Dana Lauren: Songs From Her Heart
It began happening in Bloomfield, Connecticut, where she grew up in a family that appreciated music (as a youngster, her father sang in synagogue: "He used to make all the old ladies cry"). Her mother played the records of Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Connick and Mel Tormé. "I was surrounded by standards, vocally. Elton John was another major influence. He was the first concert I ever went to, when I was 7."
Dana Lauren Performing with Joel Frahm
She took classical piano lessons starting at the age of seven and started jazz piano at 14. In high school, she auditioned for the jazz ensemble. "It was a group of mostly seniors guys and I was a freshman girl. The director actually took the spot away from the other pianist and gave it to me, which caused a little bit of drama. But it was really exciting, because it was the first time I played in a group setting. I had never done that before. That's when I realized I really wanted to improvise. It was so much freer than the classical pieces I was playing. It's just something that I felt strongly that I could do."
As she got into the music, she began picking up CDs, Bud Powell and Wynton Kelly being among the first. Dave Brubeck was also an influence when she entered her teens. "I went to a Starbucks with my cousin ... They have these jazz compilations [CDs]. 'Strange Meadowlark' was on that, from Time Out (Columbia, 1959). I fell in love with it. So I went and bought all his CDs. He was a major influence on me when I was 13, 14.," she says, adding to the list "Freddie Hubbard. Ella Fitzgerald. I still do love her."
Singing is something she always did while she practiced piano. As she got into the music, "I knew that I wanted to sing jazz. It was just getting the chance to sing it in a performance setting. My choir did 'No More Blues.' A cheesy arrangement of it. My director gave me a solo." It got a great response and she eventually joined a jazz choir. Another key step was attending the summer band camp that is attached to the Litchfield Jazz Festival in Connecticut. She studied there with Jennifer Barnes, "an amazing vocalist. She really took me under her wing. I still talk to her sometimes. She was amazing. Explaining what would help set me apart from other vocalists. She said, 'I really think you have a lot of potential. But you have to practice. You can't rest on being really good at a young age. Because [if you do] you'll never get any better.' At the time I thought it was kind of harsh. But I look back and I see it's one of the many things that gave me that push."
Lauren began getting small gigs around where she lived. She was taking piano lessons at Martocchio Music with Damian Curtis. "I had a gig at a small event, a charity golf tournament. ... I was 15 and I needed a bassist. Damian said his brother was a really good bassist. At the time I didn't realize it was Luques Curtis, who's an in-demand bassist on the jazz scene. I had no idea. That's how we met. And he's still my bassist today. He's a Grammy Award-winning bassist now. It's weird how it all worked out."
In high school, she won the Outstanding Vocal Soloist Award at the 2006 Berklee College of Music High School Jazz Festival. She was on her vocational path. "Definitely. Even when I was in elementary school, I used to tell my parents, 'I'm going to be a singer. That's what I want to do.' So yeah, I knew that music was always what I wanted to do," she says.
At the New England Conservatory, she went through an intensive theory program, including ear training, dictation, transcribing solos and identifying chords. But the most helpful aspect was studying with Dominique Eade, who made an indelible mark. "She's amazing. She really helped me develop the sound of my instrument. Showing me how to use my voice in different ways."
She found the conservatory somewhat restrictive when it came to playing gigs outside of school to further hone her skills. Transferring to Berklee, she found an environment that fostered musicians who were able to get gigs. "My whole feeling is you learn during performance," she says. "I didn't want to be the person to graduate, and then be scrambling to get gigs. I want it so when I graduate, I already have a steady career. I feel like that's what I'm in school to do. Berklee is really supportive of that." After doing a week at the Blue Note earlier this year, "I missed my first week of classes. One of my teachers was joking. He said, 'Oh yeah. I'm going to punish you for performing at the Blue Note.' He said, 'No way. Don't worry about your classes. Go and perform and we'll figure it out when you get back.'"