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    From Martuni’s to the Grammy’s, Bay Area Jazz Great Dr. Dee Spencer Changes Hearts and Minds

    San Francisco has a long and rich jazz history, with destinations such as Harold Blackshear’s Café Society, the Havana Club, the Dragon Lady, The Blue Mirror, The Favor, and Jimbo’s Bop City packing in music fans back in the day. While stars like Dave Brubeck, John Handy, and Vince Guaraldi made a lasting mark on the city’s jazz legacy, women were often absent from marquees, save for a few breakthrough singing phenoms like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. Prominent leaders of the scene were nearly always men, and although there were sporadic niches of racial diversity and LGBT acceptance, the challenges for many artists were profound.

    Dr. Dianthe “Dee” Spencer has, with quiet ease, helped to evolve this landscape for the better. In 1990, the accomplished musician founded the program in Jazz Studies at San Francisco State University (SFSU). In 2010, she was named Director of SFSU’s School of Music and Dance. Her students have included saxophonist Tia Fuller, who served as Beyoncé’s music director and remains influential in Queen Bee’s circle; Howard Wiley, who was Lauren Hill’s music director and has been called “the most prodigious Bay Area saxophonist of his generation”; and smooth jazz favorites the Braxton Brothers.

    Spencer is a Queen in her own right, especially in the Bay Area’s LGBTQ community. She is a member of the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band, which she has also guest conducted, and she has performed at countless fundraisers benefiting the queer community over the decades. Often she can be found—either solo or as an accompanist—working her magic behind the keyboard, a skill that can make or break an event. Music provides a backdrop that, when silenced, can completely shift the mood within a venue.

    An Upbringing Full of Music

    Spencer grew up in Wilmington, Delaware. She told the San Francisco Bay Times: “I was a shut-in, house kid growing up and my parents shuttled me to piano lessons. My mom loved music and played piano and sang. All my sisters sang and I was the designated piano player for them. My dad was an opera lover. I heard jazz all my life and my mom loved it.”

    “My uncle stayed with us for a while and introduced me to Miles Davis and Duke Ellington,” she added. “My other uncle was friends with the trumpet legend Clifford Brown and vibes player Lem Winchester, He took me to a few jazz clubs and I was sold!”

    Spencer started classical lessons when she was about the age of seven, and then played viola in her middle school orchestra. “Later I switched to oboe and clarinet and was a woodwind major in college,” she said. “We didn’t have a lot of money and I got a scholarship to Florida A&M University, where I majored in music education. My parents convinced me to do the education degree, which I was teased about for years by all of my jazz buddies.”

    Inspired by Melba Liston

    A role model whom Spencer looked up to was Melba Liston (1926–1999), a jazz musician, arranger, and composer who was the first woman trombonist to play in big bands during the 1940s–1960s. Liston was a major force in the music business during her prime, working with artists such as Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, and Count Basie. Rarely did she receive a warm welcome in the male-dominated field. Linda Dahl, author of Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazz Women, shared that members of Gillespie’s band complained he had “sent all the way to California for a b—h.” Undaunted, Liston eventually won them over with her talent.

    When Spencer was in graduate school, she contacted Liston. “She allowed me to spend a summer as her apprentice in New York City.” Although that was just for a few months, the time allowed Spencer to learn, not only from Liston, but also from Liston’s extensive network of other successful musicians.

    Move to San Francisco

    Ready to take on new challenges, Spencer moved to the Bay Area and earned her Ed.D. degree from the University of San Francisco. As an active contributor to the San Francisco community, she founded the San Francisco Jazz Organization (SFJAZZ) education program and served as program director for the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts. She has served on multiple boards: the International Association of Jazz Educators, National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences, SFJAZZ, Stanford Jazz Workshop, Community Music Center, Women’s Audio Mission, People in Plazas, and The Amateur Musicians Network.

    For many years, Spencer has performed—either as a regular guest artist or as an occasional featured musician—at the Castro-based restaurant Catch and at Martuni’s, the popular piano bar where patrons belt out show tunes and down large specialty martinis. As one Yelp reviewer wrote of the bar, it is a place where visitors will find: “Aging queens, stiff drinks, and Karaoke torch songs.” It was therefore a treat also to find a world-class jazz musician there, holding court, perhaps just a day or two after she appeared on stage with Wynton Marsalis, with whom she has worked at Lincoln Center.

    Her musical director/sound designer credits include lauded productions of Ain’t Misbehavin, Twelfth Night, Lysistrata, Chicago, Hair, Dreamgirls in Concert and many others. She performed for Kamala Harris, then a U.S. Senator, for a fundraiser at the African American Cultural Center, formerly headed by Mayor London Breed. She has also been a featured performer at the Beijing, Cork, Tasmanian, Dresden, and other international jazz festivals. As The San Francisco Chronicle once wrote of Spencer, she is 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.”

    Dr. Dee Spencer

    From late May through June of this year, she will serve as Course Leader at the San Francisco International Arts Festival’s Women in Jazz & World Music. This is a month long, twice weekly course for high school students aged 15–18 who have an aptitude for singing and who want to develop better techniques and understanding to further their abilities as vocalists. Spencer enjoys such work, and she has taught and mentored countless aspiring musicians of all ages over the past three decades.

    A Week in the Life

    On February 5, 2023, Spencer attended the Grammy Awards. She is a screener for the annual event, and this year participated in a panel to pick the Grammy’s 2023 Educator of the Year Award. (The award went to Pamela Dawson, Director of Choral Music at DeSoto High School in DeSoto, Texas. “She is amazing,” said Spencer.) Not just one, but three of Spencer’s former students were nominated for 2023 Grammy awards. She beamed from the audience when Beyoncé won four times and recognized the LGBTQ community. Beyoncé said, referring to House and Disco, “I’d like to thank the queer community for your love and for inventing the genre.” Beyoncé also thanked her gay uncle, who helped to raise her. Recalling these words, Spencer said, “It was a very proud moment for the gay community.”

    Spencer is now back in the Bay Area, where she shares a home in San Francisco with her wife, Cheryl Brown, and two dogs: Maddie and Sophia. “We take them everywhere,” Spencer said, adding that she remains busier than ever. In addition to her teaching and leadership at SFSU, she is conducting rehearsals for the university’s production of Rent, scheduled to run in May. Each Thursday she presents Dee’s Keys, a weekly event at the gay bar Beaux at 2344 Market Street, from 4–8 pm.

    She will not be at Beaux on February 9, though, as she will be both a performer and an honoree at a celebration of Black LGBTQ Bay Area women leaders for Black History Month at Divas & Drinks @ The Academy, a monthly event co-presented by the San Francisco Bay Times and The Academy SF at 2166 Market Street. We hope that you can join us, to celebrate Spencer and the other exceptional honorees.

    We also encourage you to learn more about Spencer by attending her performances, watching this video from 2010 that highlights just some of her many achievements ( ), and by checking out her website:

    Published on February 9, 2023