Courting controversy ever since she greeted an audience of The Arsenio Hall Show with the words "it's hip to be gay in the Nineties, and I'm a big dyke", lesbian comic, actor and singer Lea DeLaria has been described as "obnoxious", "loud-mouthed" and (my favourite) "the anti-Ellen". Later that year – 1993 – after a gay march on Washington, she took to a stage in front of the Capitol building and told the media she was delighted that Clinton was President: at last there was a First Lady she wanted to sleep with.
In the clubs, her act was becoming more and more audacious as her reputation spread. A combination of foul language and a flaunting of "butch" lesbian culture – a culture that DeLaria noted had been swept under the carpet during the media love-affair with so-called "lesbian chic" – raised the pressure inside the room until either steam was allowed to escape or something shattered. And so it was to jazz that she turned, singing between monologues as a way of saying, "See, everything's OK. I've said all that stuff and we're all still here and I can do this too."
It's funny how things turn out. Tomorrow night, she opens for tenor saxophone star Joshua Redman at the Montreux Jazz Festival, performing music from Play It Cool, her debut album for Warner Brothers – one of the finest records by a jazz vocalist in a very long time.
Jazz – the music – thrives on the efforts of individualists and non-conformists, and has always attracted those on the fringes of society. But jazz – the music business (and particularly the American music business) – can be as conservative as a pair of brogues.
The trumpeter and unelected jazz spokesman Wynton Marsalis aches with nostalgia for the days when jazz musicians strummed banjos. Record companies like their jazz instrumentalists young, male and handsome. And what DeLaria calls "chick singer syndrome" hasn't changed radically since the days of the big bands.
But when Warner Worldwide head Matt Pierson heard DeLaria singing at a UCLA concert, it was a revelation; she received the call the next day. Did she ever get any sense from Pierson that he and the label were going out on a limb this time?
"Matt found a couple of other people on the label who really liked me too," she explains, on the telephone from New York. "You know, it was cool. I don't think they care. I come from a subculture; and jazz is already a subculture."
So there wasn't an unspoken appeal: just do us a favour and don't be too gay?
"No no no no no no no no no no! Never. I mean, look at me! How could anybody say that to me?"
(DeLaria makes few concessions when it comes to her appearance, and claims to be addressed as "Sir" at least once a day.)
"Let me tell you just how not an issue it was. When I did my showcase for Matt Pierson and Warner Brothers I was on about the last song I was going to do for them, and I said, 'Before I close this, I just want you all to know that I think every label needs a big bull dyke.' He laughed and laughed. They really don't care."
Play It Cool is an exquisite hour of music. A stellar cast, including bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Gregory Hutchinson (on loan from the Pat Metheny band), pianists Larry Goldings and the amazing Brad Mehldau, make no concessions at all. Every track swings with a lithe, contemporary jazz feel; and DeLaria drops the lyrics over the beats with the kind of easy (sounding) logic reminiscent of the truly great jazz vocalists.
The material reflects contemporary Broadway, where DeLaria has become a familiar face in the past few years (after our conversation, she leaves to play Eddie and Dr Scott in The Rocky Horror Show – one of eight performances she's been keeping up each week since last October), but it's Broadway radically reinvented and reshaped. "Cool", from West Side Story, turns jagged with Mehldau's provocative chord shapes, Hutchinson's sudden explosions from the kit and DeLaria's very free approach to the tune. "The Ballad Of Sweeney Todd" becomes an agile, fast-paced swinger so naturally it's a wonder that no one has thought of doing this before. Even "All That Jazz", bête noire to contemporary jazz fans everywhere, sounds completely original after she treats it to a gentle soul-jazz backbeat and plays more games with the melody.
Her delivery shares almost nothing with the usual fog-horn cabaret style. And that's the point. Yes, DeLaria's been a hit on the stage, but she's certainly not another bawling jazz dilettante filling time between shows. Her father is a jazz pianist, and she grew up listening to Chet Baker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and it shows immediately. Apart from the repertoire, the only real nod to her Broadway background comes at the end with Tom Waits' "Straight To The Top" (from Frank's Wild Years). Her wry impression of Rat Pack, Las Vegas mannerisms features a staccato, nightclub delivery peppered with side-of-the-mouth comments about how good the waitresses look.
It's great. But who will buy it?
"Let's just say that I have the oddest audience right now," she admits. "I would expect a lot of gay people who wouldn't normally buy a jazz record to buy it. But I'd also hope a lot of jazz people who wouldn't normally buy a Lea DeLaria record will buy it."
By the end of the year, the plan is that she'll be working mostly with her jazz band: perhaps a residency at a leading New York jazz club, and, she hopes, a tour with UK dates. So is this a conscious move to separate her sexuality from her work? Could the first openly gay comic to perform on US national television be turning mellow?
"I'm not running away from who I am or what I used to be. It's just that I'm being offered acting work, I'm being offered singing work. I love doing it, and I'm still very visibly who I am. You know what I mean? Here I am! I'm singing! I'm acting! And, hey, I'm still a big dyke!"
'Play It Cool' is out now on Warner BrosReuse content