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Denise Perrier, Bay Area blues and jazz

 vocalist who headlined around the world,

dies at 82

Sam Whiting, San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 23, 2021 10:18 pm

/

Denise Perrier was not long out of the Albany High School choir when the great

Louis Armstrong heard her sing at an NAACP benefit in San Francisco in 1959.

When the show ended, Armstrong invited Perrier and her act to join him for a

six-week run in Las Vegas.

Perrier was on her way to a career as a blues and jazz headliner that took her to

Australia, Japan, Latin America, Europe and Cuba, where she was heralded as the

second coming of Billie Holiday.

Perrier released just two studio albums in America, “I Wanna Be Loved” in 1996

and “East Meets West” in 2002. But she had great urgency to record a third, in

2021, because her heart and kidneys were failing

and she knew her time was short.

With saxophonist Howard Wiley as bandleader and producer, Perrier sang the

standards in three-hour sessions while her strength lasted. Halfway through the

project she was hospitalized for a week, but she made it back to finish her vocal

tracks in mid-October. By the end of that month she was in hospice at her home

of 40 years on Sutter Street in San Francisco.

Perrier would smile from her bed as Wiley played her the finished cuts. She

couldn’t speak or see, but she could still hear. She slipped into a coma after

hearing a playback of her rendition of “Body and Soul.” She died Dec. 8, said her

son, Eric Vann, of Pittsburg. She was 82. The cause of death was heart failure.

“Her singing was very honest. She did not use vocal gymnastics to try and

impress an audience,” said Tammy Hall, a pianist and musical director who

played with Perrier. “Her phrasing was impeccable, and she could always convey

the story of a song to her audience.”

Though Perrier spent up to eight months a year touring internationally, she was

also a headliner at all the great long gone San Francisco jazz joints — the

Blackhawk, Jimbo’s Bop City, and the Keystone Korner, where she headlined on closing night.

She recorded live albums at both Yoshi’s and Jazz at Pearl’s, and was known to

radio listeners as the longtime voice of KJAZ, providing the whispery sign-on,

“Ooh, yes, KJAZ.”

Perrier’s profile flourished overseas. Her picture hangs on the wall at her favorite

venue in Venice, and her death made national news in Havana, where she was

remembered as “Voz Con Corazon,” a translation of “Voice With a Heart,” a

description attributed to former San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle jazz critic

Phil Elwood.

Perrier played in Russia about 20 times. On one flight to Moscow, the captain

sent an attendant to invite her from coach to first class. She also made several

trips to Vietnam during the war, determined that “the Black soldiers would see a

Black performer,” said her manager and caregiver, Catherine Cusic.

While Perrier was in hospice, San Francisco Mayor London Breed decreed Nov. 1

as Denise Perrier Day in the city. On Nov. 12, Hall organized an 82nd birthday

concert at the Church of Jazz and Justice in Oakland. Perrier was too sick to

attend, but she watched on Zoom as 25 musicians paid tribute to her.

“In a day and age when every jazz singer sounds like someone else, Denise never

imitated anybody,” said Kim Nalley, jazz singer and owner of the now-closed Jazz

at Pearl’s. “Her sound was original.”

Perrier was born Betty Jean Perrier on Nov. 12, 1939, in Baton Rouge, La. Her

parents divorced when she was young, and her mother, Rosa Emmanuel,

remarried a soldier based in Alameda. This brought Betty Jean west, where she

attended Prescott School in Oakland. They moved to Albany, where she sang in

the school choir.

As soon as she got her high school diploma, she dumped the name Betty Jean,

“which she hated until the day she died,” her son said. While working as a nurse’s

assistant at Kaiser in Oakland, she started singing the blues with a vocal trio

called the Intervals at an Oakland nightclub called Slim’s.

Along the way she got a helping hand from her older stepbrother, Paul Jackson

Jr., an internationally known bassist in Herbie Hancock’s band. The Intervals

became well known enough to serve as a warm-up act for Armstrong and Nat

King Cole at the Fairmont Hotel. The Intervals went to Vegas to perform

regularly, and Perrier quit her job as a nursing assistant.

