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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.


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