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Diana Jacobs

As a winner at the 2018 and 2020 SAMMY (Syracuse Area Music) Awards, Diana Jacobs is a versatile vocalist, pianist, percussionist, songwriter, and producer who throws a knockout punch of funk… while soothing your soul with a sweet groove. Diana explores her love of many genres through a variety of collaborations. Along with her husband, Mettis Jacobs (bassist/guitarist), Diana founded the Diana Jacobs Band, a high-energy funk, soul, R&B horn band comprised of stellar players from all over CNY. Their all-original album, Good Metticine, earned them the 2018 SAMMY Award for Best R&B Recording. Diana’s blues collaboration brings together some of Syracuse’s finest blues players to present a unique mix of blues and jazz. She released an album with this project that recently received the 2020 SAMMY award for Best Blues Recording. This all-original album, What She Needs, also features a performance by Grammy-winning trumpeter/flugelhornist, Randy Brecker!

Sammy award winning vocalist, pianist, percussionist, songwriter and producer, Diana Jacobs.

With these groups, Diana has performed at some of the biggest festivals in CNY including The Great NYS Fair, Oswego Harborfest, and Alexandria Bay’s Blues in the Bay Festival. Diana has also been a part of several regional shows as a backing vocalist and as a lead vocalist, most notably the 2019 Rochester Hall of Fame Show (singing behind Gary Wright, John Hall of Orleans, and Al Jardine of The Beach Boys), the 2019 Lou Reed Tribute Show at the Syracuse Area Music Awards Ceremony (original members of his late 70’s band), Paulie Cerra’s Hometown Showdown 2017 and 2018, and The Great Salt City Blues Show 4. Additionally, she has recorded backing vocals in the studio for various projects including the SAMMY-nominated Chris Terra album, Lady Luck, as well as studio tracks for Little Georgie & the Shuffling Hungarians. And Diana brings it all down to a low simmer when in more intimate settings with her duo or her jazz trio.

Let’s meet this special lady

Chuck Schiele: First things first: Congratulations on your recent win at the SAMMYs!

Diana Jacobs: Thank you, Chuck.

CS: Tell me a bit about the album…. how it came together… the story….

DJ: Well… my full band, Diana Jacobs Band, had evolved over the course of several years from playing a pretty balanced mix of blues and R&B to focusing more on funk, soul, and R&B… which I love! It is very much the right genre for our band as a whole, and it has been exciting to watch our musical personalities grow together into what we are as a collective entity today. I can’t say enough about how much I love being part of DJB. But that transition left me missing playing and singing the blues. Also, as my husband, Mettis and I did a lot of casual jamming at open mics and private jam sessions over several years, we gained some dear friends who are stellar musicians. I saw a blues/jazz recording project as a chance to work with some of these players. But it wasn’t until our friend, Irv Lyons Jr, said to me, “I want to write a song with you” that the ball really got rolling. He had come up with a great hook and a chord progression for the tune, “Your Love Is All I Need,” and he kind of let me take it from there. We jumped into the studio with Edgar Pagan, Richie Melito and Nate Felty, who was in town from Nashville at the time, and we recorded three tunes at More Sound Studios. It was magic. I know that sounds silly, but that was how it felt for me. Something happened that was really beautiful and What She Needs was born as much by happenstance as by design. Other musicians (the list is long) were willing to join in as I added songs, while the rhythm section (Edgar Pagan and Nate Felty) remained constant throughout the album.

CS: So, how long have you been playing? How did it all begin?

DJ: I can’t really remember not playing some kind of instrument and singing. First was harmonica. Then I got my Sears Silvertone acoustic guitar at seven-years-old and started lessons at the YMCA, shifted to piano at 11, and learned to play drums in my late teens. I started my first band when I was 14 after winning a contest through WSEN radio station. The prize was a one-hour, in-studio concert at the station. We killed it. Ha! I’m not even sure how many bands I’ve played in since then. A lot. I started college as a music major (light opera and classical voice) at University of Alaska in Fairbanks, but after hearing the back-up plan speech one too many times from my family, I decided to change my major to something more sensible. I enjoyed a wonderful career in education… over 30 years. Throughout those years, I continued to play gigs part time until recently making the plunge into full-time music. My timing was impeccable.

CS: What or who influences you and your music?

DJ: My goodness, the influences are endless. Vocalists who inspired me most during my formative years include Linda Ronstadt, Aretha Franklin, Ann Wilson, Bonnie Rait and CeCe Winans. I learned everything they ever recorded. But there have been many others. Stevie Wonder, Carole King, and Al Green, for instance, have been inspirations for me as a songwriter. Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald helped me fall in love with jazz.

