Our Q&A With Out Center City Jazz Festival Headliner Dena Underwood


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Out musician Dena Underwood—who you may recognize as one of the fab piano players at Tavern On Camac— opened last fall’s OutBeat, the nation’s first queer jazz festival, and this spring she’ll be cutting the ribbon, so to speak, on another music event: the Center City Jazz Festival. As far as we can tell, Ms. Underwood is the only openly LGBTQ person to play the event, so we thought we’d throw her some support in the form of a Q&A. We caught up with her to chat about her music and why jazz is important to the gay community. 

Is this the first time you’re performing at the Center City Jazz Festival? Yes, it is the first time. I went to school with [Festival founder] Ernest Stuart. We went to Temple and ran a band together.

What are some great things about being a jazz artist in Philly? I can’t say enough great things about the Philadelphia Jazz Project. They are employing a lot of musicians in this city and beyond. Their whole goal was to put musicians to work and they have. They’ve given us a lot of opportunity to work with other musicians, which is great because just sitting at the piano can be a little lonely!

I know you opened the OutBeat Jazz Festival last year. What was that experience like? It was tremendous! It was really great to see the gay community embrace jazz, and it was amazing to see so many musicians at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre for the Billy Strayhorn tribute concert.

Do you feel like LGBTQ people have a special place in jazz? Weaved throughout jazz history are queer folks, past and present. You have Bessie Smith and Moms Mabley—whom everyone called Mista Moms. I’ve felt more comfortable with jazz. I was always going to be me: You’re not gonna get me in a skirt! With jazz, I am able to be myself.

What performers inspire you? Stevie Wonder, Oscar Peterson, Billy Joel, Barry Manilow, Elton John. You can always count on Miles Davis to play something sweet. Lately, I’ve been listening to the group Snarky Puppy.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ivV91vppV-s

What are some upcoming projects you are working on? I’m working on a possible fundraiser with my piano instructor for William Way Center, and some solo stuff for myself.

What other performers at the Center City Jazz Festival do you hope to catch? I am so excited for Ben Schachter to be back in Philly, and I can’t wait to see Greg Snyder perform.

You can catch Dena Underwood’s set at the Center City Jazz Festival at Fergie’s Pub on April 25th at 1 pm. For more information, click here.