The Andrew Butler Interview with Joe Della Penna

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April 17, 2008  (Edited)

Andrew C. Butler 

HUM 227

Prof. D. Vinson

17 April 2008

Fieldwork Assignment

      This interview was conducted on April 11th, in the Cambridge, MA residence of Joe Della Penna, local jazz pianist and teacher. This interview was conducted By Andrew Butler, student at Suffolk University, for Humanites 227, Jazz. The interview begins with a short performance by Mr. Della Penna. A CD copy is available on request.

A: Good Afternoon, it’s Friday April 11th, I am here with Joe Della Penna, who is going to be playing us a selection called…

J: “What Is There To Say?”

A: Take it away Joe…

(Joe sings and plays):

What is there to say, and what is there to do?
The dream I’ve been seeking 
has practically speaking come true.

What is there to say?
And how will I pull through?
I knew in a moment 
contentment and home meant just you.

You are so loveable, so livable
your beauty is just unforgivable.
You’re made to marvel at,
and words to that effect.

So what is there to say?
And what is there to do?…

(aside: What’s the last line? You have a couple- some memory slips when you get older…..I know):

My heart’s in a deadlock,
I’ve even face wedlock with you.

A: OK, ready, go. So I don’t know, this isn’t a very good recorder…

J: This is probably. One second…..test…..test 

A: So, Joe-

J: Yes Andrew?

A: Pianist, vocalist, we just heard a lovely tune. Which by the way, who wrote that originally?

J: That was Vernon Duke and Yip Harburg.

A: I just wanted you to tell me how you got your start in music.

J: Okay, how far back should we start?

A: Just an overview from your childhood to say college.

J: Sure, okay. Well, I was just always obsessed with records and played them constantly when I was four, five years old. I heard my father play some piano when I was growing up and I asked for lessons when I was 8 years old. And, thankfully, they granted me that wish and I started what was called Suzuki Piano method which is an ear-training based methodology that was developed in Japan. 
      But I always had a good natural gift for playing by ear, and I have perfect pitch and was just able to recall things very easily from listening to something on a record and playing it. And I mean, this wasn’t always the “best” music. Abba, or the Partridge Family, or disco. Then, when I was about 15, my father had me get with a jazz teacher, and  at the same time my mother introduced me to an artist. We don’t have a camera…so between the two of them I learned…

A: Is that a painting?

J: It is, yeah, a print of it. (Joe indicates a framed print on his wall called “The Fourth of July” by the American artist Carroll N. Jones III). Between the two of them I was listening to Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson and also discovered Billie Holiday, and also heard Aaron Copland, Charles Ives, Ravel, Stravinsky and Mahler. So at fifteen I found both, more “contemporary classical” music alongside of Jazz. The two are very related in some ways.

  When I was 17 I met (the late) Jackie McLean, who was a great protégé of Charlie Parker, a force of music. And I auditioned at the Hartt School of Music in West Hartford, Connecticut. I graduated in ’91 and had studied with him and the pianist Jaki Byard. I took some time off between schools and I applied to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston in ’93, did the 2-year Masters there, and I’ve been in the Boston area ever since.

A: What was your Masters specifically in, composition? Or…

J: No, my Masters was in Jazz Studies. It was the first time I studied voice privately. I didn’t have the opportunity or the guts, quite frankly, to do that before. I had sung in choirs and thought, okay, it was now or never. I really wanted to sing. Billie Holiday changed my life when I was 15, and 10 years later I thought, c’mon let’s do something with it. I found Dominique Eade at the New England Conservatory and she was the first to hold my hand and say “It’s okay, you can do this”. I had her and Paul Bley and Ran Blake who are two phenomenal pianists as well.

A: So, You would say you’re a strictly…you emphasize piano and vocal as your two main instruments? 

J: That’s correct. I don’t really play horns. I played some mallet percussion in high school, but I’m now a music educator and private vocal coach. I’ve been teaching an ongoing class for some years. It developed out of the Cambridge Center for Adult Education and it was called “Beginning Jazz Singers”. Now it’s “The Jazz Singers Workshop” and I brought it home with me privately.
(mocking like an announcer):
We’re LIVE from our new home at 100 Landsdowne Street in Central Square, Cambridge!

A: So, after college you decided to start educating? That was one of your…like you get out of your master’s program and it’s like, what do you do for work? Was that the first thing that came to mind or, how did you get involved?

