by Len Lear
Dena Underwood, 43, who performs once a month at Paris Bistro (although her April gig was canceled because of a medical procedure) and will be playing Mother’s Day – Sunday, May 12, noon to 3 p.m. – has long been regarded as one of the city’s finest LGBTQ musicians (GPhilly Magazine once called her one of the city’s top five LBGTQ musicians and artists), although it seems as if many in the gay community have not embraced jazz.
“It’s hard to say why this is,” Lena told us in a recent interview, “but I have played at a piano bar that had mostly a gay audience, and I had to learn musical theater because few fans liked jazz. You don’t see a lot of the queer community going to jazz clubs.”
On the other hand, according to Underwood (in an earlier interview), “Weaved throughout jazz history are queer folks, past and present. You have Bessie Smith and Moms Mabley, whom everyone called ‘Mista Moms.’ I have 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…
“Philly is definitely a close-knit city. I feel like any venue that I visit or play in, there is always someone I know, and I have tons of friends and family here. I mean I definitely want to make music in other places, but right now this is where I am based, and it’s nice. It’s where I grew up, and even just walking around the city I get a lot of influences. I get the opportunity to perform with some amazing people.”
Having grown up in Strawberry Mansion, Underwood attended the city’s High School for the Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA), where she performed with the members of Boyz II Men, who were her fellow students. Did she ever think that they would be the major recording stars that they have become? “Yes, I did. They were always great.”
Underwood, who honed her craft under the coaching of the highly regarded Andy Kahn, grew up in a family of talented vocalists and instrumentalists.
“We will get together at holidays, and it’s like a showcase of all the Underwoods – my dad, my aunt, my cousins, my sisters. It ends up being a great jam session.”
Since graduating from CAPA and studying jazz performance at Temple university, Underwood has performed at countless venues in the area, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Academy of Music, Kimmel Center, World Café Live, Plays and Players Theater, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and Lincoln Center in New York City. She was once a regular at Tavern on Camac, one of the country’s oldest LGBTQ bars; Sugarhouse Casino, Arch Street Presbyterian Church and at the Center City Jazz Festival and OutBeat, the nation’s first “queer jazz festival” in 2014, among many others.
These days, in addition to her monthly Paris Bistro gig, Underwood plays every Friday at the Cub Room in New Hope, and she will be releasing a CD this month of her own compositions and jazz standards. She is still working on its distribution with CD Baby, a record label and online music store. She also does a form of social work with Attic Youth Center in center city, the city’s only independent LGBTQ youth center, where she runs a group, Music Discovery, and at the West Philly Senior Community Center, where she works musically with the residents.
Musical artists Underwood admires the most are “Stevie Wonder, Oscar Peterson, Billy Joel, Barry Manilow and Elton John, and you can always count on Miles Davis to play something sweet.”
For more information about Underwood’s Mother’s Day performance, visit denaunderwood.com. You can reach Len Lear at firstname.lastname@example.org