Photo by Andrea Cabane
Dennis Yerry discusses his multi-faceted career as Native American composer, arranger and musician AND as a jazz pianist and cabaret performer. [29:27]
Dennis Yerry—Podcast Transcript
Dennis Yerry: World music and world languages are the same thing. Music to me is a language, whether you're playing jazz and you grow up speaking it and everything, it becomes native to you, or intrinsic into you. You can associate with it. And so I just find that when I go to different places and learn traditional songs that they have their own language. They have their own scale. They have their own way that they sing them. I've heard songs that I didn't realize were so important. The Delaware-or theLanope-the stick dance, for example, is a song that we sing in the Iroquois longhouses. It's during the social dances. They sing that song last to honor the Delaware people. That song has a huge significance to them.
Jo Reed: That was musician and composer Dennis Yerry talking about traditional Native American songs. Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes to explore how Art Works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed.
If music is a language, then Native-American Dennis Yerry is a multi-linguist. He is known primarily as a Native-American composer and musical director. He wrote the music for Black Elk Speaks in Denver and LA and reimagining and composing new music for the annual production of Unto These Hills in Cherokee, North Carolina, which he continues to musically direct. Yerry is also a highly regarded traditional musician, playing the flute, as well as other native-American instruments, like the rattle and the drums, and performing on television and in films like Ken Burns's documentaries The West and Lewis and Clark. But there's another musical side to Dennis Yerry. His background is in jazz piano and cabaret, and he's maintained and nurtured those musical roots. He has played in many venues around New York City throughout the years, including the Knickerbocker, Tavern on the Green, and the Waldorf Astoria. In the past few years, he's teamed up with cabaret artist Ann Osmond and added singing to his repertoire as the duo performs an eclectic program of jazz piano and American song.
I met Dennis Yerry at the Festival of the Voice in Phoenicia, New York, where true to form, he was the director of World Music for the festival and performing jazz cabaret with Ann Osmond. Given his musical versatility, I was curious about his upbringing. So, when we sat to talk spoke with Dennis, I wanted to know if he came from a musical family.
Dennis Yerry: My mom was musical. She was a dancer, and she loved to dance. She said that even the Rockettes wanted to hire her at one point but she turned them down because she thought that when she got older they wouldn't want her any more. We had a piano at my house. I pretty much taught myself how to play. She had a couple of books there and we sang. We sang in the car when we were going places. We went to church. I learned to-- kind of picked up the songs from church and went home and played them. So I kind of just of taught myself with whatever was there at the house.
NEA:: First of all, where were you born? Where were you brought up?
Yerry: I was brought up in the Catskill Mountains right here in Shandaken, New York. And my dad was a ginseng hunter. He hunted ginseng in the woods. He was Iroquois. And he would take me in the woods and he'd show me all of the plants and the trees and all of the different ways to find ginseng. I was never on a hiking trail until I was about 18 because we would just go straight in and come straight out.
NEA: Did you listen or sing traditional Native American music when you were a kid?
Yerry: No. You know, there was a resurgence of that. That started when I moved to New York in my late twenties and thirties. I met a lot of people down there, a lot of Native people. Now, when I was younger, my dad would take us to powwows and we'd go to different places and events. But I never did listen to the music much and didn't learn it because I didn't really grow up traditionally. I grew up just listening mostly to pop music and Stevie Wonder, Elton John and things like that when I was a kid and playing along with them.
NEA: When did you rediscover or discover for the first time, Native American music?
Yerry: I think I discovered it when I moved to New York. I was down there in the late eighties. I actually met a long of young people like myself. We were kind of discovering our roots, discovering or rediscovering traditional songs and traditional music because a lot of it was either banned from different places or it wasn't carried on because there was a huge effort by the federal government during the fifties, especially, to take the Indian out of people. And so they weren't allowed to speak their languages, and they weren't allowed to do their traditional dances and things like that. And it's very historical at this point that a lot of it has come back. A lot of it has been rediscovered and passed on. And I really enjoy finding songs that were lost.
NEA: That was exactly going to be my question because when you were doing this it must have been very difficult to find the songs and find the music. You must have had to have found elders who could teach you.
Yerry: Well, I consider myself more of a performer and a musician. And so I don't really look at it as far as the research of the music. So I find these songs they kind of come to me in different ways. When I was working on "The West" for Ken Burns they played for me a wax cylinder recording of Chief Joseph singing an honoring song. And I just thought that that was just so fabulous and we did that song. We recorded it for Sony Classical. And now I play it, I sing it, wherever I go. And I love that song.
