Pianist, conductor, musical director, recording artist, composer and arranger Jo Ann Daugherty loves all kinds of music—whether sharing the stage with jazz luminaries such as Victor Goines, Conrad Herwig, John Abercrombie, Randy Brecker, and Howard Levy; conducting or playing keyboards in hit Broadway shows (Motown, Jersey Boys, Seussical, Dreamgirls, Billy Elliot); or music-directing and arranging PBS concert specials, she brings an infectious energy to each project.
Daugherty has a brand new recording coming out titled Bring Joy and will be performing a CD release celebration on Monday November 28th at the Green Mill. We caught up with Daugherty to talk about her life in music and the concept and motivation for the new recording.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Where did you grow up and how did you get interested in music? Did you grow up in a musical household?
Jo Ann Daugherty: I grew up on a farm in western Missouri, two hours south of Kansas City. There was a little spinet piano in the house, which drew my interest from the very beginning. We lived too far from school to be involved in sports, so piano was it for me. Ours weren’t a particularly musical household, but there was some music in the air—country radio, classical concerts and even Lawrence Welk on PBS (so thankful for PBS making it all the way out there), and church music too. My parents thought piano lessons were important for both my sister and me. My mother was a saint for driving us the 18 miles to lessons while my sister and I bickered in the car every week for years and years. I’m not sure I would choose to suffer through that as an adult, so I offer a lot of gratitude to my mom for that.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Was there a specific artist or experience that influenced you and introduced you to jazz music?
Daugherty: My first piano teacher, Maxine Dugan, didn’t teach any jazz—she was focused on classical and church music. But she did teach me theory like crazy from a very early age, which has served me well throughout my lifetime. She also exuded this energy of refinement and education—she was an excellent example of a broad-minded person living in the countryside, which was very inspiring to me.
My high school band director, Christopher Small, gave me some Pat Metheny tapes. Those rocked my world. I went to Jim Widener’s jazz camp in Springfield, Missouri as a kid too—I didn’t know a thing about jazz, but found it intellectually and emotionally challenging. Finally, in college at Kirksville, MO (Truman State), I studied with an excellent saxophone player named Rick DiMuzio, who now teaches at Berklee in Boston. He turned my head inside out in all the right ways.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Why did you decide to make Chicago your home?
Daugherty: When I left college (which was the first time I’d even lived in a town), I moved to the big city (Kansas City, that is) to make my mark on the world. It was a wonderful place to be a young musician—the moderate size of the scene really facilitated getting to play with some world class guys (bassist Bob Bowman comes to mind right away), plus that town really put a value on swinging. But after awhile I was itching for a bigger scene. At the time, New York was like a foreign country to me. But Chicago seemed full of amazing musicians (I was right about that!) and a good place to really learn the craft. So I ended up here, and it has been good to me.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: You have performed with internationally known musicians such as Victor Goines, Conrad Herwig, John Abercrombie and Randy Brecker to name a few. How has performing with such luminaries helped you expand your concepts for performing and composing?
Daugherty: Everyone I play with affects my music making, writing, performing, all of it—whether they’re internationally known or not. To me, that’s the amazing thing about this line of work. In the best situations, we open our hearts and minds to information from others and take the bits that resonate in our souls and run with that. Playing with Victor Goines, for instance—he’s got a meticulous way of approaching any piece of music, a clarity and accuracy that I so very much appreciate. It has been a thrill to hear him play some of my music, and it has been thrill to play his compositions as well. The thing I’m most inspired by in many of these players is their well-defined vision of what they’re trying to achieve, both musically and professionally, combined with a musical generosity that leaves room for contribution from other voices. People that have been on the international stage for a long time tend to see a bigger picture just from the accumulation of their experiences. I find that extremely inspiring.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Something not many musicians can put on their resume are the extended runs you have had playing keyboard for hit shows such as Jersey Boys, Motown the Musical, Billy Elliot, Seussical and Dreamgirls. How did you get involved performing in musicals and are there things you can take from that experience and use them in your own music?
