Meet Roberta DeNicola

Tessa Souter and Andrea Wolper By

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Once, when we saw Billy Bang at Jimmy's No. 43, the glasses were cracking and candles were falling off the shelves. Unless you were there you wouldn’t believe it!
Roberta DeNicola, a favorite of musicians on New York City's downtown and experimental jazz scenes, has very broad taste in jazz—from straight-ahead to out—but the more out it is, the more she needs to experience it live. She saw her first jazz concert (jazz flutist Hubert Laws) on a date with her teenage boyfriend. However, it was seeing one particular singer that turned her into a Super Fan. "When I saw her, I just flipped!" We figure that Roberta's probably been to at least 5,000 gigs since then.

Tell us a little about yourself.
My family was from Naples. I still feel more Italian than American. I've lived in Brooklyn, Staten Island, Puerto Rico, San Francisco, Manhattan, and back to Staten Island. I've worked as a mediator for New York City family court, and an advocate for energy conservation, artist housing, and small business development for the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. I've done fundraising for the homeless and for God's Love We Deliver, an agency that delivers meals to people living with severe illnesses. One of my most difficult but satisfying jobs was co-directing a day care center for children from one to five years of age.

I love music, I love theater, art, spoken word, dance, photography, seahorses, and playing harmonica. I love laughing, eating, hugging, and just being around people I care about. I'm an open book. What you see is what you get.

What is your earliest memory of music?
My grandparents listening to opera, my dad to classical music, and my mom listening to Nat King Cole and Johnnie Ray.

How old were you when you got your first recording?
I was 11 years old; it was "Rock Around the Clock" or "Love Me Tender." I had my little box of 45s. I used to get magazines that had the words to the songs, and we'd to sit on the steps and sing all the songs together. Elvis just "sent me"—I loved him when I was that age. And "Rock Around the Clock" had an electric feeling—you really wanted to move when your heard it. I also liked Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers' "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" Not that I understood it; what did I know about love at that age?

What was the first concert you ever attended?
The first one I remember is my aunt and uncle taking me to a doo wop concert at the Brooklyn Fox. The first jazz concert I ever attended must have been seeing Hubert Laws with my teenage boyfriend. Then I remember seeing Abbey Lincoln, and I just flipped.

Was there one album or experience that was your doorway to jazz?
Billie Holiday. I can't remember which album, but it was her voice—there was a sadness underneath, a feeling she had experience; it felt poignant. And that led me to appreciate her musicians, which broadened me into listening to instrumental music like Miles Davis and others.

How long have you been going out to hear live music?
40 years, at least.

How often do you go out to hear live music?
Four or five nights a week. And the last few years maybe three nights a week.

What is it about live music that makes it so special for you?
Time stands still. It's very healing. And you get the feeling of the crowd. The energy is more intense than when you listen to a recording. Once, when we saw Billy Bang, the glasses were cracking and candles were falling off the shelves. Unless you were there you wouldn't believe it!

What are the elements of an amazing concert?
I love the melding of performers and audience, the free flowing energy. I think it's a combination of the level of consciousness of the performer combined with the environment. When the audience and the musicians are one. And when you feel that for two hours, you know you're at something great. As an example of an amazing concert that's not jazz, I never liked Willie Nelson, but then I saw him perform, and he and his band were like one unit, one organic living thing. When you feel that it's very special.

The thing I love about jazz is it's so challenging. I feel like I'm being taken to the unknown, with no roadmap. You can feel the energy going back and forth between the audience and performers, so it's like one stream. A recent example was Brad Mehldau with Joshua Redman at the Rose Theatre. It was like they were flowing into each other. It was a very focused vibration.

What is the farthest you've traveled to get to a jazz performance?
We went to the Guelph [Canada] Jazz Festival because of who was playing. Our good friend Peter Cox was going, and we'd heard about it every year from Bruce Gallanter [owner of Downtown Music Gallery].

Is there one concert that got away that you still regret having missed?
Any performance of Monk.

If you could go back in time and hear one of the jazz legends perform live, who would it be?
Dinah Washington and Thelonious Monk. I think when I heard Dinah Washington, I felt like, if I were a vocalist, that's how I'd want to sing. I identified w/ her. And Monk opened up a whole new way or listening; he was a doorway for me.

What makes a great club?
A place that's not too large, and that has a good sound system, an attentive crowd, and an early and a late set.

Which club are you most regularly to be found at?
Anywhere free jazz and quality straight ahead can be heard, Manhattan or Brooklyn. After forty years of hanging out that's a lot of places! The 55 Bar, Appel Room and Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola at Jazz @ Lincoln Center, Birdland, Greenwich House Music School, the Jazz Gallery, the Jazz Standard, Le Poisson Rouge, the New York City Baha'i Center, Mezzrow, Roulette, Shapeshifter, the Stone, Zurcher Gallery, Downtown Music Gallery, and wherever [avant jazz series producer] Arts for Art has anything going on: the annual Vision Festival, their Under_Line salons, their Evolving series and In-Gardens concerts; Arts for Art is the best music community we have ever been privileged to know and enjoy!

Is there a club that's no longer here that you miss the most?
Tonic. It had a little bar at the back. The crowd was always into the music. The booking policy was good. And the old Knitting Factory, which had tiny rooms and varied music, so there was bound to be something you'd be interested in on any given night. One night we saw this band from Mali coming in with these unusual instruments, so we decided to go see them instead of the band we'd originally gone to see, and it was one of the best concerts ever. I also miss the [old] Brecht Forum on West Street; it was a unique space. Great people. I miss those days—those great little clubs.

Do you have a favorite jazz anecdote?
I saw Miles in New Orleans; it had to be more than twenty years ago because Wynton Marsalis was just starting to get known. Miles was playing, and in the middle of one of his numbers, Wynton walked onto the stage. Miles turned around and shook his head no, and Wynton left—to be summoned back on later!

What are some of your best jazz memories?
One of my most treasured music memories is of the conversations I'd have with Butch Morris after attending one of his conductions [Ed note: Morris is the originator of conduction: a type of structured free improvisation where Morris directs and conducts an improvising ensemble with a series of hand and baton gestures]. Among other things, we would discuss different aspects of the presentation: its effect on the audience, the comfort zones of the performers. I was always pleased that he valued my opinion. Long conversations with Roy Campbell into the early morning hours were always fun and enlightening. Reading some of my poetry with a bunch of the downtown crew accompanying me and cheering me on at Brecht Forum is a great memory. People said, "Who do you want to play with you?" and I felt funny picking people, so I just said, "Everybody!"

Vinyl, CDs, mp3s, or streaming?
CDs, but I miss the ritual of vinyl: looking at the cover, taking the record out, looking at the label, putting the record on the turntable, hearing the little crackles. It was a whole experience, and it was much more tactile.

Are there some recordings that have stayed with you through the years?
The artists I've kept listening to, that have sustained me in rock and folk are Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Joe Jackson. And then in jazz, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Miles, Monk, John Coltrane, Ben Webster. But for more out jazz, I prefer to be there; for me, the experience is about being there in person, waiting for what happens next.

If you were a professional musician, which instrument would you play?
Piano, because you can create more totally with the piano. It's very complete. My second choice would be bass clarinet.

What do you think keeps jazz alive and thriving?
I think if you listen to jazz with your head and your heart, it enriches your spirit.

Finish this sentence: Life without music would be...
Solitary. Music gives me the feeling of being one with a much higher consciousness, through which we are all connected. It breaks down the barriers and opens our hearts, increasing our love and respect for one another.

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