Joanna Pascale: To Tell a Story in Song

Victor L. Schermer By

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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!
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