Daugherty: I first got involved with Jersey Boys because a friend in the business recommended me for the chair. I would have never been smart enough to pursue this on my own. I had never even played a musical in high school or college, so this was very much like winning the lottery for me, or getting struck by lightning, or both—awesome and a little shock-inducing as well. But Jersey Boys was a great experience with wonderful people, which eventually led to my learning the conducting book, then led to my being conductor on the national tour. That’s an entirely different part of the brain that gets engaged—and I mean fully engaged for the entirety of the 3-hour show. I thrived on that intellectual challenge and high-stakes environment. I can deal with structure, and that work involves a degree of structure that is off-putting for many creative musicians. But to me, conducting was another channel for creativity. People always say, “How can you play the same thing every night?” As a side musician, you make a commitment to trying to improve it every night. But as a conductor, you definitely don’t have the same experience every night because there are so many more moving parts to your job.
The things that I’ve taken from that line of work into my creative work—first and foremost, I got to understand the transformative power of connecting through music at a different level, to a different degree. We played every night to packed houses in theaters ranging from 1200 to 3500 seats. I would see all those people come in with the weight of the world on their shoulders and leave transformed by the experience. It made me really want to use my music to connect with people in a different way than I had prior to working in the theater.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Coming up Monday November 28th at the Green Mill you will be having a CD Release event for your new recording Bring Joy. What is the significance of the title and how did you decide on the repertoire?
Daugherty: The repertoire is a collection of songs that are designed to be felt in the heart—songs that really connected with people in the audience, songs that really connected with the band, songs that give you that feeling of, “Oo, let’s just sit here and enjoy this.” There’s a real vibe throughout the entire record that I love. You know those records you put on over and over because they just feel good? That’s what we’re going for here.
The title came about after a bunch of soul searching, at the prompting of a wonderful Chicago musician named Lisa McClowry.
She really got me to ask myself layer after layer of questions— Why are you doing this? Why did you pick these tunes? What do you want to say with this music? and so forth. Which in turn led me to examine my motives for operating in the world at large. There are many things that I can’t do, but one thing I can do is bring some joy to situations I encounter. I struggled with the title for a long time, but after that process, it became much more clear that these tunes bring joy to me and that’s my motivation for sharing them.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Who will be in the band at the Green Mill on Monday night and what can people expect to hear that evening?
Daugherty: Ah the band! Lucky me!
First, I must give props to the excellent musicians on the album who won’t be at the Green Mill because the world is a complicated place full of impossible logistics—Lorin Cohen played bass and contributed several compositions, guitarists Neal Alger and Felton Offard made magic happen on their tracks, and Geraldo D’Oliviera delivered some percussion joy of his own.
At the Green Mill on 11/28, I’ll be joined by Steve Rodby on the bass. He was on the very first Pat Metheny albums I heard that awakened my love for jazz in the first place, so playing with him is always an amazing experience of realizing that what I want to hear was very much shaped by listening to him. Kyle Asche is joining us on guitar—I’ve been listening to his groovy records (especially enjoying The Skinny) and recently got a chance to play with him for the first time and instantly connected. Last but not least, my husband Ryan Bennett plays drums. I’ve had the great fortune of playing music with him for a very long time—he continues to inspire me with the care he brings to the music-making process and his love for groove.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: After this performance what do you have coming up in the future?
Daugherty: More music! I’m never sure what form that will take, but I look forward to seeing what unfolds! In the immediate future, I’m looking forward to performing with my trio at the new club Winter’s on 12/6, as well as joining lots of other great artists there. I’m also looking forward to getting the word out about the record over the next few months too—we’re doing the national release starting in January, so there’s lots more to come.
Visit joanndaugherty.com to purchase the new recording BRING JOY and find out where she is performing!