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Joanna Pascale: To Tell a Story in Song


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Among jazz vocalists, there are two main categories: those who belt out a tune with flourish, ornamentation, punctuation, and improvising known as "scat." Ella Fitzgerald is the prime representative of that approach. Then there are those who omit the superfluous, carefully crafting every word and note, bringing out the underlying emotions. Think of Billie Holiday. Joanna Pascale is a vocalist who has honed the latter approach into a way of literally being with the song in an I-Thou relationship. An accomplished Philadelphia-based singer with numerous gigs and several fine recordings to her credit, she recently finished a ten year stint at the Loew's Hotel that illustrates her staying power and the appreciation she receives from audiences. Her new album, Wildflower (Stiletto, 2015), takes her to new heights of achievement, with contributions from Orrin Evans, Christian McBride, Cyrus Chestnut, and other top shelf musicians. The time has come for her to break out into the open way.

In this interview, as in her singing, Pascale tells a story of humble origins, passion, ups and downs, and lifelong love for and devotion to the music. She also expounds a philosophy of life that emphasizes inner success and personal values over the approval of others and outward recognition. This way of living comes to most people late in life. Pascale acquired such wisdom as a young woman, and it has guided her life and career ever since.

AAJ: Let's start with the infamous desert island question. Which recordings would you pick to take to the desert island with you?

JP: Wow! There are so many! How do I narrow it down? I do think one would definitely be Nancy Wilson's But Beautiful (Capitol, 1969). Another would be Clifford Brown Strings (EmArcy, 1955). There is Betty Carter's Finally (Roulette, 1969), which is currently inspiring me. Shirley Horn Here's to Life (Verve, 1991). Of course, Billie Holiday's Lady in Autumn (Verve, 1991), put together by Shirley Horn.

AAJ: If there were just one single track of music that you could listen to over and over again, which might you choose?

JP: There are a few of those. The first one that comes to my mind is Sarah Vaughan singing "Ain't No Use." It's on the record called The Divine One (Roulette, 1961).

AAJ: Which vocalists and instrumentalists would you say have had the biggest influence on you?

JP: Definitely Sarah Vaughan. And also Jimmy Scott, Shirley Horn, Freddy Cole, Anita O'Day, Blossom Dearie.

AAJ: Have you been influenced to some extent by either Johnny Hartman or Irene Kral?

JP: Absolutely! I love both of them.

Childhood, Adolescence, and the Discovery of Jazz

AAJ: Tell us something about your childhood and early musical exposure.

JP: I grew up in South Philadelphia. It was just me and my mom. I come from nothing. My early childhood was very much a struggle. From early on, I was wildly imaginative and creative. I took to music very early. My mother was very religious, and I was not allowed to listen to secular music. So I would sneak away and listen to the radio. People would joke about how, when I was a child, I could remember everything that I would hear. So I was always able to connect to voices and words. When people called on the phone, I could remember the sound and tone of their voices.

I had that weird gift. So when I started to discover singers, I could remember what was distinctive and different about them. I was so attracted to voices and singing that I would sneak behind my mother's back and listen to the radio whenever I could. I especially connected to the passion in the singers who were the real story tellers. I knew early on that what I wanted to do the rest of my life was to sing that way.

One day, I was listening to Billie Holiday, and my mother caught me. Ironically, my grandfather, who had died when my mom was 19, had been an amateur jazz singer. So it hit her that he and I had this connection to the same music even though we had never met. Much to my surprise she allowed me to listen to jazz, even though I wasn't allowed to listen to anything else at the time. So over time, I really absorbed jazz, and the standards became my pop music. Nowadays, when I have conversations with someone my age, I don't have any pop reference. But I can tell you about every Billie Holiday album, or Carmen McRae, and I feel totally connected with that music.

AAJ: During what years did you start listening to this music?

JP: I was born in 1979.

AAJ: So were you exposed to the jazz of the 1980s- 90s?

