Jazz lovers: for jazz stars Dena DeRose and Sheryl Bailey, being in love means finishing each other’s sentences and sometimes even stealing a weekend at home – music
They’re both top jazz artists, but their music is worlds apart. Singer-pianist Dena DeRose brings a modern-jazz hipness to the American standard repertoire. Guitarist Sheryl Bailey composes swinging, hard-bop instrumental and experiments with her instrument’s tonal range.
“We hear things differently,” says Bailey. “If we go out to a club, she’ll make a comment about something I would never think about–“
DeRose interjects, “I’ll be like, I don’t know, “He’s not really swinging.’ “
“And I’ll say, ‘What? He’s fucking great!’ “
Bailey and DeRose have been happily arguing about this kind of thing since 1999, when they became one of the few out couples in the relatively closeted world of jazz.
They’ve spent years building solo careers, and their stars are burning hot. Both were listed, separately, on Jazz-Week’s top 10 for 2002. Both will play the Monterey Jazz Festival in September, DeRose with her trio and Bailey as lead guitarist for African vocalist-bassist Richard Bona. Both women maintain crammed performing schedules and gigs around the world.
“It’s a crazy life,” DeRose volunteers. The couple’s synchronicity is striking. They record–Bailey on the Pure-Music label, DeRose on Maxjazz. And they teach–DeRose in the Nether-lands, Bailey at Berklee College of Music, both at Stanford University’s summer jazz workshops. Each moved to New York City hoping to make her mark in the jazz capital of the world. DeRose, a classical piano student since age 3, arrived from Binghamton, N.Y, in 1991. Bailey, who had been gigging in the funk-fusion scene in Baltimore, arrived three years later.
Though they traveled in similar circles and even met at a party in 1996, the two were involved with other people and didn’t get together until a few years later, when they were both finally single.
“We were looking out for ourselves as individuals,” Bailey says. “We were both at a point where we’d decided we were going to be celibate until we were 50.”
That’s not what happened, of course. “Just out of the blue, going through my phone book, I invited her to my 33rd birthday party,” DeRose remembers.
“I put the moves on her,” Bailey jokes. “I work fast.”
DeRose agrees that’s just what happened: “The minute she touched my hand, I knew she was for me.”
Just because they’re a couple, though, don’t assume they play together. “People ask us, but I would never, ever play on one of her career gigs,” says DeRose.
Bailey is just as emphatic: “I like to keep our business lives separate,” she states. Both women obviously groove on having the love of a fellow musician without the specter of jealousy. “That’s one thing I never had in any other relationship,” DeRose sighs. “The other person was always competitive with me for some reason.”
For any woman, let alone a gay woman, the business of jazz is competitive enough. For Bailey, the clearest obstacle is gender. Most aficionados would be hard-pressed to name one female jazz guitarist. “I know there are things that would have come sooner if I wasn’t a woman,” she admits. “But I don’t have any time to be bothered with negativity.” Instead, she’s developed a signature sound, experimenting with quirky pick positions and bronze-wound strings in place of jazz’s traditional flatwounds.
As Guitar Player’s Adam Levy wrote in 1999, “Despite Bailey’s unorthodoxy–or perhaps because of it–she has one of the warmest and most compelling tones of her generation.”
For DeRose, the biggest hurdle has been not gender but health. She was just 21 when a sudden, crippling pain in her right hand threatened disaster. Diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome and arthritis–decades before musicians generally face such maladies–DeRose didn’t know if she’d ever play again. She started singing out of desperation.
“I was just doing it for something to do besides drink and do drugs and be depressed,” she cracks. “I was in limbo, and [singing] was something that made me feel good.” Two years later, after surgeries and rehabilitation, DeRose was finally able to plunk down a few notes. As she slowly got her technique back, she noticed a difference: “Even when I was playing an instrumental number, it’d sound like I was singing it. I was playing the story of the song.”
These days DeRose works in territory that few have the chops to match. Critic Joel E. Siegel has called her “the most creative and compelling singer-pianist since Shirley Horn.”
For Bailey and DeRose, their career good times are made bittersweet by the constant need to tour. “It used to be a lot more time [we could spend together],” says DeRose. “It’s tougher now. We’re both out, I’d say, between one and three, if not four, weeks, a month at a time.” But the two faithfully keep in touch. “We call, E-mail, try to do something every day. It’s tough, but we communicate however we can, because when you stop, you feel a distance.”
DeRose feels the same about being out as a lesbian. “When someone’s holding something back, that’s like stopping a communication–whether it’s an audience or one person,” she says.
“Dena and I are very comfortable with ourselves,” Bailey points out. “That makes people comfortable with us.”
In between performances, the couple squeezed in time last year for one very important gig in Vermont: their own commitment ceremony.
“We wanted to have family and everything for it, but it was so hard to find a time to do it, and we really didn’t want to wait,” DeRose remembers.
So the two went by themselves to Burlington, Vt., in such a rush that Bailey forgot her birth certificate back in New York. Fortunately, the matter of the missing document never came up, and soon the two musicians found themselves on the sunporch of a local justice of the peace, saying their vows as the sun went down.
“Just the three of us stood there,” DeRose remembers. “As we were saying our I do’s, all three of us were bawling.”
And what was the music for the ceremony? None–at least not on the stereo. Says DeRose with a grin: “It was going on in our hearts.”–Additional reporting by Anne Stockwell
Dulong has written for publications including Newsday.
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