For those of you who once traveled the city nights to local clubs, theaters and various performance spaces, the name Denise La Grassa should ring a pleasant bell and perhaps even transport you to some bygone stage and the echo of her music and poetry and an ebullient presence.
I can go back to, among many spots, Chopin Theatre and Sardine Bar. More than 25 years ago, I wrote of La Grassa’s “eager and accessible stage presence” in a show called “Bite!!!” that displayed her “impassioned” writing. I concluded: “La Grassa is a singer of serious jazzy talent and an artful writer. Funny, sad and provocative, ‘Bite!!!’ is brilliant.”
She would take that solo show to Edinburgh and to New York’s City’s highly respected Knitting Factory. She was one of the hosts of the WTTW-Ch. 11′s “Wild Chicago,” has won three Emmy Awards, and she would perform now and then, here and there.
Eventually she began working at Lincoln College and I lost track of her, until she recently burst back, playing new music with her new band at a number of venues, including this weekend.
“It is just so wonderful for me to be back performing full time, coming out of what I call the pandemic years,” she says.
This new visibility is the result of the closing of Lincoln College, the small private school in central Illinois where she had been on staff. The school closed in May 2022 after 157 years in operation, its end the result of lower-than-anticipated enrollment.
La Grassa had been there for six challenging and transformative years, changing the jazz studies program into one that focused more on music production and business.
Ever optimistic, she has found a new freedom.
And so, here is “Flame,” a new album that shows her in fine writing and singing form. On 10 songs, backed by a polished band, she gives a series of catchy blues-infused song stories, many thought-provoking.
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, toting big dreams, one suitcase and $50. The album’s name is meant to signify the torch held by the Statue of Liberty since, as La Grassa says, “it is inspired by my immigrant mother and for all immigrants. It’s about hope, compassion, and opportunity.”
I pointed to a photo of her as a little girl that is featured on the cover. She smiled and said, “We lived in Baraboo, Wisconsin, from the time I was 8 until I was 18. It is a lovely place. Maybe you know it was the home of the circus museum. That’s how I got into the Guinness Book of World Records.”
She tells the story with delight: “I took to the trapeze, spinning my way into the Guinness World Records book by doing a maneuver known as the ‘muscle grind’ 308 times in a row.”
That record would be broken by another youngster, but La Grassa carries on.
“I am living life in the key of perseverance,” she said. “Inspired by my mother, that fearless spirit has always been with me. And she and my father were jazz musicians and that influenced me deeply.”
She has been married for 17 years to Norton Hjelle, the program director of NPR stations WGLT/Normal and WCBU/Peoria. They met at Martyrs’ watching a concert by Tinariwen, “a Sahara desert blues group,” 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.
“He is so supportive,” she says. “He knows that I am getting such joy out of live performance, making music on stage.”
She is busy promoting her album and shows. “That is not my natural state,” she says. “But I am getting the hang of social media. I know these days that it is a must-do for all artists.”
She has always been a naturally exuberant person (and performer) and a thoughtful, introspective writer. Some of that is manifested in her “North of 40” writing on her website, where you can read her thoughts about the “stigma often attached to women over 40 in the entertainment business.”
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?”
She is lavish in praise for the members of that band: Alexander Kleiner on guitar, Steven C. Manns on bass and Mike Gee on drums, and eagerly expresses gratitude to the many musician pals who join in.
She has “more than enough” material for another album and she dreams of performing in Europe. Not quite sure where her new road will lead, she flashes a smile and says, “I am so very happy. I find myself creatively fulfilled and excited about what’s next.”
Denise La Grassa Band plays 8 p.m. Friday at Phyllis’ Musical Inn, 1800 W. Division St.; 773-486-9862 and facebook.com/phyllismusicalinn; then 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at The Glenwood, 6962 N. Glenwood Ave.; 773-764-7363 and facebook.com/glenwood626