Voices in Jazz Interview

Dena DeRose — Beauty in Subtlety and Swing

“The most creative and compelling singer-pianist since Shirley Horn…DeRose is a member of that exclusive company of musicians (notably Nat Cole, Blossom Dearie, and Horn) who sing and play the piano with equal distinction.”
– Joel E. Siegel, Washington City Paper

Dena DeRose is a musicians’ musician. She moved from Binghamton, New York to New York City in 1991, honing her craft and making fans everywhere she’s performed. At the age of 21, she was diagnosed with arthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome, which forced her to stop playing piano for almost two years. The good news for jazz fans is the illness pushed Dena to develop her lovely singing voice. In 2002, ’03 & ’06, Dena gained national recognition in the annual Downbeat’s Critics Poll for “Artist Deserving Wider Recognition”. She’s been performing, recording, teaching and earning accolades ever since that time. We don’t see or hear Dena often enough since her move to Graz, Austria, seven years ago. She is the vocal chair at, The University of Music and Performing Arts in Graz. I was lucky to catch Dena on tour promoting her new solo album, “Live in Belgium” on the MaxJazz record label. September 14th & 15th, New Yorkers have an opportunity to catch Dena in action at The Kitano Hotel Jazz Room. Her group consists of a beautiful rhythm section, Mr. Steve Williams on drums and bass master Ben Wolfe. This coming weekend, September 8th & 9th, Seattle’s vocal jazz fans have an opportunity to hear Dena and I together in concert, plus a workshop on Saturday afternoon, as part of Nich Anderson’s Vocal Jazz Series.

This interview was part of a JVOICE jazz educators series I started on Facebook in 2009 to highlight programs and the educators who are inspiring and changing today’s landscape for young jazz vocalists.

RV: What is the most important quality for any singer to present in concert or on a recording?

DD: I think the most important quality for a singer to present in concert or on a recording is a feeling of sincerity. But, I also feel that a good sense of musicality, a confident, yet, non-ego or diva aura/vibe, and a love for what he or she is doing up there on that stage. When these are achieved, there is more communication between the musicians and audience to help create a positive musical experience for all.

RV: Did you always want to be a musician?

DD: I always knew that I was meant to be a musician. There were times when I thought I should be a basketball player, but knew that I was better at music, so I made the decision in high school to make music my main priority.

RV: Were you a natural musician, playing off the top of your head or were you a studious musician?

DD: I believe I am both a natural musician and a life-long student of music. I started out playing the piano ‘by ear’ before having formal lessons at the age of 3. And, with singing, I had been doing some in pop bands in my teens, but hadn’t had any vocal training until my early 20’s

RV: I know you were a pianist first and foremost, but because of carpal tunnel syndrome and arthritis you began singing after sitting in with a group. How do you feel your experience as a pianist shaped your singing?

DD: Having played piano for many years before making singing a part of what I do, I feel it gave me the musical foundation needed in this day and age of being a jazz singer and provided me with the confidence, discipline, and vision of what it takes to be a vocal musician

RV: Many great natural singers have a difficult time with ear training and theory. As a renowned vocal jazz teacher, what disciplines have you’ve found particularly successful in training student’s ears?

DD: Training the ear is something that I’m continually learning to develop in my teaching. The key is ‘correct repetition’ and routine practicing. Some things that have been successful for me have been:
a) Interval training by using various ‘flashcard’ games I made up, listening to a lot of music
b) singing of scales over certain chords or chord progressions
c) sight-reading ‘Modus Novus’ (an A-Tonal approach)
d) listening exercises which enable a singer to recognize chord qualities and chord progressions, by singing the ‘changes’ through tunes (naming chords when singing the roots, naming note names of roots and 3rds, or roots and 7ths, guide tone lines, and arpeggios, etc.)
e) Some students have found that the online ear training websites are helpful, too, but I am not too familiar with them.

RV: Do you believe singers should be required to study piano and theory before entering college or conservatory music programs?

DD: I do believe having some basic knowledge of and ability to play a little piano before entering into a university vocal program is needed if you want to be accepted into a reputable jazz program. I think this became of more importance in the last 10 years, as most university jazz programs today require all instruments to take ‘piano for non-majors’. The knowledge is not only good for your own instruments needs, but it’s also required for arranging, composition, etc.

RV: Do you advocate the use of solfege to learn solos?

DD: I don’t require students to use ‘solfege’ unless they know it well. In the past, I’ve had some Italian students that found it very helpful as they grew up singing with solfege from an early age.

RV: What method do you use to teach young singers how to swing and develop a solid sense of time?

DD: Learning to have a solid sense of time can come from listening to a lot, and I mean a lot, of really great music, but also it can come from working with a metronome, and from listening to your ‘inner metronome’ once one is at a point of having a somewhat good sense of time.

I have found that having singers listen to a certain recording like “I Hadn’t Anyone But You” by Sarah Vaughan and singing along with it note for note, nuance by nuance, and not only learning how Sarah sings it, but also learning the horn lines and ensemble figures behind her singing also. The Basie band and Ellington orchestra are also what I ask singers to listen and learn from for gaining a ‘swingin’ feeling.

Another thing I’ve found helpful to singers who need to learn to swing is learning to play the drums… If only learning to ‘ride’ the cymbal and keep the hi-hat on 2 & 4. It reeeeeally gives them a sense of the time and swing feel. Actually, learning any other instrument helps, too. Some of my students in Graz have taken drums, bass, saxophone, flute, viola, and other various instruments and have learned a great deal about ‘time’ to apply to their voice.

RV: Do you think that you’ll ever write a book on jazz singing?

DD: Yes, someday I will write a jazz singing book.

Thank you Dena for taking time out to catch us up on your projects, history and teaching. Warm regards for your continued success and happiness. RV

Dena is currently working on a project for the Frankfurt Radio Big Band called ‘Contemporary Standards’ containing material recorded “live” on two concerts in April 2013.