KJ Denhert is a regular performing artist at the New York 55 Bar, the club where guitarists Mike Stern and Wayne Krantz also love to entertain their guests in the club's intimate ambiance. To see KJ Denhert live is a vibrant and enchanting experience; she's accompanied by outstanding musicians, and turns standards and covers into gems of her own. She describes her music as "urban folk and jazz," and it's both funky and groovy, as well as lyrical, soulful and moving towards the inner realms of the listener's soul. KJ has released five albums so far on her own Mother Cyclone Records label and recently found a club in Harlem - St. Nicks Pub - to suit the vibes of her urban jazz. After all, what better place than Harlem, right?
All About Jazz: Your music is very energetic and vibrant. It also has a touch of melancholy and longing of the soul. You write songs yourself next to singing pop/jazz/rock standards and, if I may say so, you make them your own with a distinctive KJ Denhert touch, like in Sting's "Message In A Bottle." And it's even crystal clear your taste in music is wide and versatile. As a kid, what were your most early musical influences when growing up?
KJ Denhert: Well, I listened to radio - pop radio as a kid. Michael Jackson, the Supremes, The Beatles, Rolling Stones... I also listened to the music my parents had around and that was also pop - Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand, Tony Bennett, some jazz like Dave Brubeck, Ahmad Jamal. When I started to define my own taste the big two were James Taylor and Joni Mitchell, followed by Carole King and on through the '70s songwriters - I started playing guitar when I was 10 years old, so by age 12 I was beginning to really encompass the technique to play '70s soft rock or singer/songwriter stuff.
AAJ: How did your musical career unfold, like did you start to play the guitar and perform, knowing that was what you wanted to do or...?
KJ: When I was 4 years old I asked for a piano, perhaps after meeting my grandmother who played and taught piano. She lived in Grenada and we went there for a long stay during the Cuban missile crisis in the '60s. I think I decided then that I wanted a piano. I thought that I could play and told my mother that I knew when the notes went up and when they went down. At 10, with still no piano around, I picked up my brother's discarded acoustic guitar and wrote a song using only the four remaining strings. I wrote a song for a teacher that died at school. I was rather intense as a child.
From guitar I just went on playing with records and doing something like self study with records - James Taylor, Joni Mitchell - I learned all of the essential Joni Mitchell tunings from a book (For The Roses). James Taylor also had a book that included tablature, a numeric method of notating music that I used to learn how he played certain chords.
My career unfolded "slow and steady" and, despite the adolescent frustration, I know that this slow unfolding was how my star was meant to shine. I had my own band by age 17 and was lucky enough to play the historic folk city open mic even though I was underage. I got a standing ovation my first time out - that hooked me. It would be many years before I received another one.
I played music throughout my life. In college I had a lot of gigs and some airplay. It was very similar to my last few years of holding down a full-time job in finance and gigging and average of 100-plus shows. History repeats itself. I left the university and after a year with my own band I decided to take a job as a "sideman," answered an ad in the Village Voice, passed the audition (my first) and went on the road. I used my salary to pay off my first two years worth of student loans in one year. Although I was on academic leave of absence I never returned to college.
AAJ: You record and publish your own music, as well as perform live a great deal. You've traveled a lot in the U.S., Europe, Asia, so you know what it's like to be on the road. Can you share some special memories or experiences with us, perhaps like in what respect does this traveling influence you in who you are, or how you grow musically?
KJ: Well there are so many exciting adventures that I am threatening always to write a book about those seven years touring. We spent one solid week at sea, touring the ships of the U.S. 7th fleet that was stationed in the Indian Ocean. We were lowered from hovering helicopters onto the deck of an Australian ship at 7 a.m. It was a gesture on the part of the USO or some commander to add an extra show for our allies. Of course we weren't consulted and we often did more than one show a day. There was some sea sickness that I tended to after the show - it didn't hit me until the helicopter and a few thousand Australian seamen were on deck waving white hankies.
I also visited Pan Mun Jom, the 49th parallel, the border between North and South Korea. I had gone to the bathroom during our briefing and when I returned the drummer told me to sign this form, so I did. Later she said, "Oh, that form said that if we got killed on this tour our families can't sue the Armed Forces." "WHAT????" I said. It was a very dangerous place, but no one got hurt - it was fascinating, the history and the amount of silly posturing between competing factions. Each government tried to outdo the other in what sounded like high school rivalries. Each side kept increasing the size of their flag until one flag wouldn't fit in the building anymore. Or one side cut the legs down on the chairs of the other side so they could look down on them during talks. There were much more serious and fatal incidents, too. I read about Pan Mun Jom often in Time magazine and can't believe that I was there.
I could go on for days. Egypt was scary, too. I played for the multinational peace keeping forces that were overseeing the land returned to Egypt by Israel during the historic camp David Agreement, during Jimmy Carter's presidency. I never got used to people with submachine guns telling me which way to go - we landed in a plane so small that the musical equipment was pushing my seat forward when we landed. The plane was overloaded! I would never get on a plane like that again - I think of Alyah who perished the same way. The pilots were French and I understood only random words of the arguments on the tarmac. My French that I learned in school saved us more times than I would ever have imagined.
The road got in my blood, though. I love the adventure of traveling! I'm very cautious though - people are so crazy and disorganized, which is understandable. People become dangerous when they try to pretend they have things under control - that is a valuable lesson to learn as early in my career as I did.