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Giant Steps: Dinah Washington

Tuesday, 07 February 2017 12:07

Just last week I got into a discussion with some friends about the R&B artist Lauryn Hill. Once famous for her incredibly soulful voice and heartrending more often in the spotlight for erratic behaviour - sadly, the state of her mental health as much a topic as her next recording.

In her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God the great Harlem renaissance writer, anthropologist and activist Zora Neale Hurston, called black women the ‘mules of the earth’. Tireless in their service - often oblivious to their own suffering and always hungry to maintain their own sense of self -  from the domestics cooking cleaning tending children to those who brought the glamour, joy, musical chops and sex appeal to the stage, the desire to be everything to everyone was all consuming. 

But at what cost? Dinah Washington took the stage early. She was only 15 when her career began. She shone brighter than most from the very beginning. She was tapped by Lionel Hampton in 1942. HE was bowled over by her bell like voice with a touch of grit...stints with Cannonball Adderley, Clarke Terry and a longtime collaboration with Joe Zawinul cemented her career...

But her success as a jazz singer came with personal battles. She struggled with an eating disorder, substance abuse, she was married seven times. She died tragically at age 39 but in her short life she gave us all she had. For Dinah Washington, the struggle was real and played out on stage for all to see. But the hope is that it is what we heard that endures, a signature voice, a voice as one critic put that was ‘made of life.’ 

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