When I was 19, I met my husband, Mettis, who took me to church, literally and figuratively. I received a powerful introduction to gospel music and, consequently, to the blues.This became the foundation for virtually all of my musical life after that.

CS: Aside from the recent SAMMY win, what other career highlights do you recall?

DJ: Hands down, having Grammy-winning trumpeter and flugelhornist, Randy Brecker, play on “Sway” was the most mind-blowing. Still can’t believe that happened… many thanks to Edgar Pagan. My dream gig has always been to be a part of a backing vocal trio for a kick-ass band, so when I was given the opportunity to sing behind Gary Wright, John Hall (Orleans) and Al Jardine (Beach Boys) with the amazing band that backed them at the Rochester Hall of Fame Show in 2018, I felt like I got pretty close to achieving that dream. Big thanks to the incomparable Jimmy Richmond for that opportunity. Singing backing vocals with my regular singing partner and bandmate, Sue Ferlenda, for both of Paulie Cerra’s Hometown Showdown concerts, as well as the Lou Reed Tribute performance at last year’s SAMMYs show were also highlights for me. We have George Rossi to thank for all of that. There’s always someone to thank. I don’t have many accolades, but I’ve been given many opportunities to collaborate with those who do, and I appreciate every one.

CS: What would you tell a person at the beginning stages of their musical journey?

DJ: Music has saved my life. It has been the place I go to make myself healthy again when the world has worn down my spirit. It’s a beautiful gift. A musician should never forget the true value of music. If choosing music as a career, I think it’s important to define what you want your music career to look like. It can take so many forms in the modern world. Then, I wouldn’t say have a “back-up plan,” but I would say it’s necessary to educate yourself in every facet of that career. If you want to make great albums, learn how to market and sell great albums. If you want to share your music on a virtual platform, learn the technology. If you want to play gigs/concerts, learn how to network and put bodies in the seats. When it’s a career, just knowing music isn’t enough… unfortunately.

CS: Tell us your thoughts on the Central New York music community?

DJ: It’s a love and less-than-love relationship for me. Over the last decade it has felt like a mini renaissance is happening for live music in this area. I have enjoyed, until recently of course, being able to catch a band just about any night of the week at a variety of really cool venues, and I get to play regularly with my full horn band as well as with my duo. With the music that is being written and produced in the world-class recording studios here, Central New York has become a hub of creativity. These are all wonderful things, but we have developed a culture here that gives music away for free. In most cities that have an active music scene, there is either a cover charge for bands or there is a tip expectation established. A band can play for tips because people actually tip. Speaking as a bandleader, I have to say that our current system makes it very difficult for me to pay my players a fair wage. I do, but I often have to turn down work in places I love to play because what they are paying just won’t work. I don’t blame club owners. They have bills to pay too. The current system hurts club owners and musicians: two significant parts of the live-music equation. If our music scene is to continue to thrive, something needs to change.

CS: I don’t want this article to be COVID related but, alas it has to be. The relevant next question being what are you doing with your music under the influence of the Covid-19 situation?

DJ: At first, I needed a break from music, so I embraced the opportunity to shut down for a while. I had been working through a bit of writer’s block while in the thick of recording a new album with DJB. Writer’s block is the worst. In the last couple of weeks, though, I’ve been listening to the tracks we’ve already recorded and I’m falling in love with the songs we’ve written all over again. The musical ideas are flowing again. The lyrics are coming again. This new album is going to be better than our last. The time now to dive in and be creative is priceless, but I miss my band terribly. We inspire each other in a way that I have never experienced before. I can’t wait to just rehearse, write, and arrange together again. Being in the same room making music with other humans better not be a thing of the past.

CS: I sure do hope to see you out there, soon, Diana. How can we stay in touch with you and your music until the bright day comes along?

DJ: Please visit my website at dianajacobs.net, view the calendar, and sign up for my email list. Also, check out the facebook pages for Diana Jacobs Band and my blues project. Hopefully, I’ll be catching one of your shows too, Chuck. Very soon. Thanks so much for including me among your interviewees, and for all you do for CNY musicians.

Chuck Schiele
Chuck Schiele is a lifelong, award-winning musician, art director, producer, editorialist, artist, activist, member Quatrocollective.com and fan of the CNY music scene. To be considered for this column, please write chuck.schiele@gmail.com.