By Kevin Kelley
Crocker Park officials had not even announced they were seeking entertainment acts for the retail center’s
official opening and holiday tree lighting ceremony in November 2005 when Diane Mis contacted them. She asked Darryl Whitehead, then the marketing director for Crocker Park, if her 13-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, could audition by playing her saxophone for him.
“She hit three notes,” Whitehead recalled. “I walked out of the room to get a piece of paper.”
After Mis completed her song, Whitehead handed her the blank piece of paper.
“Do me a favor,” Whitehead told the 13-year-old. “Sign your name because I want the first autograph.”
“At 13, you’d think you’d hear some squeaks,” Whitehead said. “She hit everything on the nose.”
Mis performed at Crocker Park’s annual tree lighting event for a couple of years until a scheduling conflict kept her away.
One hopes Whitehead still has that autograph, because Mis, now 21, is shifting hard into the next phase of her career.
Last month, the Bay Village resident released her second album of smooth jazz music, “Breakaway.”
It’s not just an album of tunes recorded in her basement or from live concerts. This one was produced by Nate Harasim, who received a Grammy nomination and BET award for his work as composer and keyboardist on Dave Koz’s 2010 album “Hello Tomorrow.” Recorded in May and June at Harasim’s Michigan studio, the album includes 10 tracks, written by Harasim, Darren Rahn and Mis herself.
Mis wants the album to not only do well but send the entire smooth jazz genre in a new direction.
“Not as many people are buying (smooth jazz) records,” Mis told West Life. We’re not getting as many new fans as we should be. I always hoped that maybe I could be the one who could bridge the gap between the young and the old (fans).
Mis believes smooth jazz is in need of a new and fresh sound.
“I think some of the smooth jazz artists out there are kind of stuck in the same CDs they’ve been putting out that kind of all have the same sound and vibe,” she said.
She doesn’t believe it’s all that difficult to create a new sound for the genre.
“Smooth jazz is like instrumental, rhythm and blues and pop,” she said. “You’ve got all three working and you can really make it something totally new and different.”
Her first album, “Forever & Ever,” was no half-hearted effort, having been produced by two-time Grammy Award winner Paul Brown, who produced saxophonist Boney James’ hit 1992 album “Trust.”
The story of how she first hooked up with Brown in 2005 is another example of Mis’s gumption. Mis and her mom went to see Brown before a downtown concert, timing it to enter the venue around sound-check time. Mis asked Brown, who was eating at the time, if she could play with him that night.
“So he said yes,” Mis recalled. “My mom actually came home to get my horn.”
Mis must have the power to use Jedi mind tricks, because she used basically the same strategy to meet smooth jazz star Dave Koz backstage when he was playing the Palace Theater in 2003.
“The security guys didn’t give me any problems because I had this instrument with me,” she said. “It was really cool to be in this one-on-one environment with him.”
Mis began playing the clarinet at age 8 but switched to the saxophone after hearing songs by smooth jazz icon Kenny G.
“Once I heard Kenny G, it opened up a whole new world for me with the saxophone,” she said.
Today, Mis specializes in the soprano saxophone. However, she owns five saxophones, including the alto versions.
Mis credits being homeschooled during much of her childhood with giving her additional time to practice her craft. Her father, a car salesman, and mother, a graphic designer, have always been supportive of her musical aspirations, she said. She has a younger brother and younger sister, but neither seems to have the music gene, she said.
Mis studied for two years at Cuyahoga Community College to receive an associates degree in music. But the academic study of music doesn’t appeal to her as much as performing does, she said.
She has performed the national anthem at Cleveland Indians and Cavaliers games, and continues to play at private parties where she sells her albums. But the number of local performances waned in recent years as she focused more on the new album.
Musicians are often chasing the next gig. For Mis, that’s become a bit more difficult as the genre’s popularity has faded a bit locally in recent years. She would like to make her living through performing so she has the freedom to travel for concerts. Those travels have included plane rides to Dubai the past two years for that nation’s Skywards Dubai International Jazz Festival.
Smooth jazz is much more popular on the West Coast, Mis said. That’s where she’ll be – specifically Stockton, Calif., on New Year’s Eve. That concert with 19-year-old smooth jazz keyboardist Nicholas Cole is expected to launch a national tour for the two.