JP: No, it was mostly the great singers and standards from before that. We moved to New Jersey, and I started getting seriously into music. I played a couple of instruments, but I was in middle school, and not very motivated about anything, but I would use any opportunity to lock myself in my bedroom and listen to records. And I can remember closing my eyes and singing along to Billie Holiday or Aretha Franklin and just pretending I was them. I was even trying to mimic the places where they were breathing and trying to copy their phrases. At the time, I didn't realize how much of the music I absorbed by throwing myself into it like that, but it was a very special time of discovery for me.

When my mom saw how alive I became in response to this music, she paid a bit more attention to what was happening. She helped me get voice lessons. I asked her if I could go to the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts [known as CAPA -eds]. She let me apply, I auditioned, and got accepted. So we moved back to Philly, and as soon as I got into that high school, my life changed. I like to call that school "the house of misfit toys." We were just a bunch of kids who didn't really fit in anywhere else, so when we got together, it was really a magical time. It was the most important time of my life, especially the friends that I made, many of whom I still see today.

There was a small group of kids who were very much involved in jazz. We were all influenced by the work that Lovett Hines was doing at the Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz, as well as the programs and all of the local clubs. The club owners let us "sneak in" and sit in and perform. We took advantage of these opportunities, and we used that time to keep inspiring one another.

AAJ: Which were the clubs you guys frequented at that time?

JP: Ortlieb's, Zanzibar Blue, when it was on 11th Street, and the Blue Moon, which was in the Bourse. Also, there were all these little spots around town where you could hear all these great singers. All this activity inspired me, and then my friends and I would share records. It so happens that one of my friends from that time is Bilal, who is an incredible artist. He was a "phenom" even when he came to the school. There was something about his voice that would stop you dead in your tracks. He was touched. There was something magical about him. We became fast friends, and we would make mix tapes of various vocalists for one another. So I introduced him to Billie Holiday, and he introduced me to Jimmy Scott.

Clearly, CAPA was and is a program that has produced some really great artists like Christian McBride and Joey DeFrancesco. So I was really blessed to be in a situation that was so rich in information, and everyone was so free sharing their stuff. By the time I started college at Temple University Boyer College of Music, I already knew for a long time just what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I started studying at Boyer the same year that Terell Stafford came there to teach, and he brought a lot of change and improvements to the program.

AAJ: Who were some of your teachers and mentors from that program?

JP: In addition to Terell, I learned a lot from Tom Lawton, who taught me everything I know about piano as well as many other things about the music. Then there were Dick Oatts, Bruce Barth, Ben Schachter, and others.

AAJ: Those are some very creative musicians and teachers, and they're still active today.

JP: Yes, and each had his own unique perspective. I was inspired by how they were making things happen musically, each in their own way. That's what I wanted to do. Outside of school, one of my greatest mentors was Miss Justine [2005 interview] I would go to wherever she was singing, and just sit there with a tape recorder, so I could study her singing. I must have driven her crazy the way I followed her around! [Laughter.] I would use those tapes to check out her phrasing and learn her repertoire. Honestly, she might be the biggest vocal influence on me. She was always very gracious to me and would always help me, talk to me, pass gigs on to me. She encouraged me and inspired me to just be unapologetic about who I was and what it was that I loved about the music. There was something so beautiful in the simplicity of the way that Miss Justine told a story when she sang. [Justine is still active as a singer -Eds.] That's what I love in the greatest singers who attracted me. It was Miss Justine who gave me the courage to follow my own path. If I can express a song half as well as Miss Justine, that will be enough of an accomplishment for me.

AAJ: Miss Justine is one of the best, most authentic, and under-recognized singers in the business. She's incredible!

JP: She's very unpretentious in her delivery, and that is what I am attracted to most in any musician or performer. It's that pure honesty in their expression which makes them inherently different and beautiful.

AAJ: Did you have any formal vocal training? I know you've sung Mozart on rare occasions.

