Deelee Dubé Finds a Sass of Her Own

Sarah Vaughan – “Sassy” to the jazz world – is known for her raw emotion, style, rich tones and magical alchemy. Scores of vocalists find her inspirational to the point of meticulously studying her music to develop their own style.

In October 2017, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center welcomes her devotees at their Sixth Annual Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition.

The 2016 winner hails from London. Deelee Dubé wowed a celebrity panel of jazz icons last November and landed a record deal with Concord Records. Her upcoming album with them comes out in early 2018.

When did you start getting interested in jazz?

I grew up listening to music on the radio and records from my mama’s eclectic and extensive vinyl collection. I loved dancing, writing stories, poetry and drawing, and was (and still am) an avid dreamer. Using my imagination has always been a favorite pastime.

I’ve always harbored a deep passion and inherent affinity for the great music that we call “jazz” and “jazz” influenced music ever since I can remember. I hadn’t really tapped into the idiom properly until I was in my early twenties, which was around the time when I also started listening to pioneers like Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Bessie Smith, Thelonius Monk, Frank Sinatra, Jon Hendricks, John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, Charlie Parker, Shirley Horn, Abbey Lincoln, Nancy Wilson, Ella Fitzgerald, Anita O’Day, Nina Simone, Dinah Washington, Oscar Peterson, Tom Jobim, Miles Davis, Bill Evans and more recent luminaries such as Dianne Reeves, Cassandra Wilson, Diana Krall, Diane Schuur, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Harry Connick Jr., and the list goes on.

At that point I was just exploring, and had just graduated from the BRIT School of Performing Arts, embarking on further studies in higher education in music.

I also happened to be working in a major record store which enabled me to explore all types of music, particularly jazz, classical and world music. It was at this point in my journey where I became inspired to discover my own true voice.

I didn’t just stumble across or become interested in what we call “Jazz.” I feel that “Jazz” had chosen me and it now flows through my veins and lives in my spirit.

Was Sarah Vaughan always one of the musicians you admired? 

Yes. Hers was the one of the very first voices which had made a deep and lasting impact, alongside Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald of course.

I also admired Carmen McRae for her great melodic phrasing, articulation and timing, as well as her great ability to tell a story through song.

What about the quality of her voice is so unique?

Everything! Sarah Vaughan’s voice quality and vocal range was truly and distinctively soulful and broad. From the richness of her vocal tone and her warm and balanced timbre to the texture and use of melodic phrasing are what make her unique. It’s also the profound soulfulness and depth, and her use of nuances, her way with interpreting, phrasing and shaping the melody of any given song.

Her instrument was flawless and she used it limitlessly; she is a pioneer who paved the way.

She had an amazing ear and technique which certainly demonstrated that she mastered her own craft.

Discuss your voice training.

I received some formal voice training while at the BRIT School and also prior. I was so determined and driven to learn about my instrument and other instruments, I had this burning drive and would go to any extreme to get to where I need to be in order to learn more, grow and develop as a vocalist, musician and performer.

Prior to the BRIT School, I attended classes at a local academy, where there was a wonderful network and community of musicians and creatives who provided evening sessions and classes for aspiring artists.

This served as a starting point towards the next step, and I also recall that it was around this time that I had met Chaka Khan while she was over here in London for her part in the musical “Mama I Want To Sing” at the Cambridge Theatre.

That night after the show, she offered some great advice and support in response to a question I had asked. I remember how kind, supportive and encouraging she was towards me which I’ll always be thankful for.

After the BRIT School I received formal classical training through the Estill Voice Training System which was a complete vocal revelation. And most recently I have attended some voice training sessions with some renowned jazz vocalists and teachers.

How did you hear about this competition?

Through social media.

What made you decide to enter?

The fact that the competition’s main focus was Sarah Vaughan and her legacy was what immediately appealed to me. I also felt the need to challenge myself. I decided that I wanted to set a goal.

Do you feel you have a special connection with her?

Yes. I relate to her on so many levels: as a woman of African descent to begin with, and also as a woman of jazz who had so much soul. On an artistic level, I aspire to reach the levels of her vocal prowess.

I feel that the connection is even stronger now that I have been honored with this wonderful victory.

