We are happy to welcome guest celebrity blogger Jason Danieley, who is currently starring opposite wife Marin Mazzie in the Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway musical Next to Normal. The singing actor, who has also appeared on Broadway in Curtains, Candide and The Full Monty, will blog for Playbill.com all week; his second entry follows.
Play it Again, Gram
Theatre is an extraordinary way to make a living if you are fortunate enough to make a living at it. But even when you do there are the "down" times, the times between gigs where you are trying to keep yourself afloat financially and to challenge and grow in different ways artistically. Whether it's through writing, painting or performing in a different medium, it can be a great opportunity of self-exploration that ultimately feeds you as an actor and a performer.
But finding your own voice is a tricky thing. You have to clear away preconceived notions of what you think other people think they want to hear from you. (Get that?) No one knows where you're from and what outside influences have marked your life and character. It's a journey into your essence, a fun, sometimes therapeutic and occasionally cathartic exploration… but mostly fun.
My earliest memories of music emanate from a spinet piano, circa 1950s, which sat in the front living room of my fraternal grandparents. The tinkling tones of the felt hammer to string were usually accompanied by the thwacking of a tortoise shell pick to a Gibson guitar, a finger-plucked four-string Washburn banjo, a hand crafted one-string washtub bass thumped with garden-gloved hand and various pots and pans or Tupperware bowls tapped with utensils. There were the occasional vocal solos by the pre-pubescent boy soprano "Jas" or "hotshot" Danieley. And the unofficial bandleader was the pianist Ruth DeGuire, or grandma, a.k.a "Snooks."
The music was an honest, unadorned playing from the heart by self-taught musicians all done in homespun arrangements, if you can call them arrangements… "Frankie and Johnny in C. I'll take the first chorus and Herbie you take the bridge. Albert you want to give us the intro?" I heard songs like the timeless jazz standards "Frankie and Johnny," "St. Louis Blues" and "Up The Lazy River" and got my first taste of Broadway from hearing "Hello, Dolly!" performed in a stride piano style with banjo accompanying. It took years for me to appreciate what I had there in the south part of St. Louis. It took even more years to find my way back to incorporating that sound, that was so deeply rooted in my family tree wending its way into my DNA, into my professional life.
The hybrid that I call, depending on the situation, "Back porch Americana" or "Rural Jazz," has its origins in family parlors before the days of radio. A time where, in order to hear the popular music of the day, you'd have to buy the sheet music and bring it home for the musician or musicians of the family to play it. The repertoire ran the gamut of popular American music, country, folk, old time, gospel, blues and the current hit songs from Broadway. The instrumentation just depended on who was around. "Well today we have piano, guitar and fiddle. Let's hit it!"
For the last couple of years I've been playing with my band The Frontier Heroes around New York City in various clubs like The Zipper Factory, The Metropolitan Room, Joe's Pub, Birdland and most recently Feinstein's at Loews Regency. The Frontier Heroes' voice is my voice. The musical ingredients in the jambalaya making up Jason are pretty much equal parts church choir and Barbershop quartet singing, riverboat and musical theatre performance and at its core the family band. The sound is uniquely Americana.
The tough part of moonlighting in Manhattan with this kind of music is trying to find the right venue, and to play frequently enough to cultivate an audience. It's a unique sound that is a little bit of a tough sell, but once you find your true voice all you really want to do is sing.
We all have a unique voice in us — we just have to locate it. And, once you find it you have to decide what to do with it. Is it for personal pleasure or do you need to share it?
The Frontier Heroes name was chosen to honor those who forged new frontiers in American music no matter what genre. I consider my family band a part of that pioneering patchwork.
My grandma sits in a nursing home in South St. Louis County pretty much bound to her wheelchair. Occasionally she sits at the piano in the dining hall playing a few tunes for those who want to listen, fielding requests from the other residents from a repertoire familiar to all of them that metaphorically is somewhat bound to its own wheelchair. Her spinet piano sits in my home next to a framed piece of sheet music, "Flower of My Heart," performed in the day by Skeets Yaney. The song that she and my grandpa considered their song. A song and a sound that is now mine to do with, as I will.
And I will sing it.