Diane Reeves shares her success story with jazz students Peter Roberts and Jillian Willis during a master class at Howard University on April 17, 2018. (Roy Lewis/The Washington Informer)
Diane Reeves shares her success story with jazz students Peter Roberts and Jillian Willis during a master class at Howard University on April 17, 2018. (Roy Lewis/The Washington Informer)

A master class led Tuesday by famed jazz vocalist Dianne Reeves allowed two select Howard University students to experiment with different ways to interpret a song.

Peter Roberts and Jillian Willis, both graduating seniors from Cleveland majoring in jazz studies, got the opportunity to work with the 2018 NEA Jazz Master in front of a small audience of classmates and D.C. jazz lovers at the university’s Childers Recital Hall.

Before coaching her two students, Reeves explained how they should view their voices.

“With singing, you have to realize you use your instrument every day of your life,” she said. “You don’t get to put your instrument away. Your voice must always stay supported. You can’t be lazy with your voice, because that will affect everything you do.”

Reeves then listened to individual performances by Roberts and Willis, offering tips such as how to communicate with the pianist on desired pace, slowing down to ensure the audience receives the intended message and taking improvisation seriously.

Roberts performed “Fly Me to the Moon” by composer Bart Howard, while Willis sang Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady.” The tutorial included many stop-and-start moments to focus on the lyrics and for Roberts and Willis to try different interpretations.

The audience showed the eager students their approval by finger snapping, head nodding and the occasional “Yeah, that’s it.”

Roberts, who also plays piano and bass, reflected on what he learned from Reeves.

“I learned the art of storytelling, one of the main things I struggle with,” he said. “I want to try to do it in in a way where I can still connect with the audience and take my time.”

Willis said the experience enabled her to be freer musically.

“I don’t really allow myself to sink into the moment,” she said. “I’m always thinking about the next thing.”

Roberts and Willis both work at an after-school program. After graduation next month, they will continue working at Howard while networking and pursing jazz gigs.

Pianist Peter Martin, who accompanied Reeves, Roberts and Willis during the class, also contributed knowledge and words of wisdom.

“I like to offer encouragement and advice from the pianist and band standpoint,” Martin said. “I like to give technical tips like how you feel the tempo. Hopefully, I empowered them to have fun with and be a part of this great music we call jazz.”

Brenda Siler is an award-winning journalist and public relations strategist. Her communications career began in college as an advertising copywriter, a news reporter, public affairs producer/host and a...

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