Swingin’ and singin’: CCAE class explores jazz singing

By Susie Davidson

The idea of jazz singing conjures up verve, adaptability and a certain amount of bravado. In a genre of synonymous with improvisation, vocalists have their work cut out for them. A successful jazz singer can only be one of the most versatile and polished caliber.

For those who would like to try to get there, Joe Della Penna is offering, for the third year, a “Beginning Jazz Singing” class at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education which will run on Thursday evenings from June 19 to Aug. 7 and, this year, resume on Sept. 25 for another run. Singers or aspiring singers can explore the intricacies of vocalizing, as well as the actual ins-and-outs of the genre itself at the class, which is limited to eight students.

Jazz singing lacks absolute definition, according to Della Penna. “But a jazz singer, as opposed to someone more in pop/rock, can improvise with greater skill,” he said. “Their music-making swings and has a blues feeling,” he added, noting that these are two main ingredients that help constitute the language of jazz.

“I get people with lots of knowledge about jazz but not a lot of singing experience, and some singers with pop or cabaret experience who don’t know much about jazz,” said Della Penna, who holds a master’s degree in jazz from the New England Conservatory of Music. “If your own curiosity leads you to improvising within the language of jazz, then you are an aspiring jazz singer,” he said.

Louis Armstrong, the first significant jazz singer, began the tradition of “scat” singing, which employs “nonsense” syllables in lieu of lyrics. He was the premier soloist in a previously ensemble-based field. Bessie Smith, who is often referred to as “The Empress of the Blues,” began a tradition of blues singing in jazz, much as Robert Johnson introduced blues to folk music.

Distinct jazz voices have included Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Joe Williams, Mel Torme, Chet Baker, Betty Carter and Carmen McRae. Prominent contemporary singers include Mark Murphy, Abbey Lincoln, Shirley Horn, Diana Krall, Kurt Elling, the NEC’s Dominique Eade and Rebecca Parris.

Della Penna explains that instrumentalists have largely been men and thus, women have tended to dominate the singing aspect of the act. However, he points out that many male jazz notables, such as Armstrong and Nat King Cole, also sang. His class’ gender is ratio is evolving as well. “I’ve had one guy to seven women before, but my last class had four men,” he said, stressing that all who are sincere, regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation, are welcome.

A CCAE faculty member, Della Penna is also a member of the Boston Association of Cabaret Artists. He has played classical, jazz and pop piano for more than 25 years, and for the past four, has taught piano, voice, composition and theory. “People study privately with me both long term, in short doses, and sometimes as a one-meeting-only deal, perhaps for an event like an audition,” he said.

After taking up jazz singing 10 years ago he began teaching, which he sees as an extension of performing. “You perform and develop yourself, in a way ‘teaching’ the audience,” he said. “When teaching, you are especially aware of the music-making process.”

Della Penna has performed at the Encore Lounge and the Acton Jazz Café; his debut CD, recorded live at the Zeitgeist Gallery in Inman Square, is due out later this year. His own favorite male singers are Mel Torme, Chet Baker, Jimmy Scott, Johnny Hartman, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles, and for women, Billie Holliday, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Abbey Lincoln, Blossom Dearie and Chris Connor.

“I first heard Billie Holliday when I was 15,” he recalled. “Her sound spoke to me. I finally had the opportunity, and found the courage to pursue it myself, when I studied with Dominique Eade at NEC.”

“The class is for those who wish to foray into the exciting word of jazz styling and improvisation,” said the CCAE’s Director of Public Relations Will McMillan.

“I aim to create a supportive environment, and we have a lot of fun,” said Della Penna. “If you can carry a tune, you are welcome to join us.”

Beginning Jazz Singing with Joseph Della Penna begins June 19 and runs from 8:30 to 10 p.m. for eight weeks at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, 56 Brattle St., Harvard Square. The cost is $141 for the series. For information, please call 617-547-6789, ext. 222, email will@ccae.org or visit www.ccae.org. For information on Joe Della Penna, please visit www.joedellapenna.com

The Warren Report
Cambridge pianist to honor unsung musical hero

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."