Come on up and sing!

Jazz pianist and vocalist Dena DeRose thought her career was over. She was wrong. During a three-day residency, she'll show just how wrong she was. 

By Jake Stepansky '17

I’ve never been particularly well versed in the contemporary jazz canon, so Dena DeRose’s name was unfamiliar. But the story of her trajectory from pianist to pianist-vocalist is so inspiring that I found myself chomping at the bit to speak with her. Never before have I seen the healing and identity-making power of music so compellingly embodied. DeRose, who has received international acclaim for her versatile jazz piano-vocal performances, will do a three-day residency at Harvard this week. Among the public events: She will be a Learning From Performers guest artist in conversation onstage with Callie Crossley, host of Under the Radar on WGBH, at 4 p.m. on November 3 in Holden Chapel, and she will perform as part of the “Women in Jazz” theme with the Harvard Jazz Bands at 8 p.m. November 5 in Lowell Lecture Hall. I spoke with DeRose about her story and her music. An edited version of our conversation follows.

Tell me about your career and life trajectory.

Dena DeRose
I had gone through two surgeries [for carpal tunnel syndrome and arthritis] that took close to two-and-a-half years. At that time, I was not playing much music, and I got very depressed. I was hanging out at a bar one night where my piano teacher and his trio were playing. I went to be around the music, to support them, but he said, “Come on up and sing, Dena!” I wasn’t a jazz singer, but I got up and sang a tune. I sucked, but they had me do another one. The encouragement relit my passion for music, and when I sat down, I looked in the mirror at the bar and decided right there that I was going to get some vocal lessons. Literally the next day I went out and looked for a teacher. Eventually, I started hoofing myself around town with my piano teacher’s trio and built a repertoire. It was a big change. And I didn’t realize that once my hand was better I would do both. I got a three-night gig in my hometown singing and playing and trying to get my hand strong again, and I realized that I could sing and play and have a career doing that. So I moved to New York and kept doing what I did. That was a long time ago – I was 21, so it’s been 29 years. Just singing the music and feeling my heart open was a big turning point in my life. If you have a real passion for music, I believe it never dies, and I do believe we need to nourish it.

How did you ending up living in Graz, Austria, and teaching at the University of Music and Dramatic Arts?
I had lived in New York for 15 years. I felt like a gerbil on the wheel, running around and around. I was working and working, but not feeling like I was getting very far in my career. I was also teaching in five or six schools adjunct. I’ve always enjoyed teaching – I’ve taught since I was 18 and I’ve performed since I was 10, so teaching and performing, for me, go together. It just so happened that two people contacted me looking for a vocal professor in Graz. So I put together my CV and sent it off. Over here, it’s a lifelong job when you get it, but it’s a five-year contract when they decide if they want to keep you. I got the job, and I thought, “Well, OK, I’m just going to move.” And I packed up and moved my life here 10 years ago.

Has being abroad been influential to you and your career?
I have grown to love it. The whole vision of a jazz department in Europe is one that is very much like the States; actually, half of our professors are American. They want us to be out gigging and touring and publicizing the school and doing the residencies. I didn’t plan it, but it just happened in about a two-month period. It was the best thing I ever did in my life.

If you could record something with any jazz luminary of any era, who would it be?
I would have loved to sing with Bill Evans at the piano. With people who are still alive, I’d love to sing with Fred Hersh. That would be so nice.

What advice do you have for students looking to pursue careers in the performing arts?
Do what you love, whatever it is, because if you don’t love it, it’s a hard road. The arts are a hard road anyhow, so you’ve got to have a love for it. I didn’t go to school for this. I went to classical piano for a few years and that was it, and I wasn’t even a good student because I was gigging all the time. I’m pretty much self-taught, other than my voice teacher. You’ve got to love it – whatever you’re going to do. Love for something means you have to nourish it always. It’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be a rollercoaster. There are going to be some high points and low points; you have to roll with the punches if you really love it.

Support for Dena DeRose's residency provided by the Bernard H. and Mildred Kayden Artist in Residence Fund through Learning From Performers, a program of the Office for the Arts at Harvard.