Chief Joseph Honor song up and hot
Yerry: And I've heard songs that I didn't even realize were so important, the Delaware or the Lenape the stick dance, for example, is a song that we sing in the long house, the Iroquois long houses. It's during the social dances they sing that song last to honor the Delaware people. And that song has a huge significance to them. I also met a guy from South Dakota who was doing "The West" with us and he heard me play the flute and he said that he had a song that he wanted to give to me to learn on the flute. And he gave me a tape of it and I learned that song. And he said that he sang that song back at home and elders were coming up to him and saying you know we haven't heard that song in 50 years. We love that song because, I think it has a direct relationship between languages, with languages. And I feel like music when you asked about world music I think world music and world languages are the same thing. Music to me is a language, whether you're playing jazz and you grow up speaking it and everything, it becomes native to you, or intrinsic into you. You can associate with it. And so he was playing me a song from I think it was a Dakota Sioux. And I just find that when I go to different places and learn traditional songs that they have their own language. They have their own scale. They have their own way that they sing them. And I worked in Cherokee, North Carolina for the Cherokee nation down there on their show "Unto These Hills" and they asked me to rewrite the show about six years ago. And before I ever wrote a piece of music I spent the whole time learning from an elder who had recorded songs down there and I got the CD. And I transcribed them all and just learned them inside and out the best that I could so that when I started to compose music for the show I would all ready have that inside me. I would be able to speak that language.
NEA: How did you begin to play Caberet music?
Yerry: Well, that's kind of roundabout. I grew up here and I was playing music. I started playing when I was only eight years old in the church. For eight years I played in the Catholic Church. I played the organ. And then I started playing in the bars also when I was about 15 and eventually the two things collided because you play it Saturday evening late into the morning and then have to get up and play the next morning. So at some point it all switched. And so I moved to New York temporarily with a roommate down on the Upper East Side. I just shared an apartment. And a singer came up from Miami and she said she needed an accompanist, a pianist and so I took my big old Fender Rhodes and she told me there was work down there. And I was only 19 and I was just so excited to just play music. And that's what I wanted to do. So I took my big piano and I stuck it on the bus in Woodstock and got to New York City and I discovered my piano was considered freight and they charged me a couple of hundred dollars. I didn't know. I took the bus all the way to Miami. And I lived down there for two years and played all over the place at all of the big hotels and everything. And whatever I could do I just wanted to play. And then my dad had a stroke and I came back and moved back home. And I lived back home until he passed away in 1982. And then I decided it was time to get back into playing more. And then I moved down to New York and actually would-- it took me a couple of years to get a job even playing any music and it was very difficult. But I finally was actually playing at the Knickerbocker for a while. I was subbing for Harry Connick Jr. whenever he would go out of town on Monday nights. So I'd play his spot up there once in a while. And I was playing six nights a week and just that's how I ended up back in New York.
NEA: When you were playing at the Knickerbocker hotel, were you singing as well as playing piano?
Yerry: I wasn't singing so much at that time. My singing has only just had a resurgence right now and the Festival of the Voice has a lot to do with it. But at the time I was mostly I considered myself a pianist and I really worked very hard to work at my jazz playing. I got interested in jazz. A friend of mine, his father was a jazz trumpet player. And we would listen to more of the contemporary fusion jazz. We'd listen to The Crusaders when they had the trombone players with them. And we listened to George Benson and all of the more contemporary to me. I could relate to it more, I think. And then later on I studied at the Jazzmobile up in Harlem, Billy Taylor's Jazzmobile. I studied up there with some great people and just started getting more and more into it. And it was almost simultaneously that I discovered the Native American music at the same time. So I was kind of learning two languages, I would say, at the same time down in New York.
NEA: How do those two languages speak to one another?
