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Checking in No. 10: Deanna Witkowski

Pianist Deanna Witkowski (Photo by Jason Gardner)
Pianist Deanna Witkowski has managed to use the time during the pandemic to finish drafting a biography of Mary Lou Williams. The book and an album featuring her interpretations of Williams' compositions will be released later this year. Photo by Jason Gardner. 

This episode of Checking in features an interview with pianist and composer Deanna Witkowski, who recently relocated in Pittsburgh after spending more than two decades in New York. She reflects back on her musical life in that city, including the work she has done in the fields of sacred music, jazz and Brazilian music. She also discusses her experiences navigating the pandemic, her decision to leave New York and two forthcoming projects due to be released later this year: A new biography of legendary jazz pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams and a new album called Force of Nature that will be issued on MCG Jazz

You can tune in for an online solo piano concert Wednesday March 24 at 6 PM. The concert will be available to watch on demand. Proceeds from the performance will help raise funds to procure a new piano for Deanna’s home. That website is here. 

Information on Deanna Witkowski's forthcoming book Mary Lou Williams Music for the Soul can be found here


PETER SOLOMON: You’re listening to VPM Music, 93.1 and 107.3. I’m Peter Solomon and this is Checking in, an interview series in which members of the jazz community discuss what they do, how they’ve been impacted by the pandemic and what they are doing to stay productive and inspired.

Today’s guest is Deanna Witkowski, a pianist and composer who has worked in multiple genres of music including jazz, Brazilian, classical and sacred music. Coming up, she’ll discuss her forthcoming biography of jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams and talks about her decision to relocate to Pittsburgh after spending more than two decades living in New York, We’ll hear about her experiences navigating the pandemic during this past year as well.

But first, let’s listen to some of her music. This is from an album called Wide Open Window, featuring a quartet of Donny McClaslin on tenor sax, Jonathan Paul on bass, Tom Hipskind on drums and Deanna Witkowski on piano. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s A Wonderful Guy. 

MUSIC: Deanna Witkowski: A Wonderful Guy from Wide Open Window

Pianist Deanna Witkowski with “A Wonderful Guy.”

Deanna is originally from Exeter New Hampshire and moved many times during her childhood. She attended Wheaton College outside of Chicago and spent the first part of her musical career working as a freelancer in the windy city. In the late 1990’s she moved to New York where she established herself for the next two decades.

DEANNA WITKOWSKI: I came to New York with a full time job. I had been doing while I lived in Chicago, I was there for about four years after college and pretty much freelancing as a jazz player, primarily. I also attended a church there a named LaSalle Street Church that had an annual jazz service. And I had started arranging like hymns in different jazz styles for them and leading that service. And it was kind of through that work. And through a particular ad that I saw for a music director position at an Episcopal Church in Manhattan, called All Angels Church, they were looking for a pianist and a composer of played all different styles of music, could work with the gospel choir and then work with classical singers and instrumentalists. And I got that job and moved to New York in the end of 97.

SOLOMON: So, New York, of course, there’s no other city like New York for jazz. What was it like for you to move to New York for you and what was it like to become a part of the jazz scene?  

WITKOWSKI: Well, I had wanted to move to New York for a couple years, you know, by the point that I moved there. I mean, and I really remember I had just played, it must have been in '96, or '97. before I moved. I had played with the Chicago jazz ensemble, which then was led by the late Bill Russo. And we had played at the Montreal Jazz Festival, and I met guitarist Russell Malone, there like on these nightly jam sessions, because I actually stayed an extra week in Montreal, because I liked it so much there. And so I would sit in every night. And Russell told me, among other people, he said, “You should really come to New York.” And so it was kind of stuck in my mind. As soon as I came, you know, even though I had the full time church gig, I had had a band - a quartet in Chicago, so I formed a quartet in New York and did as much playing as I could. And one of the great things about New York is that, I mean, it's a plus and a minus. But there's so many great players. So you know, you you feel like you can get pushed to, to get better on your instrument and, and to learn to write more specifically for different people for composing. And the fact that even that I had this built-in church job, I mean, I was able, I started doing jazz in church right away, too. So it's like I had these other venues besides having, you know, Jazz venues to play in when I came to New York.