J: Well it wasn’t the first thing that happened. In ’95 I just finished the two-year masters and actually I was pretty exhausted. People were saying, “Oh, now you should go for a Doctorate and do this…” and I was like “No, no!”. I did a lot of G.B. (“general business”) gigs and weddings and parties. I didn’t have a very strong direction after I graduated to be honest. But I just sort of needed time to unwind for a little while and find what I wanted to do.
And eventually I wanted to teach and I was working at a record store (HMV in Harvard Square, Cambridge) and I was just very unhappy and I thought, “What do I really want to do?”, and I just decided one day to be very proactive about it, open the phone book and just call people. And I started a studio with two students and built it from there and brought the class to the Cambridge Center (of Adult Education). My parents are both teachers and being the first-born I thought “Well, do I just follow automatically then?” I had all this inner-drama about what can I do as a teacher. I think I started out pretty well. And I’ve learned a lot about myself and the music too just by teaching more now.
It’s something I count as another talent, another side of my profession,
that I really enjoy.

A: In addition to the teaching you’ve also been performing a lot lately, specifically I noticed at UpStairs on the Square Friday nights as the pianist. So talk a little bit about your performing around town. How’s that going?

J: Well I’ll start from that because I had put out my CD and DVD to a guy named Bert Seager of Music Management (a music agency in Boston). He’s…I believe he’s also a pianist.

A: That’s a self-produced CD and DVD?

J: Yes it is. Yeah, the CD is a live recording from the Zeitgeist Gallery, it’s now the Lilypad. It’s called “Children Go where I Send Thee” by the Joe Della Penna Trio. That’s myself on piano with Greg Loughman on bass and Brooke Sofferman on drums. Those are two of the best young musicians on the scene today. The DVD is a different show called “It’s A Most Unusual Day” that’s a live vocal and piano, between jazz and cabaret set, (performed and recorded at) Jimmy Tingle’s (Off-Broadway Theater, Somerville Massachusetts) in ’06. 
That features more standards and a variety of things, comedy and such and the CD is some of my original compositions and standards as well.
And so I sent these materials to Seager at Music Management, and he passed it along to Mary-Catherine Diebel and Debra Hughes at Upstairs about a year ago.

A: They liked it and met with you…

J: Yeah. Well Bert, he was friends with them and he thought it would be a good fit. It is. It’s a very interesting place. It’s some of the best food around. It has kind of this Alice in Wonderland kitschy-interior quality. The piano is  laquered lavender painted to match with zebra patterns and pink walls.

A: Very fanciful!

J: Yes, the atmosphere is something unto itself which is pretty interesting.

A: So you sort of play in the background on Friday nights to people’s dinner?

J: Yes. It’s background and my approach to playing like that is it’s not a concert. You’re not going to be so avant-garde or so attention-getting that people have to sit down like at a live concert. But I don’t really like what’s called “wallpaper”. I don’t want to blend so much where it’s just kind of boring, vanilla and white bread. I want to play something interesting enough that you could listen to and say oh yeah, he’s playing some good stuff but it’s gotta be…you have to find that balance between both.

A: Yeah, and I think it has to be interesting to you as well, right? I mean you’re up there for however many hours. I mean, you don’t want to play “Piano Man” over and over or whatever the people want so yeah, I think that’s true you have to find…

J: Yeah, that song is not my favorite. Actually, I will play and emphasize jazz. It’s like Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans and Cole Porter, and I love playing a lot of Sondheim, and try to steer it that way if I can. And I’ll throw in Coldplay or something like modern pop I like too.

A: Yeah. So would you do your own jazz arrangement of a Sondheim piece or a Coldplay song? Is it improv and “do your own thing”?

J: If it’s Coldplay, it’s pretty strict to what the record is. If it’s Monk, it’s close to Monk’s own writing because that’s the best way to approach his compositions. If it’s standards, I’m usually improvising the arrangement on the spot right there. Or sometimes I have played something a certain way and I return to it but it really varies. You have to sort of go with whatever the mood is of the room, so even if I come with a set list, maybe (I won’t) follow it. And people request and tip so you go by that. 

A: And It’s just you by yourself? There’s no drummer, no bassist?

J: Correct. It’s a small corner they leave me too, and I have to adjust tables and all that. I’m not singing, I’m just playing. But some people will just break into song at tables and some people will get up and dance.
It’s a good happening!

A: Oh it’s good. So it’s sort of so you can so you read the mood of the room say, and you may be also are able to steer would you say?