Yerry: Well, they speak to each other in that the jazz that I would consider, what I've done in the past with the traditional music is free improvisation. I don't consider the traditional jazz necessarily. But I try to the Native music that I use has a certain scale to it. So you can improvise along that scale. You can create atmosphere. You can create feeling, the emotion. A lot of Native music doesn't have words to it. It's almost like--I wouldn't call it scatting. I would say that scatting is a language unto itself that you don't use words, you use emotions and feelings. And in Native songs the same thing applies, almost. I've had people come up to me after I've sung a song just using vocables and they say, well, what did that mean? What were the words? And I say there really were no words because in some traditions it's considered like the words take away from the feeling of the song because if you're being given words you can't understand just the meaning of that song. Traditional Native songs, they have songs for everything. They have songs for children being born and going down to the stream to get water. There's thousands and thousands of songs all across what we call Turtle Island, North America. And so I think that's how they relate. I learned those Cherokee songs and thought I had them down perfectly but when I went down there every singer sings them their own way. They interpret the song their own way. They just get them inside of them. And it's been very exciting for me, because I consider myself mostly a composer even though I love to improvise and I love to play jazz. But also when I'm composing I like to bring people in the studio and I'll have a lot of different Native instruments, like a big powwow drum or rattles in my flute and things like that. And they can bring their bass clarinet and all of their percussion instruments and the piano and anything that we want to play and just create amongst ourselves. So I guess that's how they would combine or how they relate to each other.
NEA: How did you establish yourself as a composer of Native American music to the point that you would work with Ken Burns on two things, on "Lewis & Clark" as well as "The West"? And go down to North Carolina and create "Unto These Hills" or rewrite them for the Cherokee Nation?
Yerry: Well, as I said when I was living in New York we had a project down there that was put together by a person and he brought in a lot of different Native people. He was trying to get them all to create a new kind of music that would be rock-and-roll and Native music, jazz and Native American music. And he just wanted to experiment and try and I don't know maybe it worked for some people but it didn't really work for me. But the people that I met on the project I've ended up being good friends and working with them the whole time. And so I guess the break that I got was when the Denver Center Theater in Denver was going to put up the show "Black Elk Speaks". I mean "Black Elk Speaks" the book to me it's almost a guiding book. It helps me. I love that book. And I learned a lot from it. The life of Nicholas Black Elk has always been fascinating to me. And when I was in my late 20s and 30s I was just so influenced by it. So when Denver Theater put up the show they asked if I would be the music director and the composer for it. I guess that's how all it started. That was kind of a big break for me. We played the Denver Theater. We opened the Denver Theater two seasons in a row. And they extended us. And then we played the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. And that's when the musical director for "The West" was in L.A., he saw the show and he approached me. And I worked with Ken Burns on those movies. Very similar circumstances for "Unto These Hills".
NEA: And "Unto These Hills" is a history of Cherokee Nation.
Yerry: A historical drama, right. They had done this show since 1949. It's the second oldest outdoor drama in the country. But it was done not by Native people on the Cherokee reserve there. So it had ballet in it. It had fake words. It had fake songs and everything in it. They wanted to be proud of the show. They wanted to redo it. They wanted it to be a show that they could go to take their families to. And so they asked a director from Los Angeles. And he brought me on board. He's a Native director. And I had worked with him before with the American Indian Dance Theater. And he asked me to write the music for that, music direct that show. And they had a Native choreographer and we rewrote the whole show with the Cherokee people there. They helped us because we wanted it to be accurate.
Cherokee Hoedown up and hot
And it's been going for this is probably the sixth year, now, since the rewrite of it. They call it a "retelling" they call it.
NEA: Here you are, you go out to Denver for "Black Elk Speaks". It's your first time composing for a show and you're the musical director. What was that like?
Yerry: Well, I grew up here just a couple of hours outside of New York City. And so when my friends would take me to the theater they would go see "42nd Street" or, you know, these I don't know how to say it they were Broadway shows that were very, very Broadway. And it was fun but I said to myself, you know, if I'm going to drive all the way to New York I'm going to go to a jazz club. The theater experience didn't move me at the time. So when they hired me to do "Black Elk Speaks" and I went out there to do that show I was just blown away at the power of theater. It was just an awakening for me-- almost an epiphany as far as theater. I had no clue. But to do a theater piece that touched so many people and I felt so honored to be able to work with the theater to help the Lakota Sioux tell their story in the same way. When I finished doing that show, "Black Elk Speaks," I felt that that was like the peak of anything I could ever imagine. I just thought that was fabulous. And then to be able to have the Cherokee bring me down there and help them tell their story too was just like phenomenal to me that I've been so lucky to be able to do that because I feel like I had a lot of support out there. We had in Denver we had 21 Native people. The whole cast was all Native people; twenty-one people from all over the U.S. and Canada. And they said it was like a mega drama or something on the proportions of like the Bible. It was huge. It was very big. And it was a great, great show.
