When it comes to early jazz, Dee Settlemier’s enthusiasm for the era knows no boundaries — from singing the tunes to playing some of the oft-forgotten instruments of the Jazz Age, such as the ukulele. KMHD Jazz Radio’s Deborah DeMoss Smith chatted with the member of The Libertine Belles and The Midnight Serenaders and asked her these five questions.
1. Were you born with singing jazz in your soul or did you acquire that talent?
I think I was born with it because my grandpa used to play 1920s, ’30s-type music in a small band in Salem, so I think it must have been transferred to me a little bit. Then along the way it started in middle school when I joined some choirs, a swing choir. I started being able to do it and I loved singing.
2. You’re part of a vintage swing vocal trio, The Libertine Belles. What’s the trio’s musical style?
It’s about trying to stay in the style of vintage swing of the ’20s, ’30s, and maybe a little ’40s, like the Boswell Sisters, The Rhythm Boys — Crosby’s first band — and the Andrew Sisters a little bit, and the Mills Brothers, where the emphasis is on harmonies and making music with the voice as the main instrument.
3. With The Libertine Belles, what’s really liberating about the group, and are you basically a Southern belle underneath it all?
[Laughs] Part of what’s liberating about it is we get to act out. Put the drama in there. I knew when I met the two other belles [Emily Hetrick and Teresa Boyd], I knew it was serendipity because I met them at a ukulele jam. They were singing on either side of me and we all began singing together and harmonized very easily. Then I really knew it was meant to be when we all realized we could do various impersonations of various styles, accents — and certainly Southern belles are included in that!
4. You come upon four early jazz singers — Bessie Smith, Mildred Bailey, Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton — and you can only talk to one. Who would it be?
I’d have to say Bessie Smith, though I might be a little scared! She had a reputation for being kind of rough, but I think she’d be interesting to get to know and maybe party with a little bit. I really love the whole blues thing and I gravitate toward those songs even more with the early jazz and swing; the ones that sound the bluesiest are the ones I like the most. I really like Bessie Smith; I think she’s great.
5. How did you get started with the ukulele, an instrument not usually thought of in jazz?
In 2000 I was already playing mandolin, banjo and a little bit of guitar. But I fantasized about switching over to the ukulele. Nobody was really doing that back then. The craze that’s happened these last years hadn’t hit and I really fantasized about a band playing ’20s, ’30s music. But I didn’t know anybody who was doing that. It seemed new and interesting around these parts. Probably five years after that, I met Doug [Sammons] of The Midnight Serenaders, and he asked me to join his band, a six-piece hot jazz band. He said he wanted a ukulele player so I got to see my fantasy turn to reality!