JP: In high school at CAPA, I was performing choral music for five periods every day. We were doing everything from spirituals to eight part Bach chorales and cantatas. I sang mezzo-soprano, which is one of the inner parts, which helped me develop my ear and my sight reading. At the same time, I took private lessons at the Settlement Music School. And when I went to Temple, I studied voice, and got into singing classical music and arias. At one point, I did consider a career in opera. I was really attracted to those dramatic Italian soprano roles, but I was more drawn to the spontaneity and the stories in jazz singing. But I will say that there are great opera singers like Maria Callas, who have had a way of enlivening what's on the page and making it their own. Those were the classical singers that I was in love with.

Coming Up as a Vocalist

JP: I've made a living singing since I was fourteen, when I got my first gig at a Catholic church that hired me as their cantor, even though I wasn't Catholic and had no experience! I was making about $80 a weekend doing two masses of 45 minutes each. That was a great wage for a kid!

AAJ: When did you start working at clubs around town?

JP: While at Temple, I got some gigs. The first noteworthy gig was at Ortlieb's Jazzhaus, which at the time was one of the most important jazz venues in Philadelphia. Pete Souders gave me a full night with a band that amazingly consisted of Sam Dockery on piano, Art Harper on bass, and Mickey Roker on drums! To sing with those guys was a thrill! Nothing up to that time ever felt like that. That's when I started to realize what the "Philly sound" was.

AAJ: Weren't you also scared to death to be on the platform with musicians of that exceptional caliber?

JP: No, because they were doing what I already knew. I'd been absorbing it for a long time. It was in me, but it hadn't come out yet. So there was a joy and a thrill of being on the stage with those guys. There's nothing to compare to things like singing along to Mickey's ride cymbal and Art Harper's big fat beat. I was euphoric, and I felt like I was the luckiest girl in the world. That was one of the experiences that made me commit to the work.

I'm lucky that I was in a safe environment that allowed me to grow. There were great players all around who encouraged me. It wasn't like I learned it primarily in an academic environment, which is what happens to some young people today. That experience in the clubs set me on the right path.

AAJ: And you're very close friends with Mickey Roker even to this day.

JP: Mickey is my adopted "grandpop." We're like family.

AAJ: Those are the kinds of bonds that develop in the jazz business.

JP: And some of those bonds develop by just sitting at the bar with the guys and hearing stories and sharing. I learned so much just by the experiences they related and the choices they had to make. So it always felt like the music was rooted in something very personal, spiritual, and powerful.

AAJ: I know that you teach as well as perform. Who are some vocalists who you yourself have had a role in training and mentoring?

JP: I've been teaching at Temple for about ten years, and it's been cool to see the students as they come in and then the things they're doing after they graduate. I'm proud of so many of them. Right now, there's a great singer Chelsea Reed, another named Lee Mo, and Alexa Barchini, Najwa Parkins, and Laura Lizcano. One of the great things about teaching is that you have to look at things and explain them in many different ways, so my students constantly challenge and inspire me.

AAJ: Do you ever sing duets with them?

JP: Not so much with my students, but recently I've been singing some duets with one of my dearest friends, Venissa Santi.

Friendships with Venissa Santi and Orrin Evans

AAJ: Venissa Santi is really getting a lot of attention on the jazz scene these days, bringing in her Cuban heritage.

JP: There's something so special about her. I call her a magical unicorn. There is something genuine and childlike in her love of music and her approach. She's so gifted, and she inspires me so much. Did you know that she's into writing a musical that will be premiered at the Kimmel Center in June, and I'll be a part of it, making my acting debut? The musical is about the lives of artists and how we connect to our inspiration and how we juggle that with the realities of daily life. The other day, I first got to hear the music, and love it. I'm excited to have the opportunity to sing original music by someone I know so well. I feel honored to be part of that.

AAJ: I've always felt that the two of you are like two peas in a pod in some ways.

JP: We're very different in our approach. But we have a mutual respect and a shared love of the music. I love what she is able to pull out of me musically.

