Denise Donatelli: Songbird With A Grammy Nomination
Los Angeles-based vocalist Denise Donatelli won a Grammy nomination with her third CD, When Lights Are Low (Savant Records, 2010). An East Coast native and a recipient of classical piano training, she turned to singing jazz, wound up relocating to the West Coast and has since pursued her performance and recording career. This interview was conducted shortly after her Grammy weekend experience.
All About Jazz: Talk a little about your musical background.
Denise Donatelli: I was born into a musical family. My mother was a singer in New York, before she and my dad married, and although my dad was a clothing manufacturer by trade, he played piano by ear. Music is in the Donatelli genes. My grandfather and uncles were musicians in Italy [and] as far back as I can remember, there was always music playing in the house. When I was three years old, my mother found me playing "Silent Night," by ear on the piano. My oldest sister was studying piano at that time, so my mother took me to her piano instructor, a Juilliard graduate and teacher to Keith Jarrett at the time. He told my mother that he wouldn't take on a student so young but changed his mind after he realized my potential. Classical piano lessons ensued, and I studied for the next 15 years. I won numerous Superior Awards at the National Federation of Music Clubs competitions and piano recitals, sometimes carpooling with Keith Jarrett.
AAJ: How did you find your way into singing and jazz?
DD: My oldest sister, who was also a classical pianist, was very much into jazz. We lived in a rural area of Allentown, Pennsylvania and music stores weren't conveniently located, so she subscribed to the Capital and Columbia music clubs. We were inundated with the most amazing jazz music and I listened to it all: Carmen, Sarah, Ella, Nancy, Joe Williams, Dizzy, Charlie Parker, Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, Ahmad Jamal, Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. I would sing along and memorized the lyrics of every standard. By the time I was eight, I could recite the lyrics to "Cloudburst" and "Gimme That Wine!" There was also a lot of Sinatra in the house. Jazz music touched me in a way that classical music couldn't.
Even though I was being groomed to be a classical pianist, by the time I entered my junior year of high school, I realized that I was disenchanted with classical music. I stopped my piano studies to the dismay of my parents. I loved to sing but couldn't overcome performance anxiety.
I married shortly after my first year of college and had two sons. Unfortunately, the marriage didn't work out and I was a single mother for most of their formative years. I didn't start singing again until they were teenagers and we were living in Atlanta. A musician friend of mine took me to a jazz jam and after much prodding and a couple of glasses of wine, I sat in with guitarist Russell Malone, who frequently stopped by the club when he wasn't touring with Diana Krall. After that, I started getting calls for gigs. During the day, I worked at Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. and three nights a week I sang at the Ritz Carlton with a trio. That gig lasted for about four years. It was a lot of fun and that's where I honed my jazz chops. Every Friday night the regulars would come in and hangincluding Freddy Cole, when he wasn't touring.
DD: While working at Turner, I met some people from Los Angeles and decided to move west. I met Neal Hefti, and he gave me a list of clubs and bookers and I immediately started to book gigs. My first gig was with Tom Garvin. I recorded a demo with him and later my first CD, In The Company of Friends (Jazzed Media, 2005). My second CD was done with Geoffrey Keezer.I had been a fan of Geoffrey Keezer for some time, and got very excited when a friend of mine told me he was living on the West Coast as well. When I was looking to record my second CD, I hoped that he would write for me. I put the word out to mutual contacts and within a week, I got an email message from Geoffrey. That was the beginning of a beautiful friendship and musical collaboration.
AAJ: When Lights Are Low is your third CD. What led you to the concept and material choice?
DD: After working together on my second CD, What Lies Within (Savant, 2008), Geoffrey knew my capabilities and wanted to write arrangements that would better showcase my vocal abilities. We used the same process as we did when we were conceptualizing What Lies Within. I feel it's important that the arranger be inspired by the tune, so I sent Geoffrey a list of about 50 tunes or so, and we went through the process of elimination together. Geoffrey suggested "Don't Explain" and "Why Did I Choose You." The latter song was a top ten pick in USA TODAY, by Elysa Gardner, and Geoffrey received a Grammy nomination for his arrangement of "Don't Explain," for Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying A Vocalist. The arrangement is haunting and poignant. I think it's the definitive arrangement.
