Joyce Grant Embraces Family History


The independent label Blujazz has released vocalist Joyce Grant’s latest album, Surrounded By Blue.

(Photo: Courtesy Blujazz)

For 22 years, vocalist Joyce Grant had a nearly uninterrupted weekly engagement at Zingari Ristorante, located in San Francisco’s Club Donatello hotel. Then the global landscape shifted, due to the twin upheavals of the coronavirus pandemic and the public protests over the killing of George Floyd on May 25.

“This hatred has always been there—it’s been going on my whole lifetime,” Grant said, referring to racist attacks on African Americans. “You would think in 2020 that we would have gotten passed this,” she continued, via phone from her home in Vallejo, California. “But, nope.”

Four months prior to that interview, Grant and her pianist/music director Doug McKeehan were onstage at Zingari, entertaining a steady flow of regulars and tourists with an ease cultivated during more than two decades together on the bandstand.

Music has always been a part of Grant’s family life. She is the paternal great-great grandniece of Scott Joplin (c. 1868–1917), her sister was a music major and her cousin worked as a music teacher. Even today, Grant’s mother occasionally comes out to sing guest duets. Gifted with a flexible mezzo-soprano range, Grant’s vocal style lives up to the tagline of her 2010 album, In The Morning: “a little jazz, r&b and a little bit of me.”

Following the first of three sets of standards, pop hits and originals—including the melancholy title track to her new album, Surrounded By Blue (Blujazz)—Grant and McKeehan sat down to discuss the disc.

“I’ve worked with Joyce for a long time, and I had some songs that were in the back in my head that I always wanted to hear her sing,” McKeehan said.

Regarding a dramatic rendition of The Beatles’ “Help,” McKeehan said, “I wanted to arrange that as a slow, gospel kind of song, like Aretha [Franklin] might have done it. I also had a couple of my originals I could hear her singing.” From a version of “(Back Home Again In) Indiana” that incorporates modern vocal processing to an unexpectedly breezy reading of “Tenderly,” Grant and McKeehan offer fresh interpretations of familiar favorites.

Growing up in the East Bay, Grant first sang in church. But it was a pair of Hollywood movies that sparked the idea of seriously pursuing performance as a career. Grant recalled that seeing Diana Ross portray Billie Holiday in the 1972 biopic Lady Sings the Blues made her say to herself, “This is what I want do.”

The soundtrack to the 1973 film The Sting, which featured Marvin Hamlisch’s versions of Scott Joplin compositions, was also key to Grant’s aspirations: “My father would tell us about Scott Joplin from the time we were very, very young. I’d just go, ‘OK. That’s nice. Whatever.’ Then that movie, The Sting, came out, and that’s when it clicked.” DB

This story originally was published in the September 2020 issue of DownBeat. Subscribe here.

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