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Jazz and Diane

Onetime Folkie's Debut Has the Critics Cheering

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Diane Hubka

By James D. Dilts | Posted

About 20 years ago, Western Maryland native and would-be singer Diane Hubka announced to her surprised musical associates in a Frostburg club that she was the vocalist they were looking for. "I can do that," she said, and she has been proving it ever since. Last year, the Jazz Journalists Association nominated Hubka's 1998 A-Records album Haven't We Met? as the best debut CD of the year.

As it turned out, Hubka didn't win, but she was elated by the nomination. The other debut-artist nominees included instant luminaries Ravi Coltrane, Brian Blade, and Stefon Harris, who eventually won. Cassandra Wilson, Shirley Horn, and Dee Dee Bridgewater were among the other vocalists nominated for the association's awards that year. "I was the least-known person in the whole group," Hubka marvels.

Haven't We Met? was co-produced by Hubka and mentor Ray Passman. The album, thoughtfully conceived and beautifully executed, features unusual material and outstanding players such as alto saxophonist Lee Konitz. (Pianist Frank Kimbrough, guitarist John Hart, bassist Harvie Swartz, and drummer Ron Vincent round out the band.) The collection includes several standards: Hubka evokes one of her models, June Christy, on "Lazy Afternoon"; Konitz contributes a laconic and tightly edited solo on "Detour Ahead"; and Antonio Carlos Jobim is represented by "Favela." The rest of the CD consists largely of originals, recastings of jazz staples, or delightfully unfamiliar tunes. Passman wrote lyrics to John Carisi's "Israel" (recorded by John Coltrane and many others) and renamed it "It's Your Dance." With pianist Harold Danko, he contributed the music for a second tune, "New Clichés." And he shared credit with singer Meredith d'Ambrosio for "Miss Harper Goes Bizarre," a poignant chronicle of an aging model. Hubka delivers these songs in an engagingly unaffected manner, negotiating complex lines with ease, hitting her notes straight on, enunciating clearly, and swinging; she even scats a little. Her singing reflects maturity and experience.

Growing up in Cumberland, Md., Hubka's early musical experience was shaped by her folk-singing mom. "I didn't hear much jazz," Hubka says, "I played and sang folk music." During her final semester at Frostburg State University (she graduated with an accounting degree), a new guitar teacher, Bill Bittner, taught her some blues and jazz. "He had played in Los Angeles with Anita O'Day, and he made me a cassette tape of songs: 'Angel Eyes' by Frank Sinatra, 'Lazy Afternoon' by June Christy," Hubka recalls. "At first I thought they were corny. Then I heard Carmen McRae sing 'Love for Sale' and I knew that was it."

One evening, she was having coffee with Bittner and guitarist Mike Gellar, who were forming a group and lamenting the lack of a singer. Hubka auditioned on the spot and so was born the Frostburg Jazz Quartet: two guitars, a bass, and a vocalist. "Sometimes we had a drummer," Hubka says. "We played the Blue Moon Saloon in the National Hotel in Grantsville and the Bistro in downtown Cumberland. None of these places are there anymore."

In 1979 Hubka moved to Washington, D. C., where she lived for six years, studying, listening, and singing with guitarist Paul Wingo and some big bands. Four years after moving to New York in 1985, she received a Jazz Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts to study with vocalist Anne Marie Moss. At the same time, she performed at Birdland, Zinno, the Knitting Factory, and other New York clubs, paying her dues and building her chops.

Now that her work has begun to pay off, Hubka plans to return to the recording studio this month to do another CD. "It will have two Bob Dorough songs, one by Meredith d'Ambrosio, and Herbie Hancock's 'Dolphin Dance' that a friend wrote lyrics to," she said. "The really cool thing is that I'm going to do a tune by [Chicago trumpeter] Malachi Thompson. I heard him at One Step Down in Washington. I was looking for something beboppy, and Thompson started rapping and I said, 'Now there's a lyricist.' So we talked. I told him about my CD and last week he faxed me the lyrics. It's called 'In Walked John,' and it's about Coltrane coming to a jam session in Chicago."

Hubka also counts Dorough as a mentor -- he's an elder statesman among jazz singers but still something of an underground figure. Dorough said he was as surprised as Hubka at the nomination of Haven't We Met?, but not by the display of talent that led to it. "She searched out an unusual and rare repertoire," he notes. "She's a pretty well-schooled musician; a lot of singers aren't, but she's a proficient guitarist. She puts in a lot of effort on pitch. So I would say [she succeeded by] picking good songs and doing them really well."

Success does not seem to have spoiled Diane Hubka. She still does what she's always done, studying music and playing clubs. And she works two days a week as an accountant for the Peter F. Drucker Foundation, which helps nonprofits manage their affairs. "Jazz is definitely nonprofit," she says.

Diane Hubka performs at Rocky Gap State Park in Flintstone, Md., on Sept. 3 and 4 at 7 P.M. each night. Call (800) 724-0828 for more information.

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