Dee Alexander’s Careers on Campus, Onstage
[Writer, Alex Rauch] This is a UIC News Podcast for the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Today we’ll be talking with Dee Alexander the internationally acclaimed jazz vocalist and UIC employee.
Thank you, Dee, for taking time to meeting with UIC News.
[Dee Alexander] Thank you, thank you for asking me.
AR: Since we were just listening to Sun Ra, I’m curious how Sun Ra has influenced you as an artist.
DA: “Space is the Place.” I went to see Sun Ra at the Blackstone Hotel. I was amazed by the musicality of it all, the boldness of it all, the beauty of it all, and how it touched me. At first I didn’t quite know how to digest it, since it was new to me at that time. But as the concert progressed, there were so many feelings that I had. I was uplifted. Hilarious things were going on. There were amazing things that were going on. He had these dancers. They were moving like spitballs of fire across the room. It was so stimulating to me visually, audio. It was very tasty, if you will. So I try to incorporate that and make my own cake, if you will because everybody’s cake is different. Sun Ra’s cake was like really a big cake, so I have my little cake over here and I’m just building, trying to create a layer on top of another, so that maybe one day I will have a big cake like Sun Ra’s.
AR: How many layers of that cake would you say are imitating musical instruments?
DA: Oh, several. It’s really interesting that you would bring that up. But you know, I’m such an advocate for listening, so I’m always listening to everything. I listen to the timber, like of your voice even. I’m always listening to what’s going on outside when I’m out. You know, the sound of the train, the click-clack of someone’s heals. So, since I work with such phenomenal musicians, I’m always tuning in and listening to the way, say, Ed Wilkerson plays his tenor, or the way Mwata Bowden plays his clarinet, or the way Douglas Ewart plays his sopranino. The beautiful thing about an instrument is that you can take one instrument and give it to five different people and it will have five totally different sounds. Sound itself is just such a wonderful thing. I definitely don’t take it for granted. So I’m always searching for a different sound.
AR: You’ve contributed to a couple of R. Kelly tracks?
DA: Oh yeah, I was fortunate enough to be a part of group of great singers singing on a couple of the R. Kelly tracks — “U Saved Me.” I sang on maybe three or four of his tracks, “The World’s Greatest,” the Mohammad Ali theme from the movie, but mostly the inspirational type of songs I sang. None of the booty songs (laughter)
AR: Did you meet him in the studio at all?
DA: Yeah, yeah, he’d be there, absolutely. I’ve known Robert for a while because I remember he and I both used to would work at the Cotton Club and he would work the happy hour from 5 to 7, playing the piano and singing. I would come in and work with another group from 9 until 1. We used to sit at the bar and we used to talk all the time.
AR: As a sustainable artist that has a working life and a performing life, what advice do you have for UIC musicians?
DA: Stick to your guns. Practice and work as often as you can, you know, at clubs, honing your craft, drink plenty of water and get plenty of rest because you have to rest your body; it’s your instrument. And, laugh a lot. You know, which is what I do. Everybody will tell you that I’m always laughing. And just be true to yourself, just be true to what you want to do, to thine own self be true, and you’ll go very far with that.
AR: In the last four years, have you felt your voice develop further?
DA: Yeah, my voice is definitely changing. You know, if you listen to any of the great singers — Ella, Dinah, Sarah — I’ll use Sarah as an example. Sarah’s voice when she was a younger woman was more high pitched and the more older you get, you know, you add a little more seasoning. The seasoning comes in and it rounds itself out — it’s like a warm bath. I love the contralto because they’re such soothing — I like the soothingness of a rich warm voice. And my voice is definitely warm now.
AR: Where do you think jazz will go in the next couple years?
DA: Jazz is here to stay. As long as there are young and great musicians and vocalists coming up and it’s kind of changing a little bit, but you always come back to the front. As far as I’m concerned, it’s not going anywhere. It’s here to stay.
AR: Dee, thank you for your time.
DA: Aw, thank you, Alex.
AR: This has been Alex Rauch for UIC News for the University of Illinois at Chicago.