Denise Perrier singing
Denise Perrier, 2017. Photo by Angela Lilley Bennett.

When California’s eased Covid-19 restrictions on June 15, allowing live music to return to indoor venues, I promptly set my sights on the Royal Cuckoo, the Mission’s invaluable outpost of blues, jazz and early R&B. I’d seen several outdoor performances earlier in the pandemic, but there’s nothing quite like a room that echoes the music’s idiosyncratic splendor.

Among dozens of regulars thrilled to be back at the bric-a-brack-clad neighborhood watering hole were many musicians who came out to celebrate with the house band featuring vivacious vocalist Lavay Smith, sister to Cuckoo co-owner Bill Miller, trumpeter Bill Ortiz, and Chris Siebert, stationed behind the bar at the club’s Hammond B-3 organ. But what made the evening feel like a red-letter occasion was the presence of Denise Perrier, the veteran jazz and blues singer who’s both the grand dame of the Bay Area scene and something of a den mother to many of the vocalists who’ve followed in her footsteps. 

After spotting Perrier seated nearby, Smith offered up a few songs in her honor while Perrier soaked up the music and greeted a steady stream of friends and fans, including pianist Steve Lucky and vocalist/guitarist Carmen Getit. Looking frail and moving at her own pace, Perrier wasn’t up to sitting in with the band, and it was clear that the heart problems that have been dogging her for several years were taking a toll. Perrier is now in hospice and we’re on the cusp of losing an artist whose talent, generosity, and deep ties to jazz’s populist roots embody the best of American music.

Local legend, generous mentor

Even though Perrier spent her prime career-building years performing internationally, she’s been at the center of the local scene since the 1980s, playing numerous jazz spots around the region from San Jose to Napa. With her warm, velvety contralto and compelling sense of swing, she’s delivered blues and early jazz numbers at Enrico’s with Mal Sharpe’s Big Money In Jazz Band and 1930s standards with trombonist Bryan Gould’s Swing Fever at the Panama Hotel in San Rafael. She’s presented her own tributes to Bessie Smith and Dinah Washington at cabaret venues like the Plush Room and the Rrazz Room and delivered standards at Yoshi’s with the Junius Courtney Big Band.

Her performances were master classes in phrasing, set design and finely calibrated tempo control, but Perrier has also served as a moral force off the bandstand, treating younger singers as family to be embraced rather than threats to her employment. Rhonda Benin had worked mostly as an R&B vocalist and was just finding her way on the jazz scene when a fellow singer, seemingly jealous that she’d landed a choice spot at Oakland’s Art & Soul Festival, made a cutting remark about inexperienced artists getting opportunities they didn’t deserve. 

Seated at a table with several other singers, including Perrier, “she didn’t say my name but I knew everybody knew who she meant,” Benin recalled. “It was embarrassing and it hurt my feelings. The next week I played Enrico’s, and in walks Denise and sits in the front row. Oh no, the queen of jazz. This is going to tell it. I sang ‘Moon River,’ and she sat there and wept and after the set. She hugged me. That was all I needed to know. I was on the right track. I’ll never forget that. From then on, it’s been special between us. She made really good friends with my mom. We sit close and talk long with each other.”

Perrier’s support for other artists on the scene came up frequently on Nov. 12, when more than a dozen singers joined several dozen other friends and admirers on a Zoom party marking her 82nd birthday (a celebration that kicked off when Mayor London Breed declared Nov. 1 Denise Perrier Day in San Francisco). Kim Nalley was one of the vocalists on the call, and has spoken often about Perrier’s open-armed embrace when she first started making a name for herself in early 1990s San Francisco. 

In an interview before her 2019 Freight & Salvage show “Ladies Sing the Blues,” with Perrier and Tiffany Austin, Nalley recalled her first time meeting the veteran vocalist when she went to see her perform in the bar at the Galleria Park Hotel. “Denise made her entrance coming down the stairs in full-on regalia, Bessie Smith mode, just dazzling,” Nalley said. “As soon as I introduced myself, she was so nice to me. She asked if I had any fliers, and gave them to people on her gig. Her generosity is unparalleled. She’s helped me throughout my career. I started going to Russia because of Denise. She brought me over there for the first time.” 

Even as her health has failed, Perrier has been working on a final gift for her fans, pouring her soul into a recording that saxophonist and producer Howard Wiley likens to Billie Holiday’s valedictory album, “Lady In Satin.” It’s a project they’ve been talking about since Wiley produced Tiffany Austin’s nationally acclaimed 2015 debut album “Nothing But Soul,” “and we finally got to work during the quarantine,” he said. “Hanging out with Denise Perrier has been one of the greatest things. I call her Queen. Listening to her sing ‘Where Do You Start?’ so debonaire and suave, she’s got all that experience. Just the resilience, to be able to power through when the clock is ticking down.”

