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First Memories of Doreen Smith

Or: how I came to dig her...

It was a Saturday afternoon in August 1993. The Downtown Board of the City of Guelph often sponsors free concerts on Saturdays during the nice part of the year cuz, hey, that's the kind of town I live in. These events usually feature local or regional amateur performers, so you'll hear lots of unfamiliar musicians unless you're right on top of the entire regional scene [count me out].

On this particular Saturday I was walking homeward with my wife and little 'uns when we came by a jazz trio performing in the square. It featured guitar, acoustic bass (which is kinda rare at these gigs) and a lady singing. All of them were pretty good, but it was the lady in particular who grabbed my attention -- in fact, I made my family stop and wait with me.

Two things I noticed right away. One was her image -- or lack thereof. Not especially tall, not fresh out of school as so many amateur singers seem to be, she was dressed neatly but conservatively, looking very much like a lot of the housewives out shopping around us. There was no attempt to convey that willowy, young, Holly Cole "cocktail dress and long gloves" jazz singer "look". No artsy-bohemian trappings of black clothes, avant jewellery or anything. It was like she didn't have anything to prove, no need to say "Hey look, I'm a jazz singer!"

The second thing was her voice -- no lack thereof! It was obvious that this lady was very very good: she was an amateur in the true sense of the word ("someone who does something not for pay but for the sheer love of doing it") as opposed to the common usage of the word ("someone who still has some 'baby fat' left in their technique"). When their number concluded, the applause from the larger-than-usual crowd was also much larger than usual: everybody there knew she was good. Her slightly gritty tone, her phrasing, timing... all better than some albums I own by Big Name Singers, and totally avoiding that modern trend toward overkill. Have you guessed yet that I was impressed?

We stayed for one more song and then naptime demanded that we get going for home. But the memory of that singer stuck with me indelibly. There wasn't anything posted anywhere that said who she was. So driven was I to find out who this incredible lady was, I phoned the Downtown Board and played telephone ping-pong trying to find out who booked this trio. Someone at the Board finally fessed up that they got the address and number from the staff of a regional newsmonthly. So then I had to phone them and do it all again, but this time I got a name (Doreen Smith, as if you hadn't figured that part out) and an address.

The name I actually quasi-recognized. Every so often I'd see "Doreen Smith" on one of the many posters and flyers that circulate around Guelph, but back then it was just a name in the crowd. You'd think I'd know better than to make that common mistake -- you ignore an unfamiliar name just cuz "hey, if they were good I'd've heard of them". My entire Secret Weapons site is dedicated to demolishing that myth!

So anyhoo, I wrote to Doreen and let her know how much her free Saturday concert bowled me over. I also wanted to know if she had any recordings available. She wrote a very gracious letter in response, also letting me know when her next gigs were and that I could buy her tape there. This left me anxiously counting the days till she played in town again.

While I waited, that aforementioned newsmonthly came out with a cover story on Doreen (imagine my serendipitous delight!). I learned most of what I know about her there, including her long and occasionally-professional career: this helped explain why her Saturday gig was so unusually accomplished.

Armed with this new wealth of info , I talked a few friends into joining me for Doreen's next Guelph concert -- as it turned out, in a blues club downtown. This didn't bode too well, but ideally we'd be treated to some twelve-bar jazz.
No such luck: that night, Doreen fronted a trio of guitar, bass and drums: all electric, and all way too loud. Doreen herself was in excellent voice and went over real well with the hardcore blues-rockers there, it just wasn't the genre I was hoping to hear. I had to endure the withering scorn of my friends, whom I had promised the Acoustic Jazz Event of a Lifetime [yipe!]. Still...

During the break I went up to meet her; when she learned I was the guy who wrote that fan letter, she seemed genuinely delighted. She was very friendly, gracious and charming -- a relief, as I've learned you never know what kind of ego you might run into in a performer at any level of fame. Yes, she had her tape with her for sale, and yes it was jazz . She admitted that, while she still dug the blues, these gigs were more to keep body and soul together. Her heart as a singer was more into jazz these days, but jazz won't always pay the rent. (As I suspected: there's a glow to Doreen when she's singing jazz that I missed at that blues gig...)

Some months later I received another letter from Doreen, bless her. She was doing a week in a lounge downtown in the near future, and she promised it would be jazz this time . I managed to make one of those nights, and found myself in a tiny venue that held maybe twenty people tops. At one end of the room, Doreen sat on a tall stool; beside her, a young guy with an acoustic bass. That was it.
This was the Acoustic Jazz Event of a Lifetime that I had promised my friends, and I wished they could've come with me. If Doreen thought she needed to feel discouraged by such a small event, she gave no indication. She also didn't overproject as if she were singing at a big place. What we got was the most intimate musical presentation I've ever seen in a public place. The bassist was very good, Doreen was totally Doreen, it was magic. The sort of thing that reminds you why jazz continues to mean so much to you.

There was also the added bonus of Doreen spotting me between sets and sitting to chat with me for a good half-hour (where I learned that she's saving up funding and songs to release her own CD) -- jazz singers are the friendliest musicians I've ever met! But that night's songfest was all that was needed to convince me completely that Doreen rules!

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