Denise LaGrassa is known best in the Central Illinois area and in Chicago for her jazz-blues sound.
But lately, with a new EP recorded live at Bloomington’s Castle Theatre and another studio project in the works, LaGrassa is headed in a less jazzy direction.
“I’m returning to my roots,” said LaGrassa. “I started in blues and R&B-style performance with bandmates who lived on the south side of Chicago. I found my voice matched the intensity of that music and that’s where my writing started to go.”
Those roots extend all the way to Scotland, where LaGrassa’s mother grew up. The singer says her mother’s immigrant experience, and musical taste, are a major influence.
“My mom was a jazz singer. (She) sang like Sarah Vaughan. My mom won a contest, actually, in Scotland and had a scholarship to go to school (for music) but she was not able to go because of her parents. They didn’t allow this to happen.”
LaGrassa says her mother instilled an early love of American roots music by introducing the family to a variety of musical styles, including records by the gospel group the Staples Singers.
The influence extended beyond musical inspiration. Her mother became an advocate for the elderly, inspired by her aunt Rose, a nun in Harlem who worked to help the poor. LaGrassa says her mother’s engagement in social issues are not far from her mind.
“I think about not only her but all the people around me. The stories I’ve heard watching the news,” said LaGrassa. “I can’t help but feel a deep amount of sorrow and compassion and empathy for especially the mothers and the children at the border.”
The situation at the border inspired the song “Sunshine in the Toxic Ballroom.”
Truth be told but no one sees
Thousands of children in poverty
Crying for their mother’s arms
Waiting at the border
“America is a nation of immigrants. We’ve lost that and we need to bring that back,” LaGrassa said.
The singer-songwriter hopes the topical nature of her songs will resonate with her audience.
“Maybe my conversation and my music will inspire others,” she says. “This town can use more diverse voices in music and more role models. If you have a voice, you have a story, you have a song you want to tell, put your voice out today. It’s needed more than ever.”
Denise LaGrassa takes the stage in Uptown Normal at Saturday’s Medici Craft Beer and Jazz Festival. She and her group will perform between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m.
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