J: Yeah that’s a good way of putting it, sure. And I think any gig particularly if you’re playing by yourself, you can adjust that way to what the mood is. Does it need to be little quieter or do you need to get something romping and play some more stride piano? Whatever the mood calls you to do as well.

A: That’s good. I wanted to say, so do you think this gig, at UpStairs, which is a recurring weekly gig, is it hard to come by a position like that in Boston?

J: I think so. It took me awhile. I was really just trying to find something where I could be playing regularly where people saw me, and I did (get the job). There’s this big thing now, the Science of Mind (religion/philosophy) and Law of Attraction. Or now it’s like “The Secret” is the new pop term. The idea of thinking in positivity and the idea of thinking goal-oriented to something you’d like to do. And that was certainly one of them (working at UpStairs). I thought I really have got to keep looking and looking and be proactive about finding something, and this came into place. And an article in the Globe followed that, and an interview last week, and now here we are with Mr. Andrew Butler from Suffolk University! (laughs)

A: Oh you’re a riot! I’m not familiar, what’s the…how were you featured in the Boston Globe? That’s big publication.

J: It came…it’s funny, everyone read it but me! I missed it somehow! I’m like, “What happened, where’d it go?”  and I finally tracked it down and they misspelled my name! Everyone massacres “Della Penna” all the time. They got that right but they put my name as “Joel”! 

A: So from the UpStairs on the Square gig…

J: It was a link to that because I was a new person there so they, this guy Augusto Lino (bartender and manager) who works there took the shot of me and they put something together. But we still need to do a real press release with me on that so that’s coming this year hopefully.

A: Oh good. And so beside the CD that was recorded, last calendar year or the year before?

J: The CD is from ’04 and the DVD is from ’06. 

A: Any future plans to record new material?

J: It’s funny…the newest material I have is this interview and the last one, in terms of, well it’s all publicity. And it all goes back to Paul Bley. (He) used to say that your CD is like your calling card or your advertisement for people to see you live. I’ll tell you some other things that are going on, but I do really want to record again very much so, and I really gotta get my trio back because I love those guys! They play their hearts out every time. Right now I have the UpStairs gig, Tuesdays nights I have this Jazz Singers Workshop, I have private lessons. I am featured monthly for the service called “Wednesday Gathering” at Arlington Street Church, the first Wednesday every month. That’s of course a spiritual home and it’s also Unitarian-Universalist and they allow me to perform my own works and jazz improvisation, so I don’t have to play the organ and Bach which is great if you can do that-but I don’t.

A: Right!

J: They have that too. They have some wonderful organists and a choir. But they know me as the “jazz player”, and I do that.

A: Wow. But you’re pretty busy, I mean…

J: Yeah. Oh I forgot, Mondays and Thursdays I have Boston Conservatory, where I’m playing for a ballet class. I had never done that before until last year and it’s a nice new challenge.

A: So would you say that as a jazz musician living in Boston, does it take the three to four gigs all the time, playing for the ballet class and then jaunting over to the restaurant and then say jaunting to class and say doing the class at your home? Is that what it takes to sort of survive in the Jazz world in Boston?

J: In the music world and entertainment profession, period. Yes.

A: Across the board.

J: I think you have to multi-task and do myriad gigs in the area to keep afloat. I don’t officially have a day job right now so I have all this going together so I’m quite fortunate, but it can be tough—-I think that’s true anywhere. I think people used to go to New York right away to say this is where you have to make it. I think the problem now is you can’t even start out in New York to even starve anymore. I mean if you want to live maybe in Brooklyn, pretty far out from Manhattan. Yeah, Boston’s still kind of expensive but I came to school here and I made roots and friends so…

A: And it’s manageable.

J: Oh yeah. I love Cambridge particularly! 

A: But it’s taken…it’s not like you get right out of school and (it) just all came at you. It took a long time of networking I’m sure, with people at NEC and things like that to really get it off the ground.

J: Right.

A: But congratulations on all your success now! I wanted to ask you, this is a very short interview that I’m doing for my class, but I did want to ask you about your influences, specifically if you wanted to speak about your piano or vocal or whoever, you mentioned a lot of them before such as Billie Holiday and Bill Evans I believe. So, I don’t know if you want to talk about that, about your influences. Who you like and how do they influence you?

