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Joe DeRenzo: On the Comeback

Walter Kolosky By

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AAJ: Concurrently, a visual art medium, photography, grabbed your interest. This would become an important part of your life and future career path.

JDR: The photography thing started in grade school. It wasn't until after high school that I attempted to explore imaging as an art-form.

AAJ: We'll get back to photography in a bit. But, how did you break in as a musician? What was the scene like?

JDR: I got my start like most—by playing in rock bands with friends at school. Then I went on the road a bit with my college jazz band. I can't really tell you what the scene was like because I certainly wasn't part of it. But, during high school I got my first real job at a small music store in my neighborhood. The guys that worked there took my under their wings and hipped me to everything going on in jazz at the time.

1974 was, to my way of thinking, an incredible time for discovering jazz music. The Crusaders, Herbie Hancock's Headhunters and Return to Forever were making a lot of noise. There were copies of Down Beat [magazine] always lying around the store. It was through that publication that I learned all about the jazz greats.

One day, while flipping through its pages, I saw an ad for a band. The guy in the ad was wearing this strange looking beanie. I showed it to the guitar teacher at the time, Alan Simcoe. "Oh yeah, Weather Report!" he said. "Those guys are out there." Intrigued, I went straight to the local record shop and asked, "What's the latest Weather Report album?" I was handed the album and went straight home, fired up the stereo, and put the needle down on the vinyl. By the time Mysterious Traveller (Columbia, 1974) was finished my mind had been transformed. The subsequent album Tale Spinnin'(Columbia, 1975) closed the deal. I was never the same again. I started consuming every jazz record I could get my hands on. I just took it all in.

AAJ: Many of us had experiences like that. What matters is the direction you choose afterward. Some of us become listeners, others become players. But, we all become important participants. Did you find other musicians with like minds at the time?

JDR: In the early 1980s, I met pianist Tom Zink at a Saddleback College Jazz Band concert.

AAJ: Tom would become a huge part of your comeback, but didn't you start to drift away from music during that time?

JDR: It happened over a couple of years. In 1985, I was working in Las Vegas with The Dae Han Sisters. During this time, my interest in movies turned into an obsession. After the gig, I began studying film and theatre in Hollywood with Jack Manning. I also worked as an extra in TV and movies. By 1987, I was in The Screen Actors Guild and doing the whole Hollywood routine.

One job had me decked-out as a bebop era jazz musician! After the day's production wrapped, a car pulled up to me as I was leaving and the guy blew the horn. To my amazement, it was the star of the film I had just worked on. "Hey man! You need a ride to your car?" he asked. I nodded and got in his Jeep. He wanted to know if I had a part in the movie? I told him I was just an extra. Then he asked if I had a headshot and a resume? I pulled them from my bag. "Cool," he said. "I'll give these to the director. Ya never know." So he dropped me off at my car and that was that. Nothing ever came of it and the day's shoot I was in didn't even get used. But, I had fun. The movie was Bird. The guy driving the jeep was Forrest Whittaker. What a nice guy. This year he wins the Oscar so my story becomes even cooler!

AAJ: Quite cool. And by the way, it appears you have kept that bebop wardrobe from the movie! So we go from music and photography to acting and back to photography?

JDR: For much of the 1990s I pursued my photographic interests with a special panoramic camera called a Noblex. It has a lens that swings from left to right and would always get the funniest looks from people as I worked it. In 1997 I was shooting stock photos in Manhattan. It was a gloomy day in September on Lexington Ave and I wasn't having much luck getting any shots when out of the corner of my eye I see this guy walking out a door with a cell phone up to his ear. I instantly recognize him and start taking his picture. As the lens is swinging around, he sees me and starts walking in my direction. He asked me all about this crazy camera and invited me to his art studio on the Upper West Side. That's how I met Peter Max. After a couple years working on projects for him from Seattle, I moved to NY to work for him full time.

AAJ: Obviously Peter was very impressed with your artistic talents. You photographed for his archives. I know he is a music fan as well and was a kindred spirit. But, what made you leave your successful photographic job to return to music?

JDR: 9/11. It made me start to think about music again. I thought about the things I had not accomplished. Things crystallized. You started to think whether you were going to make it through the day. I just started thinking about music. I looked up old musician friends after 9/11 and saw they were using new technology that didn't exist before. They were producing their own recordings and taking advantage of all the Internet and the technology it was offering. Music once again became the reason I got up in the morning. I ended-up moving back to California to be near my musician friends... and to finish core beliefs.


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