Dee Spencer is grooving to Stevie Wonder's "Sir Duke," doing a little dance and banging a tambourine on the backbeats.
Dee Spencer, a jazz professor at San Francisco State Univ...Dee Spencer (right) coaches her vocal students in the int...Gerald Beckett plays flute during a rehearsal at San Fran... View Larger Images
"Vocalists, get into more! Get into the spirit of the song!" shouts Spencer, a robust woman with a high-beam smile. She's rehearsing the jazz choir at San Francisco State University, where she's been a music professor since 1990 and built the undergraduate degree program in jazz studies. "Come in with energy and focus, energy and focus."
Spencer has both. A fine pianist rooted in the blues-and-groove jazz tradition of Horace Silver and Bobby Timmons, she's a busy performer and teacher who goes about her business with brio. She thrives on the pleasure of music-making, whether she's backing singer Jimmy Scott, running the Monday night sessions at Rasselas on Fillmore Street, teaching jazz and gospel singing at SFSU or directing the SFJazz All-Star High School Ensemble.
"I just love what this music does," says Spencer, sitting in her office after rehearsing her vocal-jazz students for an all-Stevie Wonder concert Thursday night, part of State's Fall Into Jazz festival. "It's so therapeutic. I'm not saying other music isn't, but there's something about jazz that just makes you feel great."
Spencer, who's in her late 40s, got hooked on the music early on. Born Dianthe Spencer, she grew up in Wilmington, Del., surrounded by musicians and music-lovers. Everybody in her family sang.
"My grandmom was into religious music, my daddy liked opera arias, my mom loved Nina Simone and my sisters were into Motown," says Spencer, who took classical piano lessons. "I was always the designated piano player. It was this smorgasbord of music after dinner, and I'd have to know all this stuff.
"But I really got into jazz. My uncles were always listening to jazz. I said, 'that's what I want to play. They're havin' a lot more fun.' It was so fascinating. My uncles would take me to all these great clubs in Philadelphia. They'd sneak me in, put me on a stool and give me a Coke. Everybody was havin' a great time. I got the bug."
A pro since middle school, she gigged around Wilmington in her teens with her high school music teacher, drummer Stan Williams. She learned to play standards and back singers, a skill she put to use when she began working a few years ago with Scott, the famed octogenarian crooner with the high-pitched voice. His free-floating phrasing demands constant focus and split-second response from his accompanists.
Spencer got a scholarship to Florida A&M, where she was an oboe major and played clarinet in the marching band. She attended and performed a lot of symphonic concerts. She liked the music but not the serious demeanor one had to maintain onstage.
"If you wanted to have fun, you had to do it after the concert. I wanted to have fun onstage, too," says the swinging professor, who recently told her hairdresser she wanted happy hair. Now her hair is partially braided and tinged with red. Before, she wore dreadlocks. "People kept asking me if I was in a reggae band."
Spencer's students prize her humor and upbeat energy.
"She's a very laid-back, very patient teacher. Everybody loves her," says Bryn Nguyen, a classical piano major who sings in the jazz choir. "She's really easy to talk to, which is cool, because sometimes when musicians are as good as she is you're afraid to approach them. Patience is everything. She understands that people have other things to do and are on different levels in terms of musical ability. I know when I suck. But she doesn't make you feel terrible about it, and some teachers do. She gives you constructive criticism."
Some of Spencer's students go on to professional careers - she taught the hot young pianist Taylor Eigsti at the Stanford Jazz Workshop, and one of her students at State was the Grammy-winning American Indian singer and scholar John-Carlos Perea - and others take music courses to enrich their lives. Whatever the reason, "I want them to have a joyous experience of music," she says.
That doesn't mean anything goes. She coaches the singers until they get the phrasing of "Superstition" right. She stops the rhythm section during a run-through of Wonder's bracing bossa nova "Bird of Beauty," leans over the piano keyboard and demonstrates the rhythmic feel she wants.
"It's a groovy samba," Spencer says, nodding with approval when the rhythm starts to cook.
Later, back in her office - where posters of John Coltrane and Mary Lou Williams share space on the wall with the rejection letter she got from SFSU a few weeks before she got called to come out for an interview - she talked about Wonder's far-ranging music.
"The kids have to learn to play all these different grooves," Spencer says. For 'Bird of Beauty,' "I have to take them out of the funk and teach them how to play it like a samba. Stevie Wonder is a jazzer. You play his music, and ooooh, those chords! Everybody wants to play over those chords. Those are jazz progressions. His music is incredible - the melodies, the harmonies, the rhythms. The lyrics are great, the messages are there. It's a whole curriculum right there."
Spencer, who taught piano at Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she gigged with top players like Branford Marsalis, Greg Osby and Jeff "Tain" Watts, arranged the music for this concert and sang the singers their parts from the piano. "The Ray Charles way," she says. 'This is your note, this is your note.' " She leaves room for instrumental solos, but there's no scat singing.
"I don't like bad scatting," Spencer says with a laugh. "Very few people can really do it, so let's not go there, unless you've got somebody who can really tear it up. I love Ella." When it comes to her own improvising, the pianist says her piece as concisely as possible.
"I don't stretch out a lot," she says. "I don't play like it's my last solo. It might be, but I don't play that way. If I can say it in three choruses, depending on the choruses, that's enough. I'm not Oscar Peterson. I just want to take really good choruses. When I'm done, if people want more, that's a good thing."
Dee Spencer leads her vocal-jazz students in a performance of Stevie Wonder's music at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Knuth Hall in the Creative Arts Building at San Francisco State University, 1600 Holloway Ave. The school's Fall Into Jazz festival also features a show at 7:30 tonight by the S.F. State Big Band led by saxophonist Pete Yellin, and a show at the same time Friday by the Gospel Choir, directed by student Ja Ronn Thompson. Tickets to all shows are $10, $5 for students and seniors. (415) 338-2467, sfgate.com/ZFJY.
To hear music by Dee Spencer, go to www.deespencer.com.
E-mail Jesse Hamlin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared on page E - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle