Deanna Bogart strides confidently on a musical tightrope — suspended in mid-air above the intersection of blues, jazz, soul and a whole lot more — as she captivates audiences and takes them to new heights thanks to her smoky vocals and prowess on both keyboards and saxophone.
The casual listener might peg her as a rebel who works the scales in her own mysterious ways. Come in to her musical kitchen, and she’ll cook up an aural stew that’s pleasing to the pallet, but somewhat difficult to describe.
It’s a musical roux she calls “blusion,” which transcends nomenclature and crosses borders. “I like studying the history of music,” she says, “and I’ve always been fascinated how musical connections become the birthparents of new flavors.
“I get why we have genre categories. But musically, it doesn’t make sense to me if it blocks you somehow. It’s all music. It’s what we individually bring to our instruments that makes the difference. Blusion grows out of the blues… It just doesn’t always end there.”
There’s no question that Bogart marches to her own unique drumbeat. But as Blues Blast learned in a recent interview, her individuality is rooted in soil planted by musicians who came half a century before her birth and is not an avant garde, modern invention.
The middle of five daughters – “yours, mine and ours,” Deanna describes herself as a “divorce brat” who grew up relocating frequently. She came into the world in Detroit and raised in Michigan, Arizona and New York. After living in Maryland for decades, home’s now Palm Desert, Calif., where she closer to her daughter and family.
A true journeyman at heart, when we spoke she was about 375 miles to the north in Marin County with Tommy Castro, who’s both her guy and frequent playing partner in the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Revue (LRBR) – a relationship that he also revealed to the world through a multimedia post when this story was being composed.
“Of all the things – good and bad — that happened in 2020,” Bogart says, “the best is that Tommy and I fell in love, and I couldn’t be happier. It’s a good story…”
According to her forebears, Bogart was already tinkling the ivories on the family Baldwin at age two with a pacifier in her mouth. Musically precocious, she was accepted to the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music in New York, but was gently removed because she preferred playing by ear to reading.
Thanks to her mother’s extensive eight-track collection, she was exposed to a wide range of styles in her youth: from Muddy Waters to Ella Fitzgerald to Freddy Fender to Pete Seeger and more. She developed her strong left hand on piano by playing along with Bill Haley & the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” and got hooked on performing after her first time on stage – playing James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” on guitar in a fifth-grade talent show.
A burgeoning multi-instrumentalist, she started arranging vocal harmonies with her sisters, picking up a six-string for the first time at age ten. Her mother had purchased an inexpensive acoustic for herself from the Spiegel’s catalog, and was struggling night after night while practicing in the living room.
Listening on from her bedroom one evening, a frustrated Deanna couldn’t take it anymore as her mom attempted to play “Red River Valley.” She did the unthinkable: She walked down the hall, grabbed the guitar and showed her: “THIS IS HOW YOU PLAY IT.”
Bogart returned to her room, knowing she’d likely be in trouble. Instead, her mom entered behind her a few minutes later and handed her the six-string. Then she turned and walked away without speaking. The guitar was now Deanna’s to keep.
Deanna’s desire to play the sax came early, too. At age 11, a music teacher recruited students to be in the school band. She told him she wanted to play the horn – for reasons she can’t even recall today – but was quickly told: “Girls don’t play sax…you have to play the clarinet.”
Unaware that playing clarinet would prepare her for the sax, she refused.
Thanks to part-time jobs and matching funds with her grandparents, Bogart bought herself a better guitar – a 12-string that she named “George”– at age 14 and started playing and singing. Three years later, she “got on a Greyhound bus and left for L.A.,” where she began to play publicly.
“That was quite the adventure,” she remembers. “I was living in Hollywood in a studio apartment with a Murphy bed, and had some interesting jobs. I made pizzas, joined a carnival, worked at Paramount Studios and more.
“I could play just enough guitar to hold down a decent rhythm and could sing harmonies on the fly, so I got a few side gigs. To this day, I’m most comfortable as a sideman.
“One of my new, young musician friends was Marty Rifkin, who went on to be a very in-demand musician/producer, playing steel guitar with Bruce Springsteen amongst others and all kinds of sessions. Even better: He was a great guy then — and now.”
Her friendship with Rifkin led to her first-ever band gig.
“Marty grew up in Maryland with his friend Barry Sless (Moonalice, Phil Lesh, Chris Robinson), who was looking for the third girl for their six-piece band, Cowboy Jazz, which was basically the Andrews Sisters meet Bob Wills at a Grateful Dead show.”
A mix of three-part harmony jazz vocals, western swing, original tunes and a jam band, they were probably Bogart’s first exposure to what she now calls blusion.
“At that time,” she says, “I could play about three piano chords, and no horn as of yet. But I could sing…and, again, I could harmonize. Marty said to Barry: ‘I think I have the girl for you.’
“So Marty and I taped us playing guitars, me singing lead and backup, my three chords, a bit of boogie-woogie on the piano, and I was hired. Scared and excited, I bought a one-way ticket from Hollywood to Baltimore. How backwards is that. So, on Dec. 2, 1982 — at 21-years-old, I hit the road, and the roads are still comin’. I still don’t know why they hired me, but I’m glad they did.”
As Bogart likes to say: “Everything amazing is on the other side of fear.”
Prior to meeting Sless, Deanna was already aware of Muddy, Otis and others from her childhood, but she quickly began a lifelong love for the blues after Barry sent her a mix tape.
“I didn’t have a clue about just about anything,” she admits. “Barry sent me a tape of all kinds of music to listen to… stuff I’d never heard before, and I loved it. There was B.B. King, the Meters, Louis Armstrong, the Dead…an amazing breadth of music. I could hear and feel the intersections between all of them.”
In short order, Bogart was handling keyboards and singing three-part harmonies and lead in a lineup that included guitarists Sless, Kate Bennett, fiddler Denise Carlson, drummer Charlie Crane and bassist Tony DeFontes, Maryann Price (Dan Hicks), Brian Alpert and others. For six years, they took the music world by storm, releasing a pair of distinctively different albums – That’s What We Like About the West and Swing Boogie on Rounder Records.
“Everything was amazing to me,” she says, “and still is. We played with Commander Cody, Asleep at the Wheel, Roy Orbison, Marshall Tucker, etc. It was just crazy. It just seemed to carry me along once I surrendered to it. I was always drawn to the oldest musicians to learn — and because they had the best stories…my kind of currency.”
As vital as that band was to her development, however, the most important aspect of that whole trip probably was the mix tape itself.
“I was enjoying it all,” Bogart remembers. “But all of a sudden, one song comes on that stopped me. ‘Who is that human playing that song?’ I said. It was Jay McShann, who became the sun, moon and stars of my musical orbit.’”
For Deanna, he opened a doorway that led to her discovery, enduring passion and undying love for music that emanated from the Kansas City during what’s known as the Pendergast era of the 1920s, ‘30s and early ‘40s – a time that began when political strongman and future city councilman Thomas J. Pendergast bribed law enforcement and used strong-arm tactics to circumvent Prohibition and reap a fortune off of illegal gambling and nightclubs that operated 24 hours a day.
McShann and his contemporaries incorporated Dixieland, ragtime, big band, jazz and swing elements in their music – tunes constructed in 12-bar format and delivered with a relaxed, walking feel instead of the rigid two-beat stylings that preceded it. In so doing, they gave birth to what’s now known as the golden era of Kansas City jazz. The undisputed king of city’s music, Jay’s band produced a wealth of talent, including Charlie Parker, Ben Webster, Paul Quinichette and others as they played “Confessin’ the Blues” and other classics of the day.
“Jay McShann put me on a path that has never stopped,” Deanna says, with in the early days, discovering Mary Lou Williams, Pete Johnson, Dinah Washington, Dorothy Donegan, Jimmy McGriff, Big Jay McNeely, Lester Young and on and on from there.”
Throughout her early career, Bogart still yearned to play sax. At age 25, she came to the realization that she no longer needed permission and bought her first horn, a Martin tenor. Before long – and thanks to jazz great Ron Holloway, she and a 1959 Selmer VI tenor became inseparable. It’s a love affair that endures today.
Now a four-time Blues Music Association horn player of the year as well as a Pinetop Perkins Award nominee as a keyboard player, Deanna says that, even then: “When I kept thinking about getting a horn, the voice in my head that doesn’t like me kept saying: ‘Your too old. it’s too late…blah, blah, blah’…while the other voice that does like me argued: ‘Do it. Maybe in five years, you’ll be playing a gig.’
“I listened to that one – which I don’t normally do — and it was wa-a-ay before five years.”
Bogart’s been making up for lost time on the instrument ever since, but feared she’d lost it for good when gigging in Las Vegas in 2018, when a burglar stole all of her possessions – including her horn –from her room. Amazingly, the only thing she subsequently recovered was her sax.
Years later, long after Cowboy Jazz went their separate ways, Bogart finally made a pilgrimage to Kansas City with her young family for the first time. “My daughter Alix was a baby,” she remembers. “Being her mom made me want to be a better everything…the most important part of my life. She and I love being together on the road to this day.”
Pulling in to the city, Deanna says, she couldn’t resist touching The Sign – the landmark located at the intersection of 12th Street and Vine.
“As soon as I did, I heard in my head the first line of my song, ‘Boogie Woogie Baby’: She was born the moment she touched the sign./The air stood still at 12th and Vine./Shivers up and down her spine./Only one thing to do…”
It’s a story Bogart’s told in the past: Just married in 1985 and driving cross country, she discovered that McShann was playing at a festival at The Broadmoor resort in Colorado Springs, Colo. In short order, she and her husband drove 300 miles out of the way to see him, talking their way past the gate by claiming they were “friends of Hootie” – Jay’s nickname, which Deanna knew from her readings.
Unbeknownst to Deanna, someone went to tell McShann and told him that “his friends are here.” Pointed in their direction, Jay approached them with a twinkle in his eye, fully aware of what Bogart and her companions had risked — and accomplished. Instead of admonishing them, he put his arms around them, said “Where you’ve guys been?” and then took them backstage to hang and party with Clark Terry and many others.
“We were almost bus-s-s-ted.” she notes. “We wormed our way in. But the ending was terrific.”
As unique as Cowboy Jazz was, Bogart made a leap into a completely different universe when that band disbanded after a six-year run. She joined the horn section for Root Boy Slim & the Sex Change Band, one of the most notorious ensembles of its era. Its leader, Foster MacKenzie III, aka Root Boy Slim, was such an outrageous performer and his original songs were so over-the-top that some critics dubbed him “the Lenny Bruce of the Blues.”
A Yale graduate with serious mental issues – he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, a condition that was amplified by heavy drug use – and a fraternity brother of future President George W. Bush, MacKenzie had been infamous since forming the alt rock band Prince La La & the Midnight Creepers with football team captain/bassist Bob “Rattlesnake” Greenlee during their college years. Working in ermine capes and silver lamé hot pants, they built a huge following in the Northeast despite on-stage antics that were so beyond the pale that they never played the same club twice.
After graduation, MacKenzie and Greenlee – the future owner of King Snake Records, once the most important independent blues label in the country – rebranded themselves as Root Boy Slim & the Sex Change Band in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. A full show band with backup singers, they delivered a mix of Memphis-infused boogie and songs satirizing normal society and providing references to episodes in Slim’s shocking off-stage life, building a huge, loyal following throughout the Mid-Atlantic.
Signed to Warner Bros. and then the I.R.S. spinoff Illegal Records, their routine included originals entitled “Boogie ‘Til You Puke,” “Rich White Republican,” “(You Broke My) Mood Ring” and other cutting-edge crowd pleasers. But they were much more than a novelty act.
The huge, rotating lineup included future jazz great Ron Holloway (Gil Scott Heron/Dizzy Gillespie/Warren Haynes) on tenor sax, bassist Scott Ambush – who’s been a fixture with Spyro Gyra for 30 years, the Rev. Billy C. Wirtz, guitarist Steuart Smith — who replaced Glenn Frey in the Eagles — Paul Reed Smith (PRS Guitars) Timm Biery (Danny Gatton/Frank Marino Mahogany Rush/Nils Lofgren) and Deanna among others.
“Being in that band in my mid-20s was a master masterclass.” Bogart says. “It also was 180 degrees from Cowboy Jazz, the clean and wholesome band (at least onstage). Some of the CJ fans who followed me to Root Boy gigs were simply mortified and left.
“I still laugh about it. I wouldn’t have missed that ship for anything.”
“Both bands had a jamming, improv, jazz approach within what we were playing. Cowboy Jazz gave me what I needed in order to play with Root Boy, and the Root gig did the same, sending me out yet further musically speaking. Much later, I got to know Rev. Billy — who I’d never met till the blues cruise, I think — and it was great sharing those days. Oh, the stories we could tell.”
The training she received has been paying off handsomely since Deanna launched her solo career in 1991 with the release of Out to Get You on Blind Pig Records – two years prior to Root Boy passing in his sleep at age 48. Ten more stellar, original and diverse albums have followed in addition to extensive work was a bandleader, festival promoter and sought-after educator and coach who’s provided masterclass instruction and mentorship of her own as she’s gigged non-stop around the globe.
“All my musical worlds collide in a wonderful way,” she notes.