What did your preparation consist of?

There is a saying “you are as good as your last performance”! I’d like to think that every performance I do serves preparation for the next, and in doing so I always aim for progress and improvement.

I guess I had been preparing much prior to the time of entering the competition without really knowing it, by working and performing as much as possible. This includes working with tenor saxophonist Renato D’Aiello (also my teacher/mentor) at Acoustic Jazz Lounge at Ronnie Scott’s Upstairs, where I currently hold a residency.

Which songs did you choose and why?

I chose certain songs which were specific to the competition’s criteria, consisting of an up-tempo, a mid-tempo (with a scat portion) and a ballad piece.

Estate– Written by Bruno Martino and Bruno Brighetti, because of its beautiful melody and harmonic chord progression. This song was originally written in Italian, and translates to “Summer” or “Odio l’estate” (“I Hate Summer”) but I am particularly drawn to the melodic phrasing and emotional sentiment the song conveys.

Cherokee– A Ray Noble classic, challenging to sing due to its wide intervals and melodic leaps, but that’s exactly why I chose it. I’m drawn to the lyrics and theme.

Darn That Dream– Written by Jimmy Van Heusen. A beautiful ballad which I was instantly drawn to merely because of its meaningful narrative and heart-rendering melody and lyrics. I love singing great jazz ballads.

What were you thinking that evening?

How wonderful and amazing it was to be present in that particular moment, and the importance of it all. I also thought that if I’m able to perform night after night at Ronnie Scott’s with no sweat, then the same can be achieved here and now. And how much of an accomplished personal challenge I had set for myself.

I had also thought about all I had been through as an artist, my journey so far, in order to reach that particular point that I was experiencing in my career.

It was almost like a series of flashback memories. I thought the moment I’m on that stage everything will take care of itself as long as I’m honest and sing with spirit, truth, heart and soul.

How did you feel when your name was announced as the winner?

Alive, overwhelmed and elated; but most of all blessed and honored and thankful to the amazing judges and wonderful audience, even more so knowing I was able to reach out with my voice and set an example as the first British victor of this competition. A milestone indeed.

What was the audience reaction?

I think they were just as elated as I was.

Compare your career before the contest and since winning?

This contest has elevated my confidence as an artist and propelled my career to higher levels.

I feel blessed and so thankful that it had happened. I’m now experiencing the transition from being a relatively unknown artist to receiving widespread recognition, respect and acknowledgement as an artist, and it’s a wonderful and rewarding experience.

Did winning open doors for you?

Yes. I am now experiencing more open doors and windows, and most importantly, recognition and credibility for what I have always worked so hard for.

I recently had the most wonderful experience performing with my band at the Montreal International Jazz Festival. The appreciation for jazz and music in general is phenomenal. As well as gaining more widespread recognition as an artist, I am receiving great feedback and offers for prospective projects and performance bookings, which is what most artists work so hard for.

Winning this great competition has propelled my career into the stratosphere and it’s a wonderful feeling.

Do you have any CDs?   

My upcoming album under the Concord label is currently going through completion, and due for release in the early quarter of 2018.

Do you write your own material?

Yes, I have always written original material, and it’s something I invest a lot of time and energy into.

I love writing songs, stories and poetry, which often reflect on life events and experiences as well as matters of the heart. Sometimes I’m also driven to draw upon life from a social context too.

Do you tour?

Yes, I tour quite often with my band. In fact, we just returned from a mini US tour which was an exhilarating experience. We also tour Europe often, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and we’ll be doing more of that in the future.


Current projects?

At the moment, I’m completing my first album project under the Concord label as well as embarking on other ventures and collaboration projects with some great musicians and possibly an orchestra too.

I’m also writing new material for the coming new projects.

What kind of accompaniment do you most enjoy?

I enjoy most types of musical accompaniment, but I suppose I’m quite partial to guitar and piano for its raw, acoustic beauty.

What would you want people to know about you that might surprise them?

I am also an artist who loves portraiture, painting and sketching still life objects as well as landscape drawings. I don’t eat meat, and I’m a twin.

Other comments?

Thank you! 🙂

For more information, visit and

Photo courtesy of and with permission of the artist.

(c) Debbie Burke 2017


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