AAJ: Let's talk about your new album, Wildflower, and to get to that, I need to share with our readers that I lost contact with you for a couple of years prior to our interview, and during that time, I did hear by the grapevine that you started doing gigs with Orrin Evans, and now I see that he produced this album. So how did you form this working relationship with Orrin?

JP: It's a funny story. I actually met Orrin when I was 14. My friends encouraged me to sit in on jam sessions. They explained that you bring charts of your songs in your key, you hand them to the band, and you sing. One night there was a jam session at the Blue Moon. Well, the session was run by this 19 year old kid named Orrin Evans, who was beginning to make a name for himself around town. So I show up at the club, and I introduced my self and said "I wanna sing." And he said, "OK, have a seat, and I'll call you up in a few minutes." Well, the clock starts ticking, a couple of hours pass by, and he never calls me up to the stage. I was feeling sad about it, and my mom, who came with me, said "C'mon. Let's go." So we get up to leave, and Orrin sees me, and he says, "Oh! I'm sorry. I forgot to call you up!" A couple of minutes later, he calls me, I get on stage with my "Realbook" [The book of standards that musicians use—eds.], and he says, "What would you like to sing?" I picked "Good Morning, Heartache." I hand the Realbook to Orrin, but he says, "I don't need it." So he started playin,' and whatever he was playin' wasn't "Good Morning Heartache!" And he's not even playing in my key!

I start singing the song, and it's a train wreck, and it's the first time I'm singing in public, and I turn around to find the musicians behind me are laughing so hard that their shoulders were shaking and their eyes were tearing with laughter! It was Mike Boone on bass and Byron Landham on drums. So, finally, someone hands Orrin the book, and he fixed it. But I was totally mortified, and it still haunts me to this day.

AAJ: It must have been awful! "Good Morning Heartache" is a perfect song for that.

JP: Despite or maybe because of all that, it sparked a friendship between Orrin and me that has lasted over twenty years. To this day, Orrin and his wife Dawn are like family to me. So, fast forwarding to the present, the album Wildflower came about when a bunch of things were going on for me personally and professionally. My career was not where I hoped that it would be. I had worked ten years at my regular gig at the Loews Hotel. I had learned so much from that gig, got to meet a ton of musicians, and learned about the subtleties of their playing, and how to put a rhythm section together, and how personalities fit together musically. So I really grew musically there, but then I felt that I had reached a plateau in my growth. Part of me wanted to leave and move on, but it was a steady gig, three nights a week with a full band, so people were all telling me to stay. But I was really feeling that I had reached my limit. I had done a lot of work on my own to develop music I couldn't perform there.

I'm not an overly spiritual person, but I do remember saying this prayer: "God, if you want me to move on, you have to close the door." Well, two days later, the management called me into their office and told me they were closing the bar/restaurant in order to renovate the space entirely, and they didn't see live music being a part of that. You'd think I'd feel devastated, but I actually left that office in peace, because I knew it was time for me to move on and do something different.

Breaking New Ground with Wildflower

JP: Coming out of that news, and wondering what to do next, I realized I hadn't done a record in eight years, so I thought about what I'd like to present in a recording, and I felt it was time to do a project of songs that I especially connected with. I was doing some of my own song writing coming from what I was feeling at the moment, but up to that point I felt that, even with all the subtle shadings and emotions of a particular life situation, I could find a song to express that. Somewhere in all the songs, even the obscure ones, in the Great American Songbook, I could find one to say what I wanted to say, no matter how subtle the feeling. I've always gone on my own "treasure hunts" to find vehicles for self-expression.

I decided that what I wanted to do was put together an honest project of the music I was living and breathing. These were songs I wasn't necessarily singing publicly, but songs that I was singing more or less for myself or in very intimate situations. But I was feeling overwhelmed by all the changes happening in my life and didn't feel I could do this by myself. So I had a conversation with Orrin about how I was struggling to get this project right, and we sat down at the piano and looked at some of the songs I had in mind. The first one was "Overjoyed" by Stevie Wonder. And while we were playing, I saw that Orrin felt time and space the way I do, and that was the moment that I saw that he had the wider vision, and it seemed natural to let Orrin take control and bring this recording to fruition.