In Vegas she met Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington, and she was a

professional singer from that point on. In the early 1960s she was recruited as a

solo act to tour Australia, the Philippines, Hong Kong and Vietnam, and she left

the Intervals behind.

Around 1990, Nalley, then an 18 -year-old-singer, caught Perrier’s act at the

Galleria Park Hotel. “She descended down the steps while singing songs ... in a

sparkling beaded dress (with) a headdress and fur wrap,” recalled Nalley. At

intermission, Nalley introduced herself.

“She said, ‘Where are you singing, honey? Do you have a flyer?” Nalley did, and

during that break, Perrier, whom Nalley had never before met, handed out the

flyers to people in the audience.

“If you pass out a flyer at somebody else’s gig, you would have gotten your head

bitten off and maybe your eyes scratched out too,” said Nalley, who went to

headline most of the rooms where Perrier also played. They later sang duets as

an act called “Ladies Sing the Blues.”

In 1993, Nalley reopened the dormant Jazz at Pearl’s at Broadway and Columbus

streets in San Francisco. Perrier had a date there whenever she wanted it. Nalley

and Perrier performed in San Jose right before the COVID-19 lockdown. It was

Perrier’s last live show. She had been in and out of the hospital, but she was still

delivering her vocals with as much soul as ever.

“It it wasn’t for COVID, she would have performed right up until the very end.”

But there was still the final CD to record. Nalley wrote a song for it called “Denise,

Carmen, Lavay, and Me,” to include two other vocalists, Carmen Getit and Lavay

Smith. They were planning to record it in November,

a date that sadly never happened.

“Denise lived an amazing life,” Nalley said. “The last time I saw her she said, ‘I

might me old but I’m not cold. I’m going to live my life while I’m living.”

A memorial celebration is pending release of her legacy album, which has yet to

be titled. “If it weren’t for Frank Sinatra we’d call it ‘My Way,’” Cusic said.

“Because by God that’s how she died.”

The album’s release party will double as a memorial tribute to Perrier,

sometime in 2022.

Perrier was predeceased by her son Kevin Vann. She is survived by her husband,

John Choice of San Francisco, and son Eric Vann of Pittsburg,

and six grandchildren.

Sam Whiting is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.

Email: swhiting@sfchronicle.com Twitter:@samwhitingsf


Denise  Producing a Legacy CD

When Denise learned she had just a few more months to live, she decided to record a legacy CD. She enlisted saxophonist Howard Wiley to produce and gathered together some of the city’s finest musicians: Tammy Hall, George Cables, and Glen Pearson on piano, Ron Belcher and Marcus Shelby on bass, drummer Darrell Green, Howard Wallace on sax,
and harpist Abby Harp.

They recorded enough tracks for an album, selecting such iconic songs as “Body and Soul” and “‘Round Midnight.” Funding is needed to complete the project, say executive producers Catherine Cusic and Christine Harris.

If you would like to support Denise’s legacy CD, you can contribute in two ways: one, write a tax-deductible check in any amount to: "Plymouth United Church of Christ" Put "Denise Perrier Legacy CD" in the memo line. And mail to
The Jazz and Justice Church, 424 Monte Vista Avenue, Oakland, CA 94611

And the second is to contribute through GoFundMe:
https://www.gofundme.com/f/help-denise-perrier-create-a-legacy-cd

Though born in the cradle of jazz, New Orleans,  Denise is also a child of the
world; she has received messages of love from Russia, Japan, Cuba, Spain,
Mexico and many parts of the US. So she may sail/fly away home to New
Orleans, Havana, Africa- who knows? She did ask that at least some of her
 ashes be strewn in Havana, perhaps from the ferry to Regla…


READ OBIT IN JAZZ JOURNAL NY BRUCE CROWTHER. CLICK HERE


READ COMPREHENSIVE ARTICLE ON DENISE'S LIFE AND CAREER
BY ANDREW GILBERT. CLICK HERE

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Listen to the radio tribute "

click  HERE

       
   

               
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DENISE SINGS BESSIE SMITH


                                                                               
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