Vocalist Joanna Pascale knows how to hang onto a gig. When her three-night-a-week engagement at SoleFood, the seafood restaurant at the Loews Philadelphia Hotel, draws to a close on Friday after nearly a decade, it will mark the end of only her second longest-lasting job.
At the age of 14, while studying at Settlement Music School, Pascale responded to an ad posted by a Catholic Church in her South Philly neighborhood looking for a cantor. The priest who answered her call had three questions. Pascale answered no to “Are you Catholic?” and “Have you ever been to a Catholic mass?” but said yes to what was apparently the most important requirement: “Are you free Saturdays at 5:30 and Sunday mornings at 8 a.m.?” The tenth grader was soon spending her weekends leading the music ministry at St. Philip Neri, a position she maintains twenty years later.
But when SoleFood closes its doors next week for a planned remodeling and transformation into an entirely new space, another one of Philly’s fast-dwindling jazz spaces will likely disappear. “It looks like it’s going to be an incredible room,” Pascale says of the planned rebranding, “but I don’t necessarily think that a music venue is in the plans. I’m under the assumption that it’s over, but I’m feeling optimistic about closing this chapter and doing some other things.”
Pascale had recently graduated from Temple University in 2004 when she was first hired for the Loews happy hour performances, then led by trumpeter Todd Horton. She took over the gig in 2006 and since has led a rotating cast of local jazz musicians that includes pianists Orrin Evans, Anthony Wonsey, Josh Richman, and Andrew Adair; bassists Matthew Parrish, Madison Rast, Mike Boone, and Lee Smith; drummers Dan Monaghan and Byron Landham; and saxophonist Tim Warfield.
The restaurant initiated the jazz happy hour to encourage business from the nearby City Hall and Convention Center, but despite the buttoned-up atmosphere that clientele might imply, Pascale has enjoyed a fair amount of freedom during her tenure there. “The hotel never got in the way of what I was doing,” she says. “I really had free rein to go in whatever direction I wanted, so I always tried to find a balance of not getting too far out of the box but still remaining true to myself and trying to evolve the things that I do.”
That flexibility has given Pascale the opportunity to explore and experiment with material on the bandstand to a remarkable degree, work which led directly to the music on her two most recent albums. While her 2004 debut, When Lights Are Low, was released shortly before she began singing at Loews, her 2008 CD Through My Eyes and her 2010 duo recording with Wonsey both showcased the results of the hotel shows.
“Loews has been this breeding ground for me to try material out and put these projects together,” she explains. “It’s made me so acutely aware of what’s going on around me, and I’ve become so familiar with the ins and outs of everyone’s playing and how different people work together. At this point I feel very confident in being able to select personalities who will be able to create a great musical situation. And just being around all those creative spirits and energies for so many nights has kept me inspired and forward-thinking.”
Raised by her devoutly religious mother, Pascale was not allowed to listen to secular music as a child, but heard a singer performing “Good Morning Heartache” in her early teens that changed her life. “It just stopped me dead in my tracks,” she recalls. “I asked my mom, ‘Who is that?’ She said, ‘That’s an old Billie Holiday number.’ And I was like, ‘Billie Holiday? Who’s he?’”
As it turned out, Pascale’s maternal grandfather, who died before she was born, had been an amateur jazz singer. “It was really strange that I connected with this material that my grandfather had loved and performed, but we had never met. So I would just lock myself in my bedroom and sing these songs over and over again. But because of this connection with my grandfather, my mother allowed me to listen to jazz singers – which is funny because a song like ‘My Man’ was ok, with lyrics that say, ‘He beats me, too / What can I do?’ But Whitney Houston or New Kids on the Block? Uh-uh.”
Her exposure to Billie Holiday led to the discovery of other jazz singers, including influences like Sarah Vaughan, Nancy Wilson, and Jimmy Scott. Hours spent singing along with their records in her bedroom sealed Pascale’s fate. “There was something about the intensity of feelings and emotion in these lyrics and the way that these singers were enlivening these songs, she says. “I’m so attracted to lyrics and story, I think that even had I been exposed to other forms of music, I still would have chosen this as the genre I wanted to sing.”
Pascale attended Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts before graduating from Temple, where she now teaches. She now tries to pass her love of storytelling on to her students, who often surprise her by not comprehending the lyrics of the songs that they sing. “If I don’t connect with a lyric, I can’t sing a song,” she says. “I love to dig into the lyrics and find all the different shades, the stories within the story, and then try to interpret that. I don’t think that I have to have lived every song that I sing if I can truly understand the essence of what every single word is about. It’s just like when you hear an older person read a child a story; they haven’t lived it, but God, they make you feel like they did.”
The danger, she continues, often comes with identifying too closely with the story behind the song. “Sometimes it’s hard for me to sing material that I do personally connect with because that’s very emotional. It’s like slitting my wrists onstage. As a performer, it gets hard to maintain that. You see a lot of musicians fall prey to that, and I think they’re the ones who don’t live the longest; they’re always giving, giving, giving, and then they turn to other things to give back. So I try to find a healthy detachment from some of the material. Maybe that was sort of an occupational hazard at the Loews, not always finding material that would make me bleed. But there’s also joy in music and night to night, if there was something that I was feeling, I tried to find a song that would express that.”
Just like every week, Pascale took the stage at SoleFood on Wednesday, returns tonight, and bids farewell on Friday with what she plans to be the “grand finale” of her decade-long stint at Loews. Losing such a reliable source of artistic inspiration – not to mention income – is undoubtedly daunting, but Pascale is optimistic about the future, with two new recording projects planned for the near future and hopes for opportunities to travel that the steady gig has long precluded.
“I think I’ve had this steady gig not so much because I’ve needed to have this money coming in,” she concludes, “but because I’ve needed to sing that much.”
Joanna Pascale Quartet performs their final show at SoleFood tomorrow night, November 1st, from 6 to 9 p.m. Information on the show can be found here.