Lois Deloatch is more than a jazz singer. Her fluid interpretation of a vocalist's role transcends being only a medium for the music. She often becomes a caretaker of the music's history, an advocate of its redemptive power.
Her latest album, Hymn to Freedom: Homage to Oscar Peterson, strikes flint on both notes, as she not only pays tribute to a jazz great but also shares her reinterpretation of jazz standards in hopes that they will attract new listeners to an old art form. Fittingly, she's ventured through jazz and the blues, and she started from the same line of singers who got their beginnings standing on the stage behind an altar, not an auditorium.
"Like many African-American singers, I developed my voice and gained experience by leading solos in church choirs," says Deloatch. As an undergraduate at UNC-Chapel Hill, she sang with the Black Student Movement Gospel Choir. She recently contributed to a compilation of traditional Negro spirituals. "Although I'd been exposed to all types of music throughout my life, it was during my college days that I began to expand my appreciation for jazz, particularly classic and straight-ahead jazz."
It's of little surprise, then, that pianist Oscar Peterson—a Montreal native who established a standard in mainstream jazz that remains untarnished today—is the subject of Deloatch's latest record. The Montreal native cooked on piano, in a resplendent and gracefully restrained style; Duke Ellington called him the "Maharajah of the keyboard." His own trios are still seen as some of the most remarkable ever in jazz.
Ed Thigpen, who played drums in one of Peterson's trios, performs on Hymn to Freedom. Deloatch reached him through a mutual friend, and he was eager to join the project.
"With few exceptions, I've found most jazz musicians—young and old—to be very humble, loving and giving people," Deloatch says. "Ed understood and appreciated my desire to pay tribute to Oscar's music, so he and [her friend] Donald Meade provided the motivation and guidance."
Hymn was recorded in two days in 2006, a year before Peterson's death in December 2007. Deloatch's resounding contralto voice caresses a song in gentle strokes. She can dip low or belt out a mountain-high declaration. Backed on Hymn mostly by Thigpen, bassist John Brown, guitarist Scott Sawyer and Chicago pianist Willie Pickens, Deloatch's voice nestles into a rhythmic lattice, swinging just enough to cradle the songs' emotional heft.
Alongside the group's solid takes on standards like the bluesy "Down by the Riverside" and the classic finesse of Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust," Deloatch penned lyrics for two Peterson numbers, bringing Peterson's pieces forward in time, singing a call for grace very familiar today: "In these troubled times/ When lands are torn to pieces/ And sorrows flow and no one knows/ What tomorrow may bring," she sings on the title track. "Bless the tie that binds all humanity/ To take a stand and today demand/ That all God's children are free."
With its rich musicianship, Peterson's music works for Deloatch on several levels. It has since she first heard it at UNC. "The combination of force and control were magnificent," she says. "It was adventurous and virtuosic, but the groove and swing was familiar and comfortable." It reminded her of the church music she loved. The tunes Peterson performed with bassist Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen remain her favorites, especially on the Night Train album. "The trio always sounded like they were having so much fun."
Peterson's work acts as an entry point for jazz newcomers, a point not lost on Deloatch. As jazz continues to become a marginalized market, community radio and university programs depend on individuals to educate others about the genre. Deloatch's music works in this way, though she also has more direct roles as a jazz educator. She and her husband, Ed, are volunteer DJs at WNCU 90.7 FM, N.C. Central University's radio station, where they host Sunday Evening Classics, a weekly jazz show.
"We don't realize how fortunate we are to live in an area where you can hear jazz 24 hours a day," she says, commending WSHA 88.9 FM, Shaw University's station, and WNCU. The current director of Duke University's jazz program, John Brown, plays bass on Hymn. Like her, he's known as much for his own performance as his dedication to music education through ensemble coaching, academic roles at UNC and N.C. State, and the Triangle Youth Jazz Ensemble for high school students.
"The jazz studies programs at area universities such as NCCU, Duke, UNC and Shaw, and those at the middle and high schools, are key to the Triangle's jazz scene," says Deloatch, who has also held a position as a fundraiser at Duke for the last 15 years. "In addition to bringing in world-class jazz artists, the university programs provide students and the public opportunities to participate in and learn about jazz."
Though Deloatch doesn't work full-time in music, her career allows her to pursue it passionately as both a performer and an educator. After all, at work or at home, the music never leaves her, she says: "For me, singing is very personal, so it's difficult to separate from my personal life."
Musicians performing their music and those attempting to teach others about music operate too often through different channels: For Deloatch, the two endeavors are inextricably connected. She's the performing teacher and the teaching performer. Either way, she's much more than a jazz singer.
Lois Deloatch celebrates the release of Hymn to Freedom at Hayti Heritage Center Friday, Aug. 22, starting at 8 p.m. Proceeds will benefit St. Joseph's Historic Foundation and the Hayti Center. Tickets are $15, $10 for students and senior citizens.