NEA: And in the meantime you continued to do cabaret.
Yerry: Well, you know when I living here there was a cabaret singer who lived here. I accompanied her on the piano. And this is a long time ago--I was only maybe 19 or 20. But I ended up working with her for seven years. She wrote her own music. She was partly a comedian. So it was a hilarious show. And she would totally improvise. We'd improvise songs on the spot. Her whole program was very improvised. And so that helped me too. Her name Galen Bloom. And she was just very great at showing me, you know, how creative we could be. And that was my cabaret experience. And it's funny how it's all come full circle again. It's crazy.
NEA: Well, here at the Phoenicia Festival of the Voice, you're both the director of new world music, and you're performing jazz cabaret.
Yerry: Well, you know as I get older and I think more and more of music being a language and how wonderful it is that I can speak all of these different languages and I don't want to limit myself at all. I want to do everything that there is to possibly do that I can contribute to because along with making a joyful noise in the world and contributing what I can I'm very big on silence as well. It's very important to me. I wrote a piece for the piano called "Can't You Hear the Silence?" And I've played the flute out in the woods and you play a piece for someone out along the river or out in the woods where it's so quiet. And you stop playing and people can hear the silence.
"Can't You Hear the Silence?" up and hot
And I just think it's a wonderful thing that people can hear silence.
NEA: How did you start singing again?
Yerry: I met these opera singers who moved up here to where I live. And I sang in the choir with them. And they actually came to me because now I'm playing the organ in the Catholic Church, again, on Sundays. It's like crazy. But they came to me, the opera singers, and they say we want to do a concert in the church. And I met them and we started talking. And we totally got along with each other. And I'm not an opera singer in anyway but the way that they sing is very similar to Native singing. In other words, it's very much using your whole body to sing and the air just comes through you. I don't know it's hard for me to describe except that I know that the cabaret songs and the Broadway songs and the Stevie Wonder songs and everything I do I'm approaching it from a combination of all of the things that I've learned whether it's from the opera singers or whatever. But now I feel like I'm using my whole body to sing. And in the past I don't think that I ever was able to realize that within myself. And so meeting these opera singers has just inspired to sing. And now I just love it.
Jo Reed: How did you begin working with your current cabaret partner Ann Osmond?
Dennis Yerry: Ann Osmond came to me and she asked me to do her arrangements because she wanted to sing and actually she needed a piano part written out for her. It was a Leonard Bernstein piece that she had no music for. It wasn't published. She couldn't find anything so she gave me this recording of an orchestration of it. So I had to transcribe and create a piano part from the orchestration. That's how we met about seven or eight years ago. And so over the years she would come over and give me more music to do and more music to do. And so, again, simultaneously while I doing her arrangements I was meeting these opera singers and starting to sing. And so when she came over to the house and started singing I started singing along with her. And we realized that our voices just blended so well.
"You'll Never Get Away From Me" up and hot
Yerry: Now it's just so much fun to take these songs and create them for both of us. And we work together on the arrangements, in the different harmonies. And I just love exploring her voice which when she sings it in a lower alto range and I sing my voice in a high tenor range that it's just something magic there. It's just fabulous. And so we just have a great time. And so it's been great. And we work really, really hard to just, again, my commitment is to just make it the best that I can possibly do it.
Jo Reed: You know, this is what interests me and that is how difficult it is to be able to support yourself when one is an artist of any sort and the juggling that everyone has to do to be in that world.
Dennis Yerry: Well, when I was in New York, the New Yorker had a little thing, a little blurb in the section on the night clubs. It said "a musician's life is very complicated. Make sure you call ahead to the clubs to see if anything has changed." And I cut that out and I put it on a Xerox machine at the time and I blew it up and I kept it on my wall because I knew how complicated it was. And so all I can say is that if kids come to me and they talk to me about how on earth you make a living in the music business now, it's like you absolutely have to wear so many hats. I teach jazz piano and piano at the community college two days a week. I work down in Cherokee but that's only for the summer. I set the show up in the spring and it runs all summer. I teach at home. I compose whenever I can. And, of course, I try my best to get my music from my recordings out here so every once in a while I'll get a little royalty check for something I played don a movie or a film or something like that. So I'm always doing that. I'm always looking for opportunities to get my music into things. I just finished playing on a film for HBO and it's called, "Mann versus Ford" and Jonathan Sheffer was the composer. So I played not hat movie that just came out. So little things like that. I have a good friend out in Washington State and she's doing the same thing and we just call it layered income. We can't count on any one thing but we just have to keep the ball rolling and keep the layers coming in so one thing will cover for another as we go along.
