoration of sight to no improvement in vision.
The most important prevention for ROP—as for a number of other serious health problems in infants—is good prenatal care, which reduces the chances of prematurity to begin with. But when infants are born premature, parents should also know to ask about eye exams and eye treatments.
by Gillian Friedman, MD
For more information about ROP, contact the following organizations:
American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus www.aapos.org
Association for Retinopathy of Prematurity and Related Diseases
National Eye Institute www.nei.nih.gov