The Warren Report – Cambridge pianist to honor unsung musical hero

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by Matthew S. Robinson
Chronicle Correspondent

Joe Della Penna grew up surrounded by music.

“My dad used to play piano when he was about the age I am now,” the 33-year-old vocalist/pianist/composer/playwright/film scorer recalled, “but I got most of it from just listening to records.”

At a very early age, Joe discovered his seemingly innante talent to pick out a song on his father’s piano after hearing it only once.

“I don’t know why,” he said, shrugging. “I’ve just always been able to do it!”

It was only natural, therefore, when 8-year-old Della Penna began to study the Suzuki Method of classical piano, which is based on playing by ear. About seven years later, Della Penna discovered jazz.

“That represented a major change,” he said.

After attending the Hart School of Music in Connecticut, the New Jersey native came to Boston to attend the New England Conservatory, where he continued to study piano with the likes of Paul Bley and Ran Blake.

“Ran really fine-tuned what I was doing and helped me find my voice,” Della Penna recalled.

Once he had found his “voice,” Joe needed someone to help him fine-tune that as well.

“I had always been shy about my voice,” he admitted, “but when I had the opportunity to study with Dominique Eade, I jumped at it!”

Today, Joe continues to study and teach both piano and voice. In addition to popular private lessons, Della Penna is also on the faculty of the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, where he will soon be teaching a course which will help others find their own voices through the language of jazz.

“I have been doing private lessons for a year and I have taught music appreciation classes on jazz teachers at CCAE,” Della Penna explained. “I wanted to do something different and try a hands-on teaching approach. I wanted to help people improvise and learn how to make the music their own.”

Joe’s class has proven so popular that there is already a waiting list. But have no fear, would-be- be-boppers. Joe is preparing a second course for the fall.

Before that adventure begins, however, Della Penna is eager to lead his fellow music fans on a musical voyage into the repertoire of one of America’s  greatest unsung heroes. On June 7, Joe will present a lecture at CCAE on Harry Warren.

“Harry who?’ you ask. “He wrote all the music for ’42nd Street,’ ” Della Penna said, “and a bunch of other songs we all know, yet which few know who wrote them.”

Captured by the song “With Plenty of Money and You” from the Woody Allen film “Small Time Crooks,” Della Penna went searching for the composer.

“I found an album called ‘Capitol Sings Harry Warren’ in the discount bin at HMV,” Joe said. “And I discovered that I knew all the songs.”

Though he has given lectures on songwriters like Johnny Mercer, Della Penna admits to having a soft spot for the lesser-known authors of the great American songbook.

“I like to introduce people to music they might not know or that they might know but might not know that much about,” Della Penna said.

For those who share Joe’s love for the classic sounds, he often holds court at Boston’s Bay Tower Room and Cambridge’s Club Cafe, where he will be performing on the second Sunday of June and July.

“It’s a Sunday brunch gig,” Joe said, “which is a lot of fun, especially when people come up to me and tell me they enjoyed the music.”

Though the compliments are appreciated, Della Penna admits it takes a lot to make it as a musician, especially in the music-student-heavy Boston area.

“It takes a lot to be creative,” he said. “It takes perserverance and patience and the ability to put yourself out there.”

So what would be an experienced performer advise for others looking to join him on his musical stairway to paradise?

“Start networking very early,” he said. “Go out and play and perform and get out there.”

And how far along is the wise teacher himself? “I have started doing what I want to do,” Della Penna said. “I’m still doing that and I got a long way to go.”