Deanna Bogart and all that jazz

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Robert Friedman
Nationally renowned jazz and blues musician Deanna Bogart, who lives in Woodbine, will give a concert at Howard County’s WomenFest on June 16. Bogart, one of the country’s leading saxophone players, also plays piano, sings, and writes many of her own songs.
Photo © Michael G. Stewart

Deanna Bogart has often had to battle her way into playing music the way she wanted in a genre dominated by men.

As a middle school student, she yearned to wail on the saxophone like Charlie Parker and Ben Webster. Instead, she was handed a clarinet and told, “This is what girls play.”

“I was 11 years old and I knew that wasn’t right,” Bogart said. “But I couldn’t say why.”

What she could do is prove them all so wrong, building a successful career as a jazz and blues pianist, vocalist, songwriter, band leader and, yes, award-winning saxophonist who has played with such luminaries as Ray Charles and BB King.

A promising beginning

Born in Detroit and raised in Queens, N.Y. and Phoenix, Ariz., Bogart’s musical voyage began just a few years after birth, when she was “climbing on any available piano bench to plunk and play with preternatural panache,” as her website puts it.

Such panache apparently was too unorthodox for the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music which, she said, “gently removed” her from the school because she insisted on playing piano by ear rather than learning to read those stodgy written notes.

None of it stopped her from deciding to make music her career. Bogart moved to Howard County in her early 20s to join the western swing band called Cowboy Jazz.

Four years later, still with the band, she married the road manager, who hailed from an “old Howard County family.” A few years later, she formed her own group, the Deanna Bogart Band. She has been a resident of Howard County since 1981, living for the last eight years in Woodbine.

Surprisingly, she didn’t start playing the sax until she was 26 years old. Now 52, she’s a three-time winner of the national Blues Music Award’s Horn Instrumentalist of the Year Award (2008, 2009 and 2010) for her saxophone playing. She has also won 22 Wammies — the music awards given by the Washington Area Music Association for “significant career achievements.”

Bogart brings down house after house wherever she and her eponymous band play, whether in area music clubs, festivals around the country, for U.S. troops in Iraq and Kuwait, on rhythm-and-blues cruises to the Caribbean, or at the Great Pyramids in Egypt, as she did during a “Blues on the Nile” tour.

DownBeat, a leading jazz and blues magazine, has called her “an extravagant entertainer.”

She has also been described as a female Jerry Lee Lewis, which Bogart says is fine, even though she owns no Jerry Lee recordings and feels her piano playing is more from the old Kansas City swing jazz and boogie woogie school.

Her keyboard influences, she said, start with Kansas City great Jay McShann and move on to boogie woogie innovator Pete Johnson, modern jazz masters Thelonius Monk and Dave Brubeck, and classical phenom Glenn Gould.

 Her style is to combine the blues, boogie woogie, rock, country and jazz as she works out on the piano, wails on the tenor sax, and sings her soulful songs. She calls her blending and bending of the musical genres “bluesion.”

The woman on the bus

Bogart and her husband had a daughter, and they separated when the child was five. Bogart’s now divorced, and she calls her 18-year-old daughter “the single best part of my life.”

Because of her career, Bogart has lived what she calls a hyphenated life as road musician and full-time-mom. Her former husband, also still a Howard County resident, has taken care of their daughter when Bogart has been on the road. When the girl grew older, she accompanied Bogart on many of her trips.

Bogart has racked up many miles on the road during her musical career. It can be lonely for any musician, but particularly for a woman. “I’m the only woman on the bus about 98 percent of the time,” she said.

Despite the difficulties, the power music holds over her keeps her going. “You keep playing for those moments when you transcend where you are. You get in the zone where you forget everyone else is there; it’s where the present and the past, joy and pain meet. You’re completely free,” Bogart said.

Then there are times she revels in being the only, or the first, woman in her position.

When she became the first woman to win the Blues Foundation award for her saxophone playing in the instrumental category, she told the audience at the awards ceremony, “As an adult, winning this is wonderful. But I can’t tell you guys,” she said, tapping her chest, “how cool it is for the 11-year-old girl in here.”

She wasn’t alone in feeling the pride. When Bogart was crowned queen of the blues horn, other struggling female musicians were “overjoyed,” she said.

Until recently, women instrumentalists in jazz and the blues felt looked down upon by the boys in the bands. There were some exceptions, for example, the great jazz pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams, who has an annual women’s jazz festival at the Kennedy Center named for her.

But in general, female instrumentalists have seldom been recorded through the years, Bogart said. Still, many women have made terrific music, which now is finally being acknowledged because, she said, “Art will always find a way.”

Déjà vu at the check-out

Her past and present often mesh in the songs she writes, as what she observes taps into her life story — and the stories of people she meets.

One day Bogart was in a shopping mall near her home, and a young cashier struck up a conversation. The girl was a musician who played bass, and she poured out her feelings to Bogart of being an outcast from her peers.

“She said she didn’t care if people made fun of her,” Bogart recalled. The girl reminded Bogart of herself as a youth. “When I was young, you could hurt me, but you couldn’t redefine me,” she said.

So, recognizing her years-ago self in this young woman, Bogart wrote a song about their meeting. It’s called “Still the Girl in the Band” and has become a signature number for Bogart. She performs it with a hard-swinging beat:

Time caresses as it flies,

I feel its breeze from where I stand.

New gray hairs bring out my eyes,

I’m still the girl in the band.

 

She is sure that life won’t beat her,

I say how nice it was to meet her.

The future has many a door

and I walk through one from the store . . .

Suns will set and moons will rise,

life will spring upon the land.

I see clearly with these eyes,

I’m still the girl in the band.

Growing older has only made Bogart more excited about making music.

“I woke up on my 50th birthday feeling I was just getting up to bat,” she said. “I had a whole resurgence of interest and of oxygen.

“No one ever told me this would happen. Getting older kind of works for me. I guess it comes down to realizing who you really are. Some people realize this at an early age. Not me.”

Since she hit the half-century mark, her confidence in herself and her work has deepened, and Bogart said she is becoming “endearingly cantankerous.”

“I only hope those feelings are 10-fold when I reach 60!” she said.

Deanna Bogart will entertain at this year’s WomenFest — a one-day health and wellness event featuring health screenings, seminars and informative exhibits.

The event, which is presented annually by the Howard County Office on Aging, will be held Saturday, June 16 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Gary J. Arthur Community Center at Glenwood in Cooksville. Bogart’s concert will start at 2 p.m.