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Diane Nalini. Photo by Adrian Cho.

Lifelong jazz learning with Diane Nalini

By Brian Carroll on October 22, 2018

Diane Nalini, local recording artist and featured singer of the Ottawa Jazz Orchestra, is one of those rare musicians who can do AND can teach.

Nalini speaks both passionately and articulately about a subject dear to her heart: the art of jazz singing. She’s offering a one evening course on the subject at Carleton University on October 24th.

Brian Carroll interviewed Diane Nalini for Apt613.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Apt613: Tell us briefly about the one evening course you’re teaching at Carleton University.

Diane Nalini: It’s a course called The Art of Jazz Singing. It’s an interactive lecture. I do demonstrations. I play song clips, but I also ask the participants to chime in, if they want. Nobody’s obligated to sing, but they have the opportunity to sing with me. I feel that’s a really fun way of people gaining a visceral understanding of what we’re talking about, ‘cause they’re taking part in making the sounds themselves, and singing some of the songs themselves.

We go through some of the processes that the great jazz singers used when they were developing their own interpretations. We go through singers like Bessie Smith, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, and lots of other jazz singers.

We go through some examples to demonstrate how they make songs their own. And also talk about what jazz means, in the context of jazz singing. Concepts like interacting with other musicians. Bringing humour into an interpretation. Never singing a song the same way twice. Really keeping things fresh. Bringing in concepts of improvisation into a song interpretation.

One of the fun things we do as well: I point out different parts within a song that a singer has really – where they’ve added their own idiosyncrasies and their own approach.

A: In your course you give live demonstrations of how jazz singers improvise and interpret songs. Can you give our readers a few examples?

N: OK, I’ll try it with But Not for Me, in a few different styles.

A: How would Chet Baker do it?

N: He would probably do it something like this:

A: How might Ella Fitzgerald do it?

N: She recorded it a couple of times. I’ll do it the more romantic, slower interpretation:

A: I don’t recall hearing Billie Holiday record “But Not for Me”. How might she have approached it?

N: She would do it in a very laid-back, sort of back-phrasing approach. I’ll try and snap my fingers so you can hear it:

Nalini and Adrian Cho Artistic Director of the Ottawa Jazz Orchestra. Photo by Lukas Romsicki.

A: You sing with the Ottawa Jazz Orchestra, which regularly sells out at the NAC Fourth Stage. The audience there spans a very wide demographic. What do you think the appeal of jazz is to your younger audience?

N: It’s so great to see that there is a younger audience for jazz. I think the appeal is the risk-taking of it. I think the fact that jazz is evolving, that it’s not only one thing, appeals to people who have wide musical tastes. I’m always impressed at young people’s breadth of experience, and the breadth of their tastes in music.

I get the feeling that some of this is helped by streaming services. You can dabble. You might be a hip-hop fan; 90% of the music you listen to is hip-hop. But if you listen to something by Kendrick Lamar, and they’re playing with some jazz musicians, you might dive down that rabbit hole and, all of a sudden, you find yourself listening to Duke Ellington.

I also feel there are lots of young people who are getting into vinyl again, which I find fascinating. I was just visiting a friend of mine who has two kids, one who is 18, the other is 22. Her 18-year-old son has become obsessed with vinyl. He goes to vinyl stores and he’s telling me about a first edition John Coltrane album that he just purchased.

It’s so great to see that there is a younger audience for jazz. I think the appeal is the risk-taking of it. I think the fact that jazz is evolving, that it’s not only one thing, appeals to people who have wide musical tastes.

A: There are lots of jazz musicians who play well. But few speak articulately about jazz, much less teach it. How did you earn your teaching chops?

N: I’ve always loved to teach. I don’t only teach music. I’ve been teaching for over 20 years in one way or another. I’ve taught English as a second language in my former high school. I’ve taught Mathematics. I taught Physics at the high school level, at CEGEP level, at university, undergraduate and graduate level. I did my Ph.D. in Physics at Oxford. I was a post-doc also at Oxford. I was on faculty at Marionopolis CEGEP in Montréal for a couple of years.

I spent close to six years on faculty at University of Guelph’s Physics Department. During that time I used to teach a really fun elective called Physics of Music. It had enough music to count as a Music elective for Science students and enough science in it to count as a Science elective for Arts students.

A: Is there something you wanted to say, that I didn’t get out with my questions?

N: One thing I would say about this class – I found that, as a teacher, I got all the information out there that I wanted to convey. But one of the things that I did not expect, that thoroughly surprised and delighted me, was the really good questions that people asked. They elicited new paths and additional discussions that I was not expecting to to. I found that this added a richness to the class and to the conversation.

I was so grateful that they were so passionate and interested to ask very probing and good questions. Like the one about “How do you choose what syllables you’re going to use when you scat?” This was a great question, that I hadn’t thought about. I think we had a good time in the class, getting people to try out different syllables themselves.

One of the things I always love about music, unlike physics – there isn’t just one right answer in music. There isn’t just one way to harmonize a melody. You can re-harmonize. A tune doesn’t have to swing. It can be a bossa nova. It can be a ballad. You can do it in 5/4. You can mix it up and make it interesting.

You can make it your own.

That is one of the things that is infinitely fun about music. There isn’t just one right answer.


The Art of Jazz Singing by Diane Nalini takes place at Carleton University, Wednesday, October 24, 6PM to 8PM. For more information see the course entry on the Carleton University website. The course costs $30 (including HST). Registration is at this page.