MUSIC: Deanna Witkowski: Rains in Kenya from Having to Ask

SOLOMON: Were there particular individuals or even groups that were formative for you once you came to New York? Mentors or people that had strong impacts on your playing and the direction your music has taken?  

WITKOWSKI:  One of the things that I had wanted to do in New York, was to get into the Brazilian jazz music scene or the Brazilian music scene. And so one of the first things I did within my first like six months there was I started taking rhythm section - like Brazilian rhythm section lessons with a drummer named Vanderlei Pereira and later I played in his band. He has a band called blindfold test. I'm on their album that came out last year. So that was something that definitely like deepened the way I played Brazilian music, but I think jazz too, because Vanderlei, he's a drummer, but he also plays enough piano so like, he would show me how to think of how to divide my left hand up kind of into two sections for playing, you know, grooves for playing lower notes that were grooving, and like using my thumb for playing, for holding notes, things like that, that really, I find, they show up, I use that all the time, like, you know, in jazz things too. But also kind of seeing how he taught, how we learned the music in a way that was not like, you know, showing us like a score and saying, like, okay, here's what you have to do. I mean, learning a lot of stuff orally, but then having ways to internalize it, that's really also influenced how the times that I've, I've taught or done clinics, how I think about teaching, rhythmic feel, or how to have I mean, because the concept of swing is definitely a big part of jazz. But you know, in Brazil, they have the word swingue which, you know, it's, it's a similar concept, it's kind of a feel that you can't exactly label, and how do you describe what it is, it's almost like a kind of movement makes your body want to move and how to teach people how to play that. I mean, that's something that I really took a lot from lessons with Vanderlei.

MUSIC: VANDERLEI PEREIRA Chapeau Palheta (Straw Hat) from Vision for Rhythm

I feel like the one thing that I know I'm going to miss in New York in general, I mean, even kind of more than say, like the straight ahead jazz scene is is the Brazilian scene there. When I first came to New York, I went to Zinc bar like every week in its old location on Houston Street and heard  Cidinho Teixera who just passed away a couple years ago, a great piano player who I studied with a little bit as well and kind of like that vibe, and that community. And that level of playing that music. I mean, I don't know where else it exists in the country and maybe some other places, but I know I'm going to miss that a lot.

SOLOMON; Much of Deanna’s time over the last year has been spend putting the finishing touches on a forthcoming biography of pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams. I asked her how her interest in Mary Lou Williams came about and what her book was going to focus on.

MUSIC: Deanna Witkowski: Aires/Taurus/Cancer from Zodiac Suite, Online performance.

WITKOWSKI: I first became introduced to the music of Mary Lou Williams in 2000 when Dr. Billy Taylor had invited me to perform at the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival at the Kennedy Center. And I really didn't know Williams' music very much at all at that time. I mean, I feel like like many jazz musicians still today, I knew her reputation as this great pianist and early big band composer, and somewhere along the way, she had written some sacred music. But that was really it. So I started by reading a biography that had just come out about her in 2000, called Morning Glory by Linda Dahl. I mean, that was really my first introduction to Mary the Williams.

Music: Mary Lou Williams: Anima Christi from The First Lady of the Piano

And then finding out she had written all these like large scale sacred works. That's kind of what clinched it for me at the beginning, because I had just written two jazz masses at the church where I was working. I mean, that we sang every week. And so I got into her music kind of through the sacred end of it. Then I started listening. Dave Douglas had just put out a tribute album to Williams called Soul on Soul. So I contacted him and I said, What records should I get? And I just started listening to everything. So I was listening to her stuff from Andy Kirk in the 30s and early 40s. And then like, the late stuff from Zoning, and Free Spirits, and then like, later on, and the stuff she recorded in Europe in the early '50s. And what I really have appreciated about Mary Lou is she always considers herself to be an experimentalists. And she was always, you know, she said, no one could pin a style on her. And I think that's part of why people don't always know her music, because it doesn't all sound. You know, it's not like a particular sound that's always consistent.