Jo Reed: It always seems like there are at least two jobs that you have because there's the creating but then you really do need to be an entrepreneur.
Dennis Yerry: Well, and also, you know, I've heard so many musicians talk about the reason why they don't last or continue on is because the actual performing part of it is just a small amount of time you get to do. And that's why I appreciate it so much that I commit myself to having the best time that I possibly can when I'm up there singing in front of people or doing anything, working with kids or anything because I do do that too. I do educational programs, as well, in the schools. And I do Native programs with the kids. And so that's a big part of what I do too in different schools. But so many people, you know, they don't get to perform much. They spend all of their time on their publicity, calling for work, following through for work. And that's one of the hardest parts.
Jo Reed: You told with me about a wonderful experience you had as an audience member when you were younger and that impact that had on you. Can you share that?
Dennis Yerry: I was only 18 or 17 years old when my friend Ross, took me, that was Ross Rogers, his father was a jazz trumpeter and he took me to Williams Lake Hotel because he loved Buddy Rich and said that he wanted to take me to see him. And we went down to the hotel and it was along this lake. It was a beautiful summer day. And we got there so early because we were so excited and especially he was so excited, that all of the tables were reserved. There were no tables left except for one table dead center, two tables back. It was unbelievable. And we said is this table taken, and they said, well the people reserved it but then they canceled. So we were so early we sat right there. Buddy Rich came a little early. We went over and said hi to him and talked to him. And I sat there and it was my first time ever hearing a live big band and I was just in tears because it was the Buddy Rich big band as well and I had never heard anything like it before in my life. And it changed me forever. I was playing at the Waldorf Astoria for a private party. I was in another room and I finished playing the party. And I came out and I just wondered around the place and I ended up the grand ballroom. And this guy was signing in there and I listened to him and I didn't recognize him. At the end of his set he put the microphone down on the front of the stage and he sat a capella in the ballroom and he just blew me away and it was Tony Bennett and I didn't even know it. And that made me the hugest Tony Bennett fan ever from that day one. And you know, the healing energy whether it's Native music, traditional music, whether it's jazz, whatever, it's something that people need because it vibrates. It just goes into your soul and just heals. It helps. And there's an elder that helped me a lot. He's gone now but he was in Vancouver and he took me up to all of the long houses. We went to all of the long house and he showed me the songs and the dances and I was still just I wanted to learn everything. And I took him out, and he took me out to the coffee shop and it was only at the coffee shop where you could ask him questions. And Vince Stogen was his name, and I said, Vince what's the most important thing to you in life? And he worked with his wife, they were healers for the nation up there in British Columbia. And he said, "The most important thing for me and mom," he called his wife mom, he says, "Is just to help other people." And so I feel like I was three years old playing the church songs when I was kid and I've learned that language. That's been my language. I'm a musician, composer, whatever you want to call it, but that's my gift I've been given. And it's my commitment to myself to make that what I want to share and what I want to help people. And so if I can sing and just make people feel good on a day when they're not feeling good, it's limitless absolutely limitless what you can do.
Jo Reed: That was musician and composer Dennis Yerry.
You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
Excerpt of Native American traditional song "Ink Pata (Dakota Lullaby)" performed by Dennis Yerry from the album, The Hawk Project.
Excerpt of "You'll Never Get Away from Me" composed by Julie Styne with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and performed by Ann Osmond and Dennis Yerry, from their album, Optimistic Voices.
Excerpt of "Can't You Hear the Silence?" composed and performed by Dennis Yerry from the album, Native Son on Wildlife Records.
Excerpt of "Cherokee Hoedown" composed by Dennis Yerry and performed by Dennis Yerry, Jay Ungar, Molly Mason, and Steve Rust.
Excerpt of the traditional "Joseph Honor Song (Chief Joseph's Theme)" performed by Dennis Yerry with the Black Elk Voices and Mattias Gohl from The West soundtrack, used courtesy of Sony Classical.
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