For those who once wandered the city nights to local clubs, theaters and various performance venues, the name Denise La Grassa should ring a pleasant bell and perhaps transport you to a bygone scene and the echo and exuberant atmosphere of her music, poetry. presence
Among many places, I can return to the Chopin Theater and Sardine Bar. More than 25 years ago, “Bite!!!” I wrote about La Grassa’s “enthusiastic and accessible stage presence” in the show. this showed off her “hot” writing. I concluded: “La Grassa is a singer and master writer with serious jazz talent. Funny, sad and provocative, ‘Bite!!!’ Wonderful.”
He would take this solo exhibition to Edinburgh and New York City’s highly regarded Knitting Factory. He was one of the hosts of WTTW-Ch. 11’s “Wild Chicago” won three Emmy Awards and performed occasionally here and there.
He ended up working at Lincoln College and I lost track of him until he recently returned and played new music with his new band at various venues, including this weekend.
“It’s so amazing for me to come out of what I call the pandemic years and get back to performing full time,” he says.
This new visibility Lincoln College, The small private school in central Illinois where he is on staff. The school closed in May 2022 after 157 years of operation, ending due to lower than expected enrollment.
La Grassa was there for six challenging and transformative years, transforming the jazz studies program into one focused more on music production and business.
Always an optimist, he found new freedom.
And here is “Flame,” a new album that shows him writing and singing beautifully. Across 10 songs, backed by a flamboyant band, he delivers a series of catchy song stories, many of them thought-provoking, blues-tinged.
The album is dedicated to La Grassa’s Irish mother, Patricia McGuigan, who came to the United States from her native Scotland when she was 20 with big dreams, a briefcase, and $50. The title of the album symbolizes the torch held by the Statue of Liberty because, as La Grassa says, “it is inspired by my immigrant mother and all immigrants. “This is about hope, compassion and opportunity.”
I pointed to the photo of a little girl on the cover. She smiled and said, “We lived in Baraboo, Wisconsin, from the time I was 8 until I was 18. A very nice place. Maybe you know that this is the home of the circus museum. That’s how I got into the Guinness Book of World Records.”
He tells the story with pleasure: “I went on the trapeze and managed to enter the Guinness World Records book by spinning 308 times in a row, a maneuver known as ‘muscle grinding’.”
This record would be broken by another teenager, but La Grassa continues.
“I live life with the key of determination,” he said. “That fearless spirit inspired by my mother was always with me. “He and my father were jazz musicians, and that affected me deeply.”
She has been married for 17 years to Norton Hjelle, program director for NPR stations WGLT/Normal and WCBU/Peoria. They met at Martyrs while watching a concert by Tinariwen, “a blues band in the Sahara desert,” as my former colleague Greg Kot wrote. She has a 26-year-old stepdaughter, and she and her husband split their time between homes in Evanston and Bloomington to better accommodate her performance schedule.
“It’s very supportive,” she says. “He knows how much I enjoy performing live and making music on stage.”
He is busy promoting his album and shows. “This is not my natural state,” he says. “But I’m learning social media. “I know that’s a must-do for all artists these days.”
He has always been a naturally enthusiastic person (and artist) and a thoughtful, introspective writer. Some of these manifest in him “north of 40” She writes on her website, where you can read her thoughts on “the stigma against women over 40 in the entertainment industry.”
As she puts it: “Can a woman – say ‘North of 40’ – still follow her dreams and find her way back to Europe to showcase her new sound with her new band?”
He lavishes praise on the band’s members: Alexander Kleiner on guitar, Steven C. Manns on bass, and Mike Gee on drums, and expresses his gratitude to the many musician friends who participated.
He has “more than enough” material for another album and dreams of performing in Europe. Not quite sure where his new path would lead, he smiled and said: “I’m very happy. “I find myself creatively fulfilled and excited about what comes next.”
The Denise La Grassa Band plays Friday at 8 p.m. at Phyllis’ Musical Inn, 1800 W. Division St.; 773-486-9862 and facebook.com/phyllismusicalinn; then Saturdays and Sundays at 4 p.m. at The Glenwood, 6962 N. Glenwood Ave.; 773-764-7363 and facebook.com/glenwood626