Like Jazz, it only happens once…A Stolen Moment.
It’s a line a wish I’d written, and was used to promote a 1992 concert that was to be Diana Ross’ first foray into jazz in two decades. The show would result in the finest live recording of Ross’ career thus far.
The tag line perfectly encapsulates the feeling that a few hundred of Ross’ most ardent fans experienced on December 4 at the Ritz Theatre in New York City. Luckily, the show was filmed and recorded, and a live album, the awkwardly-entitled Diana Ross Live! The Lady Sings…Jazz and Blues: Stolen Moments was released the following spring, to critical acclaim.
Flanked by some of the world’s greatest musicians, and orchestrated by the late Gil Askey and trumpeter Jon Faddis, Ross would perform many of the selections from her Academy Award-winning 1972 film Lady Sings The Blues, her first feature film, for which she had won the Golden Globe for Best Actress.
Ross started the concert a bit tentatively, with “Fine And Mellow” and a few other Billie Holiday favorites. But when she waded into the small, intimate audience, cooing “Someday he’ll come along, the man I love…” coming face-to-face with the some of the luckiest Ross fans on the planet, the show truly came to life. Ross’ performance throughout the show is flat-footed and confident, and the live recording is the best she has delivered in a career that now spans seven decades.
Veteran jazz producer Ben Sidran was recruited to produce the audio for the live broadcast and the subsequent Motown album. According to Sidran, Ross’ hands-on approach to getting things done initially threw him.
“I absolutely thought it was a prank,” Sidran said by phone. “One day the phone rang, and someone said ‘This is Diana Ross.’ I didn’t believe her! I was on a list of jazz producers who’d been recommended to her, with my having had experience in popular music, in urban music, as well as experience with television and video production.”
“She was in between deals with Motown, and it seemed like it was a project in the process of finding its feet,” Sidran continued. “By the end of the phone call, she made me feel like I was a good candidate for the job.”
The ‘Real’ Ross: “Diana was really down!”
The trio of Askey, Faddis, and Sidran assembled the jazz world’s very best to support Ross in what was to be her return to Billie Holiday’s catalog. Sidran shared that, as the project began to take shape, he wasn’t sure what to expect from the regal Ross.
“I’d worked with pop musicians. I’d been in the studio with them and seen their habits, and sometimes their bad habits,” Sidran said. “But Diana was totally professional. She knew what she wanted to do. She loved the Billie Holiday repertoire and she came to do it!”
“I was so knocked out by how heartfelt Diana was,” Sidran added. “What a classic, terrific performer she was! She was a great interpreter of that material — it was a piece of her life.”
And she wore her heart on her sleeve — she was like a jazz performer.”
“Jazz musicians tend to be out there. They’re not guarding their image as closely as pop performers are. When Diana was in pop mode, she was seven feet tall! She was ‘Miss Ross’. I once saw her enter a recording studio wearing some elaborate fur coat, and she just shrugged it off and the coat never hit the floor — somebody came up behind her and grabbed it! It was that imperious. But in real life, the person who sang those jazz songs with us that night was 5’3” or 5’4” and she was very real.”
Anyone who has seen or heard the Stolen Moments show got the same impression. Ross seems committed and in the moment, and delivered a scorching show that demonstrated both her sometimes underrated vocal prowess, and a love and affection for her band as well as for jazz.
But having not been in the room that evening, I couldn’t let Sidran get away without sharing more stories about the “real” Diana Ross.
“A few weeks after the show, we were mixing the album in Las Angeles — just Diana, me, and the engineer,” Sidran continued. “She was living in Connecticut at the time, but had flown in for the mixing of the album.”
“On the one hand, her Connecticut Rolls Royce was out in LA,” Sidran continued. “Somebody had driven it or it had been shipped on a plane — she travelled like that! But on the other hand, she was really down to earth. She carried a little silver flask with her at one point, and she came into the studio, sat down, and handed the flask to me and offered me a drink of brandy from it.”
“Diana was down,” Sidran said. “Really down!”
Sidran said it was also a joy to watch Ross’ reunion with Askey, with whom she’d begun working during her 60s stint with The Supremes and who had conducted her music for Lady Sings The Blues.
“Gil was totally professional — wonderful,” Sidran said. “He was all music! And Diana was so comfortable with him. They were like two old shoes together. I think the album is a good representation of her as an artist, and a lot of that has to do with how comfortable she was.”