Her last album, 2013’s “Denise Perrier & the Novosibirsk Philharmonic Orchestra,” was a sumptuous ballad session that documented her deep ties in Russia. For the new album Wiley has lined up a world-class band featuring Count Basie Orchestra pianist Glen Pearson, bassist Ron Belcher and drummer Darrell Green. Piano great George Cables accompanies Perrier on “St. Louis Blues” and “Round Midnight.”

The team producing the album is raising funds to master and release it via a GoFundMe campaign that’s raised more than half the $20,000 goal. Whenever the project comes out, it will add significantly to Perrier’s dismayingly thin discography, a situation that speaks to a DIY career conducted without the support of a label. Her closest brush with a national forum as a recording artist was contributing to several tracks on organist Brother Jack McDuff’s Grammy-nominated 1992 album “Color Me Blue” on Concord Jazz (known for championing vocalists, it was a Bay Area label that could have been a great fit for her). 

As a young player coming up on the Bay Area scene at the turn of the century, Wiley knew Perrier mostly “from being out and about,” he said. “Darrell Green and I would see her at 3:39 a.m. walking down Valencia with a cocktail, looking like a queen. Where did you get a cocktail at 3 a.m.?!”

She should have been well known on the national scene, but “there this thing that happens in the Bay Area, this weird vortex, where we’ve got some of the most talented people, but there’s just not a lot of resources,” he said. “Denise was a Black woman out here on her own, no institutional or corporate support.”

A house filled with music

Born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and raised in the East Bay town of Albany, Perrier grew up in a house filled with music. Her stepbrother, bassist Paul Jackson, was a founding member of the Headhunters, Herbie Hancock’s pioneering 1970s funk fusion band. Her step-sister, Joyce Jackson, was an accomplished flutist and songwriter. By the end of high school in the late ‘50s, Perrier was performing with The Intervals, a jazzy vocal group that performed in formal dress on the supper club circuit. 

During a gig at the Fairmont Hotel, Louis Armstrong caught the act and was impressed enough to pave their way to Las Vegas. It gave Perrier a chance to mingle with jazz greats like Dinah Washington and Ella Fitzgerald, but she also had to deal with Vegas’s notorious treatment of Black musicians. 

“Black artists were working in the main rooms, but weren’t allowed to live in the hotels,” Perrier told me in an extensive 2002 interview. “Ella once cooked me some black-eyed peas on a hotplate in one of these trailers where musicians live. We think that stuff is ancient history, but it wasn’t that long ago, really.” 

Perrier was first offered work abroad during a 1965 gig at Esther’s Orbit Room in West Oakland, which led to an extended stay in Australia. Her gig down under led to years of performing in Asia, as she bounced between Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines and South Vietnam, where she spent two years performing for troops during the height of the U.S. military engagement. 

It wasn’t merely a desire to explore new countries and the opportunity to work steadily that drew Perrier overseas. It was the quality of the work she was being offered. “As a relatively unknown artist, I was getting the experience of working with big bands,” Perrier said. “I was on television; there was an excitement and a certain kind of grooming that was invaluable to me, though I didn’t think of it then. There was a lot of work in settings that I couldn’t have gotten into so quickly in the U.S. And there was a sense of adventure.” 

When Perrier moved back to the States in the early ‘70s, she settled in New York City and, after five years, returned to the Bay Area. She gained considerable attention with a series of shows exploring the music of Duke Ellington and George Gershwin, and a memorable tribute to Dinah Washington, “Unforgettable.” But Perrier never lost her wanderlust. She performed frequently in Europe and Japan, where her brother Paul Jackson settled from 1985 until his death in March.

When she talked about new doors opening, it became clear why she was so acutely aware of the power of well-placed words or gestures. She made the first of more than a dozen trips to perform in Russia in 1997 after her Soviet-born seamstress, put her in touch with an entrepreneur who managed a band in Russia. “He said, ‘The Russian people would love you. I’m going to call the mayor of my city, where there’s a big celebration for Russia’s 850th birthday,’” Perrier said. “And, within a month, I had an official invitation to Russia, and I was just was thrilled to death.”

Much like she’s supported younger vocalists, she was befriended by some of jazz’s greatest singers. Etta Jones, an inimitable song stylist best known for the sultry hit “Don’t Go to Strangers,” spent a lot of time in San Francisco. They ended up boon companions, and when Jones joined her in the studio for one of her first recording sessions, Perrier recalled getting some sage advice “to always come with the lyrics written out, no matter how many times you’ve sung a song,” she said. “Because there’s something about being in front of that mic. So she sat there and wrote out the lyrics from my song.”

Mentored by masters, Perrier has spent her career paying back the love she received. With many of the singers that she took under her wing looking out for the next generation, Perrier’s legacy will be felt for a long time to come. 

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