Miss Justine

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If a city has a large jazz scene, chances are that is has some improvisers who enjoy local hero status -- people who are well known locally even if they aren't well known nationally or internationally.…
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If a city has a large jazz scene, chances are that is has some improvisers who enjoy local hero status -- people who are well known locally even if they aren't well known nationally or internationally. Philadelphia is no exception. The Philly jazz scene has, over the years, provided a long list of improvisers who became internationally famous -- and they range from John Coltrane to Lee Morgan to the Heath Brothers to countless organists. But the Pennsylvania city also has its share of local jazz celebrities, and one of them is singer Justine Keeys, aka Miss Justine. Like tenor saxophonists Bootsie Barnes and Larry McKenna and fellow singer Juanita Holiday, Miss Justine is a major name in Philly even though she isn't well known outside of the Delaware Valley area. Miss Justine is not an abstract, ultra-cerebral type of singer or someone who favors complexity for the sake of complexity; her approach is quite accessible, drawing on influences that have included Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Etta Jones (as opposed to Etta James), Sarah Vaughan, and Nancy Wilson (the Nancy Wilson who worked with saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, not the one who is known for her many years with the Seattle-based hard rock/arena rock band Heart). But while Wilson has provided an abundance of pop-oriented albums, Miss Justine is very much a jazz improviser; she swings and improvises in a bop-based fashion, and she is a warm, expressive interpreter of lyrics. While Miss Justine is well acquainted with the Tin Pan Alley songbook, she isn't the type of vocalist who performs Tin Pan Alley exclusively -- Miss Justine's broad repertoire has ranged from George and Ira Gershwin and Jerome Kern to Antonio Carlos Jobim to Stevie Wonder and Bill Withers. Finding the jazz potential in R&B songs has not been a problem for the veteran singer.

Miss Justine, who grew up in North Philly, was around the Philly jazz scene long before the '80s. But it was in 1982 that she formed an alliance with someone who played a major role in her career: the late Philadelphia-based pianist Gerald Price, Jr. He became her mentor and was, for 14 years, her partner/musical director. In Philly jazz circles, Price was known for having a large repertoire; Miss Justine's willingness to interpret such a wide variety of songs no doubt has a lot to do with the influence of Price, who accompanied her on numerous live performances in the '80s and '90s and maintained a close working relationship with her until his death in 1996. When it came to recording, Miss Justine was a late bloomer. Her first album, Tasty (which she produced herself), was released by Dreambox Media (a small, independent, Philly-based jazz label) in 1998. That disc was followed by another self-produced album, The Many Moods of Miss Justine, which boasted McKenna on tenor sax and was released by Dreambox in 2004. Miss Justine can also be heard on Philly pianist Father John d'Amico's 2000 release Father John and His Ladies.