“I loved the album,” Sidran said, “and I loved the mood that was created by it. When we were in rehearsal for the show, the piano player in the orchestra was Barry Harris, one of Detroit’s great music teachers. When Diana would come over to the piano, and we were working stuff out, it was Barry and Diana — it wasn’t ‘Miss Ross.’ Diana definitely had a respect for all of those jazz musicians, and I sensed that making a jazz record was very important to her.”
Ralph Moore remembers Ross as “a real trouper” — and Phyllis Hyman in the audience!
While Harris and so many of Ross’ Stolen Moments partners have passed away, this writer connected with saxophonist Ralph Moore, who Ross calls out early in the show just after his blistering solo on “Them There Eyes.” Now xxx years old and a legend in his own right, Moore fondly recalls the moment he heard his name shouted out from the stage by the Queen of Motown.
“I remember it fondly,” Moore said of that moment, during a phone interview from his southern California home. “It was remarkable that Diana was so supportive. It was her show, but she knew everybody’s name, and she didn’t hesitate to call people out. That’s how much of a team player she turned out to be, from the beginning, which surprised us all.”
“I kinda remember some of the older cats whispering that they didn’t expert her to be really serious about taking care of business, but let me tell you: our rehearsals started at eight every morning. Diana was there at seven. We walked in every day and she was there already, having her coffee. And that was the first tip to us that she was serious. That kind of work ethic struck all of us. You don’t expect that from a huge star like her, that she’s gonna be there before you get there. So that immediately got everybody’s attention, and we all started to get serious behind her.”
Moore remembers those Stolen Moments rehearsals in great detail, including the dress rehearsal just hours before the live pay-per-view broadcast, and seeing another music great in the theatre — one who wouldn’t live long after the show.
“The house was empty except for the band and the people running around trying to get the hall ready, and I remember looking out and seeing Phyllis Hyman in about the third row,” Moore recalled. “I remember wondering why she was there. I’ve always loved Phyllis Hyman, and I always wondered whether she and Diana were friends, whether she was there to pay tribute to Diana…or was she thinking that maybe she should have been on that stage with us. I didn’t know what to make of it, but that always stayed locked in my mind. Phyllis committed suicide sometime after that.”
Moore shared another “behind the scenes story” that rivals Sidran’s tale of Ross’ communal flask of brandy!
“I remember us sitting on the steps backstage, after rehearsal or during a break or something — just Roy [Hargrove], me, Justin [Robinson]…a bunch of us, just hanging out,” Moore recalled. “And Diana comes down the stairwell, and she just sits down and hangs out with us. She had no ego, none of the typical ‘star’ thing. I worked on The Tonight Show for a number of years, so I have been around a lot of ‘stars’. Some of them would have you clear the hallway and shit before they’d walk out of their dressing rooms. That kind of shit happens.”
“Diana didn’t have any of that, man. I was shocked to come into rehearsal every morning and get a fucking hug from Diana Ross and hear ‘How are you doing this morning?’ It was surprising how much she embraced us all, and how she saw herself as a peer with us all. She’s a real trouper — that’s what we call it in the business. I remember her fondly because of that.”
As Moore is a legend in his own right, and has worked with so many great vocalists, I asked him what he thought of Ross as a jazz vocalist.
“She did a really good job,” Moore said. “In a situation like that, there’s lots of cues and intros when you’re working with an orchestra. There are interludes and stuff, and they’re a little tricky. But Diana did a wonderful job. And she walked out of there with the respect of all of those musicians, who were not quite sure about her going in. Walking out, they had nothing but respect and praise for her.”
The Stolen Moments project was a huge pay-per-view success, and the subsequent album topped jazz charts the following spring. As such, Ross’ fans — and this writer — spent a lot of years waiting for her to return to jazz, perhaps reunited with Sidran in the studio for a full-length contemporary project.
Sidran told me he’d reunite with Ross for a new jazz album in a New York minute.
“I was so convinced, after working with her on that album, that she could not just pull it off, but she could own it,” Sidran said of Ross’ long-awaited return to jazz. “I would love to see her performing now with contemporary musicians, but smaller format, not orchestral, like a real jazz record. Like a Nancy Wilson type of record.”
Ross told us back in 1992 that it only happens once…a “stolen moment,” But as the diva has promised, as recently as last year, that a new album is in the works for 2020 (sorry, but for this writer, the recently released remix album doesn’t cut it), we can dream.
Or maybe, if Ross tires of wow-ing Las Vegas fans with her periodic, sold-out residencies, she’d consider reprising her stunning Holiday tribute show from ‘92, and maybe taking it on the road.
In the meantime, queue up the album…and could someone give Ross, one of Detroit’s greatest musical exports, “…a pig foot…whooo!…and a bottle oooooof beer!”