I have to say that from start to finish, Orrin has gone far beyond the call of duty, and I'm eternally grateful for the time and energy and support he has given me. Because of Orrin, it became a really fun project to work on. We put the tunes and the band together, and it grew from there. So I'm very happy and proud of how well the journey has evolved.

AAJ: You have a right to be proud. Not only are the songs moving and beautiful, but you are surrounded by some of the greatest musicians. One of them is the legendary bassist Christian McBride. Have you ever worked with him before?

JP: No, I hadn't. Long ago, I met him for the first time when he came to do a master class at CAPA. He was very sweet and gracious and treated us kids like we were his equals. It had always been a dream of mine to play with him. I had been working with Christian's father, the bassist Lee Smith, for years, so it was funny how everything connected. I was elated that he was willing to do this project. Christian is a monster player. I have been a fan of his forever. I have admired his sound and his feel since high school, but nothing compares to experiencing that feel. It was a dream come true to be in the studio working with him. His beat is so big it just hugs you. His time, his intonation. He's a living legend and just an all around classy guy. We started with George Gershwin's "Do It Again," and we did it in one take, and it all clicked.

On that track, we also had Cyrus Chestnut on piano and Donald Edwards on drums. As a singer, there's something special about riding on the wave of a pocket like that. It's like floating on a cloud. It's euphoric.

AAJ: It says a lot for them that they know how to create something for the singer. They have such distinct musical personalities of their own, yet they can make a great environment for the singer. That's real musicianship.

JP: Yes, and they are very disciplined in everything they do, which is true for every single person on this record. They are working on such a high level that it really made me evaluate where the bar is for myself and where I need to set it for my own growth.

What's Next?

AAJ: So you now have this incredible album, and it may make some real waves for you. Do you have any practical ideas or even daydreams about where to go with it? What do you want to do as a follow-up to this album?

JP: I think that beyond the songs that I'm singing, I'm a born storyteller, which is the basis of all I do. So, as long as I can be in a situation where I have the space to tell those stories, I will be happy. Regardless of the musicians or the venues, if I can get to that level of expression, I will be satisfied. And I am in a place in my career where I can choose to be in those situations.

Beyond that primary goal, I would like to travel more. I'd like to perform out-of-town more extensively. I'd like to form more collaborations, sing with a wider variety of instrumentations, and do more composing.

My friend, the drummer Dan Monaghan, always says, "You have to embrace the process. If you play Carnegie Hall tonight, you still have to wake up tomorrow and practice. You have to keep growing." What's beautiful about what we do is that the possibilities are endless. There's an infinite amount of learning and knowledge in music, and I haven't scratched the surface of what's possible. So I always hope I'll be humble enough to keep learning and keep growing.

AAJ: I think it comes across in your singing that you're always exploring new possibilities in a song and adding new depth of meaning to it.

JP: Thank you. I really do scrutinize the lyrics. I look at all the ways you can sing one word or phrase and how it can mean so many different things. I want to understand the magnitude of every word in order to connect to the true intention in the lyric. I'm very passionate about it, and as long as I can connect that way with the material, I will be successful on my own terms.

AAJ: Two questions always occur to me when I hear you sing. One of them which I've already told you about is "How come you don't sing more with big bands?" It seems to me you'd be a natural for it because you have a real ability to relate to the instrumental backup.