MUSIC: Mary Lou Williams Roll ‘em from The First Lady of the Piano

But she was always such a swinging player. And her left hand was like, amazing, I mean, and she could do Boogie Woogie and stride. And, and then, you know, break it up with I mean, the stuff from the 70s is like, very modern sounding still today. So I got the sense also, that really studying her sacred music is she evolved in the way that she wrote for group singing. I mean, at first, she was writing stuff that was way too hard for average people to sing if she wasn't writing for professional groups. But her idea was that she wanted to bring as many communities together as possible through her music and I think she was really able to do that both just in her straight instrumental music, as well as in her sacred music, which she did in churches all around the country, which is something that I do myself with my own music, at least pre pandemic. So the two main projects that I've been working on that are both going to come out later this year are I was asked three years ago to write a new biography of Mary Lou. So it's called Mary Lou Williams Music for the Soul. It's being published coming out on August 15 by Liturgical Press, which is a Catholic publisher, and it's a general biography, but there's a lot of more information about how Mary Lou was really, I think, sustained for about 30 years by letter correspondence that she had with with people specifically with priests and nuns. And then I also did a whole new recording for MCG jazz, which is a Pittsburgh-based record label and venue, Manchester Craftmen’s  Guild, That's going to be called Force of Nature. And that should be coming out in September, October and it's mostly trio with either my regular trio from New York, some of the tracks are with Roger Humphreys on bass and Dwayne Dolphin on drums and then Clay Jenkins plays trumpet on about half the record as well.

SOLOMON: You’re listening to Checking in on VPM Music, 93.1 and 107.3. Today’s guest is pianist, composer and author Deanna Witkowski. Coming up in a few minutes, she discusses her experiences navigating the pandemic and her decision to relocate to Pittsburgh.

As Deanna mentioned, she has written many original settings for hymns and masses and other liturgical music and she’s recorded some of that material. Here’s a setting she created for Fanny Crosby’s 1868 hymn called Pass Me Not. It’s from her album From This Place. Deanna Witkowski on piano and vocals with John Pattituci, bass and drummer Scott Latzky.

MUSIC; Deanna Witkowski: Pass Me Not from From This Place

SOLOMON: What was  your personal experience of the pandemic when it hit? 

WITKOWSKI: When the pandemic began, I was at my mom's house, and she is outside of Elmira, New York, in upstate New York. I had left New York City around March 7, or 8th. The day after I finished my taxes. That's why I remember the date. And I had to have the first draft of the Williams biography turned in, by May 1. And so I wanted to, you know, finish up some work and I wanted to have a quiet space to do it in. So I went to my mom's I took like, the five hour bus ride to Elmira. And it was right before I left, I remember a friend saying to me, Well, at least because, you know, there were, there was some news coming out of COVID cases, but it wasn't, it wasn't like full blown pandemic yet. And one of my friends said, "Well, at least, if you're not able to come back for a while, if this gets really bad, you're going to be somewhere kind of like out in the country, a rural area and be safe." And I thought, well, it's going to be okay. I mean, I'm going to be back here within a couple of weeks. So I I got stuck at my Mom’s. I was living in her basement, which is a very nice basement. But you know, I remember being there when I saw like, the the army ship come in with supplies, and for being like the hospital. And that's like right next to - where they docked is basically across the street, the West Side Highway, from my apartment building. And I felt horrible. I mean, I felt very sad that I couldn't be there, because my boyfriend was there in our apartment. And he was dealing with everything himself. I couldn't get back, even if I wanted to, because I don't have a car. And there were there was no transport going back to NYC. So because there's only like one bus anyway, that usually runs. So that wasn't happening.

So it's kind of unusual. But I mean, besides just whatever emotional stuff and also losing all my upcoming gigs. I mean, I was supposed to record the Mary Lou Williams record that May. So May of 2020, I had made all the plans. and everybody arranging travel coming to Pittsburgh, I had a couple of out of town, things, something on the west coast in Oregon and I had to deal with all all of that, and then applying for a ton of emergency grants to just have income and unemployment. But even with all of that, I was somehow able to focus on finishing the first draft of the book manuscript. And I also knew at that point that I was going to be coming to Pittsburgh, sometime starting in the late summer. So it's, it's kind of like I was able to use the time in a certain way, even though it was very stressful. And I felt - I felt bad that I couldn't be in New York at the beginning. And then I got I did get back to New York in May so I was there through the summer. And, my feeling in the summer was like, just being really sad. Just being really sad at seeing how the city was changing. And I was just there. I mean, I hadn't been there since August 15 and I went back two weeks ago for a week and you know, it's starting to pick up some but so many places are boarded up. And so when I was there in the summer, I never had felt unsafe where I lived. And I felt unsafe, I had to change, like, a route that I would walk for a weekly, like medical appointment that I had. When New York is shut down, and there's kind of the whole city has changed, it's hard. For me, it was hard to be there, and it was hard to see it.  

