Diana Tuffin was told while growing up that she should get “a serious job.”
She was raised in Detroit, a place that has turned out some of America’s greatest musicians, but also crushed many a dream.
“We were told, ‘Don’t be out there trying to be a musician,’” she said. “It’s heartbreak.”
She decided to disregard that advice, though, while flipping through the radio dial one day, and finding inspiration in the likes of “Ella and Miles and Cannonball.”
Tuffin, who lives in Winston-Salem now, is a member of the Camel City Jazz Orchestra, has performed at the John Coltrane International Jazz and Blues Festival in High Point, and is a board member of Carolina Music Ways, a nonprofit that promotes music education.
In a recent interview, she spoke about finding musicality in unexpected places, about singing in multiple languages, and about what happened when she swallowed a gnat during a live performance.
How did you get interested in music?
I’m a Yankee by birth and a Southerner by longevity. I was born in Ohio, raised in Michigan and learned my Southern manners by way of Georgia.
And when I moved to North Carolina, it instantly felt like home.
I can’t remember a time when there wasn’t music in my life. I was raised in church. That was a major part of my introduction to music. I had music classes in grade school but did not pursue the study of music.
And being raised in Detroit, I never really thought about music as a profession, because there were so many great artists there, many of whom never made it to the national or international scene ... But one day, when the R&B was hot and heavy and Motown was swinging, I flipped the radio dial from AM to FM, and I heard jazz, and became a convert.
Who are some of your influences?
Carmen McRae, Anita O’Day, Billy Eckstine, Johnny Hartman, Nat King Cole, his diction was so perfect, I love him. Also, his daughter Natalie Cole.
How would you describe your music?
I’m a jazz, blues and gospel artist, who also loves folk music. But, whatever I do is going to be jazz infused, because that’s just part of my DNA now.
How would you describe your creative process?
Absorption, immersion. Everything to me is a song. Everything has a music to it. So birds are singing, I hear a song. Wheels are turning on a passing vehicle, I hear a song. I tell my friends the radio is always playing in my head. They know that at any unexpected moment, I may break into song.
You perform in multiple languages. How are you able to pick up non-English songs?
I do it phonetically. My dad was a language instructor. I do a few things in Portuguese, a little French and some Spanish.
I’m very lyrics based. I will frequently pull a translation, and I get the feel of it imprinted on me, and get the meaning of it. Then I learn it phonetically. In the heart of every song, it will convey exactly what’s needed to be heard by people. So, I’m always struggling to get to the center of that song.
The beauty of, say for instance, Spanish, is that it will flow with certain songs in a way that English cannot. So, if I’m singing “Besame Mucho,” that’s different than “Kiss me a lot.”
If you could open a show for any artist, who would it be and why?
If I could open for anyone living, Dee Dee Bridgewater. I would be so inspired by that. It would give me a great opportunity to be humbled.
What’s your favorite song to perform?
It’s between two of them. My romantic history has proven that I should probably have “But Not for Me” stitched on a T-shirt. The opening line is “They’re writing songs of love, but not for me.” That’s been my personal history.
But, a very good friend of mine, who’s a musician, says my theme song should be, “Call Me Irresponsible.” It’s a song about how I just can’t help it — I’m irresponsible, I’m in love with you, so there.
What’s the funniest or weirdest thing that has happened at one of your shows?
I swallowed a gnat. We were doing an outside gig, and I inhaled to hit the next line, and the gnat went right on in, and got caught in my throat.
And, there I am, sputtering and gagging and coughing and laughing, trying to get the gnat to move either up or down, so that I can get to the next line. I can’t even remember what the song was, just that the show had to go on, and I had to get to the next stanza.
What’s next for you?
Cle Thompson is an incredible jazz vocalist, was living on the West Coast for a long time and commuting back and forth, and now she has moved back here.
She’s formed a group called Jazzmatazz, of which I have the privilege of being a member. We will be getting out and about. That will be incredible.
I hope to do some recording. I’m overdue, way overdue to record. And I’m just looking to get out and make music that’s soothing to people.
— As told to Robert C. Lopez, email@example.com