JP: Actually, now that you mention it, you'll be glad to know that I have been doing more big band work recently. Larry McKenna recently started his own jazz orchestra, and I'm part of that. Recently, I was featured with the Temple University Big Band. And I also get to go down to Somers Point, NJ, to work with Ed Vizinho's Big Band a couple of times a year. There are two challenges that I find with big bands. First, it's hard for these large ensembles to find venues that can accommodate and afford a band that size. Second is getting good charts to play. No one wants to always play the stock charts that you can buy in a music store. You wanna do something cool and hip. A few years ago, I sang with a big band over in Sweden, and Larry wrote me some charts to bring. With those charts, I was able to do some gigs with some other bands. And Ed Vizinho always writes me a new arrangement when I sing with his band. So over the past few years, I've kept adding to my big band book, and now I have at least twenty arrangements I can bring with me.

Recently, I've been fortunate enough to work with Orrin Evans' Captain Black Big Band. We just did a concert at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The guys in this band are not just monster players but prolific writers as well, so it's great to have a guy like Todd Bayshore or David Gibson write an arrangement for me. I'll be performing with the band for three nights at Dizzy's Club Coca Cola in New York in July.

AAJ: All that is very exciting!

JP: Yes. There's nothing like having the power of a big band behind you. It makes you sing differently. It's overwhelming to have the backup of those incredible musicians.

AAJ: The other thought that runs through my mind when I hear you sing, is "Why don't you scat more?"

JP: Personally, I was never attracted to scat singers. Sure, I can appreciate and respect it. There are singers who do it well -and those who don't. The singers who just give you those gratuitous, "shoo-be-do-be-do-be's" I can't even stomach. But when it's done well, it's great.

AAJ: Whose scatting do you really like?

JP: Obviously, Ella Fitzgerald and Anita O'Day, Jon Hendricks, Annie Ross, Betty Carter. And as far as more modern singers someone like a JD Walter who just blows me away. They're really improvising like an instrumentalist, completely in the moment taking the music to a new place. But I think if you're dealing with words, what has to come first is the responsibility to tell that story. For me, improvisation and freedom can come from the way that you are delivering a phrase. A lot of it lies within the rhythm. I admire Anita O'Day for the way she would take improvised solos with the lyrics. It was sheer genius.

The other thing I've always loved are instrumentalists who also sing, like Nat King Cole or Shirley Horn or Freddy Cole or Blossom Dearie. These were not singers who scatted, but they had a definitive knowledge and understanding of the harmonic structure and freedom in their delivery. You don't necessarily need to scat to sing jazz in a way that swings and improvises.

AAJ: Anita O'Day could scat solos that were as good or better than instrumentalists. And Ella Fitzgerald, well it was just part of her, so natural, alive, and stirring.

JP: Yes, she started out as a teenager, couldn't read music. But she went out with the big bands, and that's how she developed the vocabulary, hearing them play and woodshed over and over again. Just like learning a language, you have to hear it to speak it; you can't learn it from a book. I think there's a great difference between singers who are formulaic in their approach and the ones who are really in the moment.

AAJ: One of the first people to recognize Ella Fitzgerald's special gift was Duke Ellington. He heard her at a gig and realized she was truly an exceptional artist, not just belting out tunes.

Wisdom for Aspiring Vocalists and Musicians

AAJ: One final question. We have so many talented musicians today coming into the music schools trying to learn jazz. By contrast, you learned by getting around to clubs and doing gigs. So what would you say to a really talented kid who comes to college wanting to be a jazz musician about how to pursue the learning and the career?

JP: I just know that, for me, I'm a "lifer." For better or for worse, this is it. And you do have to have that feeling about it, because you will have these moments when you don't feel good about it. And if you really want to be an artist and have integrity, you're naturally going to question the validity of what you're expressing. You need a good support system of people who can appreciate who you are and the value of what you do. They can help you through those difficult moments. My special friends are the ones who have really helped me stay the course. They empowered me. And there's a reciprocity. There is a village, there is a community.

Terell Stafford told me something years ago that always stuck with me. He said, "The cream always rises to the top." If you can be relentless in your work ethic and your discipline with what you do, in time, something great will happen. Always try to be at the top of your game, so that when those unexpected moments present themselves to you, you'll be ready for them.

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