One of the busiest ladies in the music industry, she finally made it to ground zero of the Kansas City music scene – the showroom at the Musicians Mutual Association Building – during an LRBR tour years after her first trip to the city. A bucket-list stop for any music lover, it’s the spot where McShann and all the biggest stars in the industry jammed from 2 a.m. to dawn in the ‘30s – an event that still continues today.
“LRBR was doing a show at Knuckleheads – Tommy, Ronnie Baker Brooks and Magic Dick,” Deanna recalls. “And after the gig, I decided to go the the Musicians Union. Roger Nabor (the CEO of the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise on which the band was formed) offered to take me.
“I’d read every book I could find about K.C. jazz era during the Pendergast Era. So being at the Union, seeing all the pictures on the walls and watching the video, The Last of the Blue Devils, there, it was like a religious experience.
“I walked in with my horn, and the place was packed. Somebody said: ‘Horn player, c’mon up.’ They were playing ‘Cherokee’ or something like that. And there’s a big picture of Charlie Parker behind me on the wall. “I gotta measure up.”
Of course she could.
Despite her immense talent, Bogart has always remained modest about her skills, sometimes referring to herself as “just another journeyman” (a description that’s rankled fans in the past) and claiming: “If music is an ocean, I’m just a fish swimming around.” She also admits she’s never used set lists.
She’s been inventing new ways to keep herself busy since the onset of coronavirus. She’s been executive producer for artist acquisition for the past seven years at the annual Boquete Jazz & Blues Festival in Panama – www.bjbfpanama.com – and was getting set to leave for Central America when the shutdown began.
“I cancelled my ticket just in time,” Deanna says. “In a day, I became a road musician without a road. But I was able to be home for my daughter and family.
“Ya know, after about three months, I realized that I hadn’t been in the same place, in the same town, for that long since I was 17. What am I gonna do now…
“But then I thought: I’ve been finding a new job every day for 40 years. I raised my daughter, bought a house, and with her dad, stepdad and herself, got her through college and her master’s degree. I’ve been doing this all this time, and I still can. I just gotta figure out a different way.”
Her solution was to start doing what she calls Deannagrams – personalized musical-message videos that anyone can order. For any occasion or for no reason at all and delivered in “Deannaspeak” from wherever she happened to be.
“It worked,” she says. “And saved me in a few ways. A helpful and fun exchange with people — something that I really needed for life balance. I also started scheduling masterclasses, lessons on Zoom and started to learn all the technical stuff that I didn’t really want to learn but needed to to survive musically somehow.
“But little by little, we adjust and life becomes oddly normal. Luckily my very smart modern friends helped me. I’ll never be a ‘Techy Becky,’ but you have to be somewhat relevant to keep going.”
More recently, Bogart did her first live internet broadcast as part of the Can’t Stop the Blues program, which has been helping musicians put food on their tables since the onset of COVID-19.
Deanna has always been uncomfortable about doing videos. But after enjoying the CSTB videos and with prompting from Castro, realized she did miss playing out. Making things easier for her were the facts that the show was recorded atop a mountain she formerly called home and she was surrounded by several great musicians who wanted to take part in it, including Chuck Alvarez, Andy Fraga, Jeremie Levi Samson, Bob Gross and Barry Baughn.
“I felt awkward that day,” she says in retrospect. “But I’m glad we did it.”
It’s been almost seven years since Bogart released Just a Wish Away…, her most recent CD, after issuing one about every other year or so. And even she doesn’t know why it’s been so long since she’s been in the studio for herself.
“I just knew I needed the same to be different,” she says, “musically and otherwise. But I didn’t think it would take this long. Oops. Oh well. Quite the transitional time for us all, so it seems. My joy tank had been running low, but it’s rising. Out of respect for music, I just couldn’t play/write without my soul holding the pen. Dammit.
“All of a sudden, seven years went by like that (snaps her fingers).
“I greatly enjoy my ‘approach to improv’ all-ages masterclasses and the artist-in-resident situations — like the Hopi High School in Northern Arizona, which was life-changing.
“It feels like that anywhere really…anywhere in the world. It’s part of wherever I go. Let’s make music, find what you didn’t know you had, heal something and have fun at the same time. I feel like I gain the most.”
Fans will have a reason to rejoice going forward, Deanna says, noting that she has “three new albums swirling around in her head” — one currently being finished, a “classic” boogie-woogie record, a Kansas City record, oh, and maybe a concerto, too.
What’s ahead? “Life, love and learning…and winning the lottery,” she hopes. Check out what she’ll be up to next, sign up for a Deannagram or check out her music by visiting her website: www.deannabogart.com