J: You know it’s funny, even some of the music I liked as a kid, like Abba and the Carpenters is still stuff I like now. So I think the stuff of quality whether it be pop music or something else, stays with you. And some things I may have liked before I don’t care for now, but some if it I still do for sure. When I was 15 I heard records, LPs. I heard Billie Holiday and Gustav Mahler who are still among my favorites of jazz singing and classical music. But of singers, certainly I put Billie way at the top there and then some of her descendants like Carmen McRae, Abbey Lincoln and Anita O’Day. Carmen is one of my all-time favorite jazz singers because she really knows how to bring together both the best jazz improvisation with a real knowledge of how to “read” a lyric. What I mean is someone who can really “act” a lyric-

A: Interpret it.

J: Interpret and really make you pay attention to the story of the song and not just use it as a vehicle to show off your vocal chops and improvise. Some people do that too, like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, who are wonderful, but Carmen is more…and Billie are closer to my heart and my influence. There’s a singer now named Wesla Whitfield who is more cabaret. She’s not so much of an improviser, but boy, she has one of the best voices and best interpretive voices around! She’s out of San Francisco and comes her yearly. 

So I studied with Rebecca Parris. If you talk about jazz in Boston that’s one of the top names on your list right there. She’s again coming from Carmen and the influence of really owning the lyric and singing. She’s a dear lady and she is really tremendous! When I do these lists I’m going to forget people that I love like Betty Carter and June Christy, and Chris Connor, and oh, and the guys-

A: (about June Christy) I love her!

[Aside about borrowing a CD, here Andrew peruses Joe’s considerable CD collection]

J: Mel Torme…big influence when I was in high school. I had all his records, they were LPs then, him with George Shearing and some others. Chet Baker, who is pure…

A: West Coast…

J: Pure jazz musician, great trumpet player. I mean Mel did some more commercial things but he got back to jazz at the end of his career. Chet was always just a pure…not a technical singer but just a sound. A great natural musician. I love Jimmy Scott. I love Jack Sheldon. Lots of people. Betty Carter is tremendous.

A: So do you think, I mean a lot of these, I would say, some jazz purists…

J: Oh God! I forgot to say his name last time!…

A: Who?

J: Thelonious Monk! Underline that. Genius. Him and Bill I put right at the top there. And I was kicking myself last time because I forgot to mention him.

A: So, Thelonious Monk and I would say, June Christy, Abba, those are very disparate influences. Would you say that you sort of physically think, “Oh I’m going to make an Abba reference in this lick.” or do you just think you internalize all this music that you love and it just comes out in some way or another. Maybe it’s unconscious?

J: I think it’s conscious but it’s more of the latter. I’m aware of all these influences that are there. I mean, I think you can just say you’re a musician, period. Charlie Parker said “I would be happy if they just called what I did music”, and he was certainly jazz. And they said bebop, and they have all these labels. I think Mendelssohn said “Music is too specific for words.”

A: That’s a great quote.

J: Music tells a truth that’s more direct in a way that language can maybe not get to the heart of quite as much.

A: It feels more abstract and yet, very specific. Because it’s specific notes in specific times.

J: But they say music is the universal language in the sense that in language you have to understand English or Japanese or whatever it is and music transcends all of that. I wanted to mention something about…I don’t know if you have anymore questions about influences or something. You know, I just keep my ears open. I’m a big Rufus Wainwright fan right now. I love listening to new singer-songwriters. I just want to listen to whatever is out there and say 
“Okay, I can incorporate this or that”. Whether it’s particular songs or just a different way of, you know, the thing about jazz you could say is it’s not just a form of music but a way of music. To think of it as a verb rather than a noun. The process of it is also jazz and not just the end result of what you hear.

A: Wow. Yeah, no that’s really profound. I agree. I understand where you’re going with that. You threw me for a loop that’s so great. It’s interesting to think, I was thinking when you said Rufus Wainwright it’s interesting to think of these different styles as not thinking, “Oh, he’s in the jazz tradition 
because he…” say, plays piano and sings.

J: Well, he’s not jazz but he’s an extraordinary singer-songwriter.

A: Right. And also, are there influences of jazz? Where do jazz and pop music meet today? Or do they?

J: Well, depending on who you ask or what your historical viewpoint is, jazz and popular music was closer to what jazz was in say, the 1930’s and 40’s. Post-50’s, post-Rock & Roll, what we think of jazz and popular music and other forms of music kind of split a lot more.

A: Agreed.

