After a performance at the Umbria Jazz Festival in Italy, Yolande Bruce was sitting in on an after-show jam session when Roy Hargrove, the American trumpet virtuoso who then was still on the rise, came up to her. You sing like an instrument, he told her.
"And that's right, because Yolande delivered with accuracy and agility — especially when she was scatting — and she had great relative pitch," said bandleader Sanford Moore, who witnessed the exchange. "As an artist, she was a musician's singer with improvisation that was spot-on. And as a friend, she had a heart of gold."
A singer, actor and choir leader who left indelible impressions in all three realms, Bruce died Sunday in the Twin Cities from leukemia. She was 62.
"Yolande was naturally gifted with a great ear for music," said Connie Evingson, who sang alongside Bruce for 35 years in Moore by Four as the vocal ensemble toured Europe, Asia and the United States. "I feel I've lost a family member, because we blended our voices for so many years together."
Her loss is being felt in many quarters. Bruce performed in plays and musicals at the Guthrie Theater ("Dream on Monkey Mountain"), Penumbra ("Black Nativity"), the Ordway, the Illusion and other venues.
She opened for the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan and B.B. King. And she directed choirs at churches such as Kingdom Life and Fellowship Missionary Baptist.
"Whenever people would meet Yo, the first thing they saw was that smile," said T. Mychael Rambo, the noted singer-actor. "That was the gateway to her soul, warm and welcoming. She was affable and pleasant, generous and gracious, and that was genuinely who she was, her way of living her light."
That light came by inheritance and disciplined study.
Her mother was singer and song stylist Roberta Davis, who trained in opera but also sang jazz and gospel. Tommy Bruce, her uncle, worked as a singer, and her younger sister, Brooke Leigh Davis, is making a name for herself in opera in Nashville.
"Nobody could out-scat her," said Dennis Spears, a member of Moore by Four who also performed alongside Bruce in "Black Nativity," Penumbra's holiday tradition. "I learned from her that all I had to do was listen to a lot of horn solos, and not overthink it. She helped me get the technical hurdles out of my head."
Bruce honed her talent through hard work and conducted herself with humility. She led choirs, almost always with Moore, at churches and onstage with such spirit that she sometimes seemed to be pulling not just soulfulness but supple phrasing and unique but delicious sounds from the group.
"Whenever she was able to share across the genres — whether in the choir stand, at center stage or in the solo spotlight — she was one of the brightest lights," Rambo said.
Bruce had a yen for knowledge and a natural capacity to connect to people.
"A couple of years ago, we went to Cuba on a family cruise for her and her cousin's birthday," son Miles Davison recalled. "We spent the day walking around and enjoying the music, art, restaurants. It was special to share that time with her, and to see her love of people."
A child of St. Paul's historic Rondo neighborhood, Bruce was born to Davis and father Kenneth Lemon, a deacon in Kansas City. She graduated from St. Paul's Central High School, where she ran track, and later attended both Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Ark., and the University of Minnesota.
Her marriage to Rodney Crim ended in divorce. For 20-plus years, she served as a lead investigator for the state of Minnesota.
Lowell Pickett, co-owner of the Dakota nightclub, served as Moore by Four's tour manager for their Umbria Festival outing.
"One of the people who was captivated by Yolande was ['Tonight Show' bandleader] Kevin Eubanks," Pickett recalled. "She had a red outfit on once in one of her performances, and he started calling her Red. Yolande just had this radiance, this effervescence about her that was just infectious. That's both her personality and talent."
James Rocco, former producing artistic director at the Ordway, directed Bruce in "Blues in the Night." He recalled that she understudied three characters in the show — one a child, another an adult and the third elderly. "It was amazing to watch as she transformed into each character. This is a huge loss for our world," he said.
Bruce was philanthropic with her gifts, singing at many funerals.
"People would always ask her, 'What's your fee?' and she would tell them that she does not charge people in their grief. She wanted to use her gifts as a gift," Davison said.
Her son recalled that when he was in high school, his basketball teammates knew his mother "as the person they could always count on for a ride or a kick in the behind," he said. "She was wonderfully supportive, and music was a huge part of that."
In addition to her son, who lives in St. Paul, survivors include siblings Brooke Davis of Nashville; Leslie Smith of Alexandria, La.; Emmanuel Matthews and Schawn Marie Lemon of Kansas City, Mo.; and Diane Lemon and Shannon Lemon of Atlanta.
Services are being planned.