Diane Schuur: Jazz Great with Tacoma Roots

–by Julia Castanier

Before American contemporary jazz artist Diane Schuur was known for her versatility in musical style and a powerful, perfectly pitched three-and-a-half octave vocal range, she was an ambitious girl from Tacoma. Born in the “City of Destiny” in 1953, the odds were stacked against her from day one. Schuur arrived two months premature with a related retinal condition in both eyes. The hospital overseeing her medical care administered an incubated oxygen treatment without knowing that it would exacerbate the condition. This resulted in her permanent blindness. Schuur was later compensated by the hospital after filing suit, but the damage was done. Despite the tragic mistake, Schuur never let the disability prevent her from doing what she loved most in life– music.

“Deedles”, as Schuur’s mother affectionately called her, knew from an early age that music was her passion. She was introduced to traditional American jazz as a toddler by her parents who had an extensive record collection for Schuur to explore. Some of her earliest influences include jazz singer and pianist Dinah Washington whom she often credits as her main vocal influence, and American jazz composer and bandleader Duke Ellington. In addition to singing, Schuur also began teaching herself to play piano while studying at a boarding school for the blind. She read braille music at first and then switched to learning songs from memory because it freed up both of her hands to play piano. According to her aunt, Schuur could learn entire songs in less than 10 minutes!  

Although Schuur’s school was hours away, she frequently endured the long drives home to perform locally during her preteen years. One of her first performances took place in 1964 at a Holiday Inn in her hometown of Tacoma. A quick search of the Tacoma Library’s building index shows that the building is located on a road well-known to South Sound locals called Pacific Highway South. Recalling the performance Schuur has said, “I’ll never forget it. I forgot the words to ‘Unforgettable.’ I have it on tape with mother in the background saying, ‘Oh my god.’” However, in true Schuur fashion, she didn’t let this slip up slow her down.

Schuur returned home from boarding school at age 11 to live with her family and continued to perform locally. According to historic Tacoma Tribune articles, Schuur performed constantly around Tacoma. She performed at the age of 12 her own blues and jazz set for women of the Moose Temple. She also made an appearance for the customers of Meeker’s Landing. Other local performances during this time in her life included the Western Washington Fair, the Auburn Elks, the March of Dimes telecast, and singing to wounded veterans at Madigan General Hospital. Popular entertainer Bob Newhart once took the stage after Schuur where he stated, “That kid just doesn’t need any pity. The one that goes on afterwards needs the pity.”

Schuur and her family lived briefly in nearby Auburn until her mother passed away from cancer when she was 13. Her father, a police officer, needed to continue working full time to care for her two other siblings. Due to Schuur’s disability, the family decided she should live with her aunt and uncle whom she was close with at their home back in Tacoma. They helped get her set up with an aid at her school who would help her with her work. Her aunt also became her professional manager. Again, when many people would have given up, Schuur’s grit remained in control. Throughout her teenage years in Tacoma, one of the venues that Schuur held a residency at for several months was the popular restaurant Steve’s Gay ‘90s. At age 17, Diane was overheard performing by fellow performer country star Jimmy Wakely. He requested she come to California and record a country song called “Dear Mommy and Daddy.” The song quickly rose on the charts and Schuur’s talent was noticed by other big names like Johnny Cash who requested some of her audition tapes. Although it was a country hit and Schuur made everyone aware that she didn’t want to be put into a country box, she still understood this was a pivotal point in her journey. Schuur said about the moment, “Everything seems to click into place. I think singing is what I was meant to do.”

The Tacoma native’s first taste of big stardom happened at the age of 25 when Ed Shaughnessy, Doc Severinsen’s drummer, witnessed an informal audition of hers. Schuur was invited to perform with him at the Monterey Jazz Festival which led to a return spot. Her career took off from there with Schuur performing several times at the White House. She has also performed with big names like Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, and Quincy Jones. Schuur has been nominated for 5 Grammys and taken home two for Best Female Jazz Performance. Over the years, Schuur has also made several television appearances and performed at several famous venues including the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall.

Even as her career flourished, Schuur continued to return home to perform at several local venues in her hometown of Tacoma and surrounding areas. Historic local newspaper articles and clippings about these local performances reveal that Schuur was passionate about using her talent to support different charity causes affecting people in the area. She was booked several times at the Pantages Theatre in Tacoma’s Theatre District. Schuur, along with the Woody Herman Orchestra, were also the headliners for the Broadway Center for the Performing Arts’ opening night. Several of Schuur’s performances at the theatre also benefited local homeless shelters. She often performed with accompaniments by Tacoma college and high school jazz bands to support jazz music programs in the local schools. Additionally, she held nearby performances for vision services.

Beyond her charitable performances, Schuur’s love for her hometown of Tacoma and the people that supported her in her early days was evident in other ways. Schuur hosted and headlined Diggin’ the Gig, the largest jazz festival in the Pacific Northwest held in nearby Gig Harbor. During her introduction, Schuur choked back tears as she explained to the audience what the event meant to her. Another act of Tacoma love happened when Schuur received a note from a local restaurant owner written in braille during one of her performances. He invited Schuur to stop by and say hello. After the show, Schuur went right down to the restaurant and thanked him by singing Happy Birthday to a customer. These days Schuur is settled in California saying she enjoys the desert setting. She recently released a new album in 2020 and plans to continue using her iconic pipes to wow crowds around the country. Schuur has multiple concert dates scheduled for 2022. Yet, no matter how far away she travels, she will always be a Tacoma girl at heart.

About the Author

Julia Castanier prepared this article as her final project for TARTS 225: Musical History of Tacoma, taught by Kim Davenport at the University of Washington, Tacoma. At the time she took the class in Autumn Quarter 2021, she was a senior majoring in Psychology.

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