AAJ: Describe the Grammy experienceparticularly when you were notified about the nomination.
DD: I was in my car driving to meet some musician friends for dinner when I got a text message from Geoffrey saying that he had been nominated for his arrangement of "Don't Explain." I was so excited and thrilled that our CD was recognized, and couldn't have been happierI thought. At the restaurant we were toasting our success as well as the nomination of Bill Cunliffe (also a member of our dinner party) when I got another text from Geoffrey telling me that When Lights Are Low was nominated for Best Jazz Vocal Album. I've been in a state of shock every since. A Grammy nomination is a dream fulfilled. To be recognized by your peers is the most prodigious honor one can receive.
AAJ: What was the Grammy experience like in regard to the choice of dress, makeup and hair styling?
DD: In a word, amazing! One of the most exciting experiences of the Grammy nomination was that I was contacted by a PR firm for designer Sherri Hill, who offered to dress me for the Grammy Awards. Sherri has dressed celebrity artists such as Miranda Lambert, Carrie Underwood and Martina McBride.
When I got to the studio/loft in Hollywood to meet Sherri and try on her dresses, I met actress Eliza Dushku, who was also there doing a photo shoot in Sherri's dresses with Rick Fox, former L.A. Lakers' star. I felt like a princess trying on Sherri's gorgeous designs and also having a photo shoot in her gowns. I walked out of the studio with the first dress I tried on; a very simple yet sophisticated black gown. I must have made the right choice because a couple of days after the Grammy Awards, I received a Google alert with a link to MSN Entertainment's "Most Stylish on the Red Carpet" list. To my surprise, I made the list along with 11 celebrities including Nicole Kidman, Eva Longoria, Kathy Griffin and Kim Kardashian!
AAJ: What was the Grammy Awards weekend like for you?
DD: My whirlwind Grammy week began with a trip to New York, for a performance at the Time Warner Center on Friday night. Coca-Cola was sponsoring an event to promote New York's Fall Fashion Week, and I felt honored to have been chosen to perform on the Style Lounge stage. I was also asked to perform at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola for the night of Valentine's Day, which happened to be the night after the Grammy Awards. I was so excited about the performances and looked forward to doing them but there was the issue of the Grammy nominee reception the night after the Coca-Cola performance, and the Grammy Awards the night before my Valentine's gig.
What to do? I couldn't miss the opportunity to attend the Grammy nominee party and the Awards. Who knows if this will ever happen again? As I said before, to be nominated by your peers is the greatest honor and my being a Grammy nominee is a dream fulfilled. So, I flew back to L.A. in time for the reception on Saturday night and took a red-eye flight back to NYC after the Grammys on Sunday night. Four flights in four days. Thank goodness for Skymiles!
AAJ: Tell me about the Grammy Nominee reception. I understand the nominees get a little jewelry.
DD: The Grammy Nominee reception was a lot of fun, and I got to hang with my friends, fellow nominees Bill Cunliffe and Lorraine Feather. I also got to meet Gregory Porter, who was also nominated in the Best Jazz Vocal Album category. It was a beautiful affair, and every nominee received a medal reminiscent of the Olympic medal made by Tiffany.
AAJ: Now that When Lights Are Low has been out for a while, how much longer will you be working it? Or are you already thinking about your next CD? If so, what direction will that take?
DD: I'm looking forward to recording again this year. I have a few ideas for the next project. All I can say is that it will be different than When Lights Are Low, but just as groovy.
AAJ: What is your career mission for the next year, besides riding on the wave of being a Grammy nominee?
DD: In addition to working on another recording project, I look forward to performing and bringing our music to audiences across the country and, hopefully, abroad.