J: If you’re a musician as a whole human being…I didn’t really get to cover this last time, but it’s interesting to note that for whatever reasons, it doesn’t seem like jazz of all the genres of music art forms has always really resonated with the gay community at all. And when I was an undergraduate I was, certainly at that time, the first openly gay jazz musician who was there. I don’t know if there was anyone before me but at the time there I was. So unless I knew guys from music theater or (the voice departments) there was just me, myself and I. And so I would love to see the history develop and see more of a scene of that particular thing. For whatever reasons, we’re out there but just not in the numbers and not in the recognition that I think are in music theater. (There) it’s almost assumed the guy is gay! (laughs). Or opera, or classical music.

A: You wonder, is the parallel that say, an outsider status has?

J: I was getting to that, yes…

A: Right, because jazz isn’t pop music now, and it has almost a rareified, educated, dignified position that classical music has, in the pop vernacular, in the pop consciousness. Is that part of it?

J: Well I can tell you, one thing that fascinates me about jazz, among other things, is that it’s always to me had one foot in pop vernacular and also one foot in high art at the same time. So it’s funny, people look at Louis Armstrong, musicians know is a definite genius. This is a guy who developed jazz into being a soloist’s art form. He did so many other things, he invented scat singing, pretty much. But people in the general public think, “Oh, he’s that nice guy that sang ‘What a Wonderful World’ or ‘Hello Dolly'”.  No no!
In the 20’s what he created was art on the level of what Picasso and Stravinsky and Hemingway and the other greats of the 20th century developed.

A: Modernism, yeah.

J: Yeah, exactly. But this connection even then- well there was Billy Strayhorn who was…well, I don’t know about openly gay but he was certainly okay with Duke Ellington! There were always (gay) people around, but jazz itself was sort of this underground movement, African-American minority culture.

A: So already outsider…

J: GLBT community is it’s own outsider status. I don’t know. There is this sort of…it’s (the jazz community) very heterosexual. I think certainly years go it was more of a more macho kind of art. Women didn’t play as much of a prominence in jazz, except as singers which really added a lot. But how many female jazz instrumentalists can you think of? I mean, I love the pianists Marian McPartland and Mary Lou Williams, horn players (such as) Melba Liston, they’re here and there. It’s still kind of a boys club. I remember, when I was coming out it was a very heterosexual atmosphere. I call them “jazz jocks”. Guys who are into jazz and women. They had their vibe and I had mine.

A: The fast life…

J: So I sort of adapted to getting closer to musical theater and modern composition and just broadening my own horizons. I was always sort of the outsider within the outsider status.

A: That’s interesting, something we should probe in our next conversation.

J: Sorry…I’m rambling.

A: No no no! And is there anything you wanted to say about your role in the Boston jazz community or your influences, anything else you wanted to add?

J: Nope! (laughs). No, I’m kidding.

A: You’re fine either way!

J: I guess just to anyone reading the interview, just to know that if you believe in you believe in your own work enough…

A: hold that thought!…

(the tape runs out and is flipped to the “B” side) 

A: Where did we leave off?

J: You had this big question, I’m not sure if I understood you correctly. What do I think of my place on the scene?

A: Is there one?

J: Yes there is one. I mean I think the old musician’s complaint is there should be more places to play. At this point, I have not yet played the Regattabar or Scullers. I know in the case of Scullers you have to put a lot of money up front just to play the room and then you need to sell the room out and get a crowd before they ask you back.

A: Kind of tough.

J: It is kind of tough. It can be a tough scene. I’ve sort of found my own way doing different things, doing a lot of teaching and performing in different ways. I just keep trying to grow as a musician. I’m trying to do more singing and songwriting which I’ve gotten to do in the past year. 

   Johnny Mercer said it takes more talent to write music and more guts to write lyrics. And he was right. He was probably the best lyricist we ever had in America. But It’s very tough to just open yourself up to talk about your past, your feelings, and to put that in words is a challenge for me. But that’s why I’m doing it, because it is challenging and I want to do it. 

   The scene is there. Network! Encourage your friends to keep seeing you. Try to get something steady so people can see you, (mocking like an announcer) like Upstairs on the Square, Friday Nights at 6:30! (laughs).
Craigslist…I mean, there are all sorts of different ways you have to get your name out and get busy.

A: Very good. All right, well thank you very much, Joe.

J: Thank you, Andrew.

A: No problem. My pleasure and we will talk to you soon! Thanks, Bye!

J: Bye-bye!

(End of Interview)