MUSIC: Deanna Witkowski: Leaving Space (Last Cha Cha in Chi-Town) from Having to Ask

SOLOMON: Do you think the scene is going to recover?

WITKOWSKI: You know, I don't know how to answer this question exactly. I mean, so The Jazz Standard closed. You know, Smalls and Mezzrow are hanging on somehow. Spike Wilner is making them hang on. I mean, God bless him. I, I think it may just look different. And that may mean that the reality is different for working musicians there. So I'm, I'm sure it will survive in some way. But I don't know that I can just confidently say yes, it's going to be what it was, I think it will probably look different. 

MUSIC: Deanna Witkowski: Beach Head from Makes the Heart to Sing: Jazz Hymns

SOLOMON: So you relocate from New York to Pittsburgh… What brought you to Pittsburgh again?

WITKOWSKI: Well, I started in the doctoral Jazz Studies Program at the University of Pittsburgh this past August. Now, I didn't have to be here, even now, because this whole first year, all of our classes are online. But I had wanted to be here because I had been spending more and more time here, over the last couple of years, just doing various kinds of performances, like playing as a guest with Pittsburgh Symphony, playing a lot of jazz gigs, with musicians here, like some great players. And I felt honestly happier here than I was feeling in New York. And I felt like, there was more like space, there's more green space. I felt like I could just do my work more. And then I just, every time I would say, hey, I want to do X, or Hey, I want to record a Mary Lou recording and, and it would happen, and it was, you know, more seemingly with a little less effort than it took me to do certain things in New York. So I knew that I would definitely be here for the doctoral program. But I also wanted to be here for the jazz community. And just for the how I how I felt like for my overall well being.

SOLOMON: It sounds like your in a uniquely good situation considering everything that’s happening to freelance musicians.

WITKOWSKI: I feel, very thankful, I also feel like I worked for a long time to make possible what is happening now, in my life. And so, you know, I remember seeing something on Facebook, some picture that was going around some time, it was like a triangle. And the top of the point of the triangle was, like, you know, the point where like the, whether it's musician or you know, anyone in any field has their like, breakthrough, and everyone finds out who they are. And it seems like, this magic moment, but the sides of the triangle, and the bottom are everything, all the work that went into making that moment possible. I've been spending more and more time in the last couple of years in Pittsburgh, I mean, before the pandemic, choosing to live here for a couple months to do research for my book, you know, figuring that out on my own knowing that I wanted to live in a house that I wanted to buy a house not knowing how that would happen. And I think that's like a lot of you know, artists' careers any way you don't know how things are going to happen and you just go for it, or you go towards it. And so there's there's definitely many people who have helped me I couldn't have done this on my own but I also know that I've been that you know, force of nature that's been like continually working and I'm still continually working to make things happen.

SOLOMON: What are you most looking forward to when this pandemic is finally a thing of the past?

WITKOWKSI: I'm looking forward to being able to hug people and to play music, with other musicians where I mean, I've been able to play a little bit in Pittsburgh during the pandemic, but not being able to see people's facial expressions or hug people after a set or you know, even like, hug my family members. I mean, those those are the things I'm looking forward to I'm looking forward to like just because I'm new here and having a first year of school where I haven't met most of my, my classmates. I mean, my colleagues like I've just seen them on Zoom. I'm really looking forward to like meeting them in person and like going out and having a beer and like, you know, just just being able to be social with people. And also having people in my new home. I mean, I have all this space now I can have people come over. So I can't wait until I can have company up here.

PETER SOLOMON: Pianist and composer Deanna Witkowski spoke with me from her new home in Pittsburgh, PA. You can tune in for an online solo piano concert Wednesday March 24 at 6 PM. The concert will be available to watch on demand. Proceeds from the performance will help raise funds to procure a new piano for Deanna’s home. That website is here. 

I’m Peter Solomon

MUSIC: Deanna Witkowski: All Through the Night from Wide Open Window