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A Sage Among Singers: An Interview With Janice Pendarvis

Photo: Flying Perfect Media

From performing with Sting, Philip Glass and Laurie Anderson to appearing in 20 Feet from Stardom, Janice Pendarvis finds wisdom beyond her comfort zone.

May 1981, New York City. The night has enough star power to light Manhattan's skyline. Santana is rocking out at the Savoy. Further downtown, Alberta Hunter headlines the Cookery while Tony Bennett croons center stage at the Bottom Line. A short cab ride away, the Brecker Brothers' Seventh Avenue South features an artist who's become a fixture on the scene in recent years, Janice Pendarvis.

Sharing a bill with guitarist John Tropea and P-Funk wizard Bernie Worrell, Pendarvis packs the club for three sets, 10:00PM, 11:30PM, and 1:00AM. The singer-songwriter spellbinds audiences with her blend of original material and choice standards like "Don't Go to Strangers". It might be a Tuesday evening but Pendarvis dazzles with Friday night flair.

In the decades since that gig, Pendarvis has traveled untold miles between the world's most prestigious music venues and recording studios, lodged countless hours singing on network programs like Saturday Night Live and Late Night with Seth Meyers, and appeared in several award-winning concert films and documentaries. "My quest has always been to do the best that I can do," she says. Indeed, an imprint of excellence defines her multi-faceted career as a singer, recording artist, and music business advocate, not to mention her lifelong commitment to social justice and education.

"When Janice started out, she looked to me as a mentor, but ended up being an inspiration to me," exclaims renowned songwriter Joshie Armstead, an original Ikette and celebrated icon of New York's session singer community. "She was eager in a sweet way. Janice contracted me for many many sessions. I love Janice more than she knows." Love is exactly the feeling that Pendarvis engenders among her peers and collaborators. It's why Roberta Flack insisted that she sing on Feel Like Makin' Love (1975) and why Philip Glass composed a song cycle specifically with her in mind on Songs from Liquid Days (1986).

As much as her voice has mastered melody and harmony, it's also been a conduit for sparking discussions within music industry circles. Her salient perspective about Lou Reed's "Walk On the Wild Side", and how the voices of black female singers have been essential to the success of white male rock acts, opened the Oscar-winning film 20 Feet from Stardom (2013). For years, she's kept singers' rights at the forefront of her tireless work with SAG-AFTRA, serving on the organization's National Board and New York Local Board, as well as the chair of the New York Singers Committee and Vice Chair of the National Singers Committee. As an Associate Professor at Berklee College of Music and a member of NYU Steinhardt's Songwriting Faculty, plus her seminars with the Apollo Theater's Department of Education and the Recording Academy's "Grammy in the Schools" program, she's equipped aspiring vocalists and musicians with tools to navigate an industry whose landscape seems to change by the minute.

Nothing limits Janice Pendarvis onstage, in the studio, or in the class room. If she hasn't done it, she'll learn it, and whoever's standing by her side will be all the better for it. In this exclusive interview with PopMatters, Pendarvis retraces her journey through music, activism, and education, and reveals the wisdom she's gained by constantly venturing beyond her comfort zone.

If we were to time travel back to Queens when Janice Gadsden was five-years-old, what would we see?

I was humming along to the jazz records that my mother played. I was obsessed with John Coltrane. I remember being in first grade, asking a group of kids if they had heard of John Coltrane. They were like, "What?" They were talking about all of this other music that I didn't know about because my parents didn't play a lot of Top 40 radio. I wanted to know what they were talking about. I remember going home and asking my mother, "Can you play the radio?" That's how I got into Top 40.

I would listen to the news at a really young age. I knew how to read before I started kindergarten. My mother had taught me how to write poetry, so I was doing that from the time that I was four. She taught me about looking at something and finding an image for it, how to make interesting descriptors and then put them together to make a poem. I loved that so much.

To me, my first art really is poetry. I've gotten away from writing because of the music. I'm coming back to it because everything always comes back to writing in some way. For a lot of us, I think that all of these different interests that seem to have no connection to anything actually do have a connection to the places that you end up.

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They do. They're like building blocks but you don't see the structure right away. How did you discover that you had a singing voice?

That happened much later. I played music in elementary school. They started you out with those plastic tonettes and then I got a clarinet. The tonette happened during school but the real work with the actual instruments happened in an after school program. We had a music teacher named Mr. Lang. He was just old. His joints and his hands were big and gnarly.

In Mr. Lang's music class, everybody stood on either side of what was like a lunch room table. You had your music in front of you, flat on the table. Mr. Lang stood at the head of the table. In front of him, he had the music and an assortment of drumsticks. He'd show everybody the fingerings. He would count off and we would start to play whatever the song was. He had patience for a few mistakes but after a point, if he thought that you weren't doing what he had asked you to do and behaving in a way that meant that you were not stepping up to the plate, he would take one of those drumsticks and, with perfect aim, he would throw it at you and hit you on your hand! They call that child abuse now ... but it worked.

I never got hit with a drumstick because I thought, I'm going to do this. Nobody wanted to be called out like that, so people learned how to play their instrument. We learned how to read efficiently as a function of fingering as opposed to what singers do in terms of ear training and being able to look at the music and see the relationships. That was my introduction to music.

I went to Hunter College High School in seventh grade. Back then, it was like an all-girls finishing school. For all of the hoopla about the school being the premier gifted school in the city -- they didn't have money because Hunter is part of the Board of Higher Ed, like a stepchild! [laughs] If you didn't have the money and couldn't buy an instrument then you couldn't play, so I stopped at that point and got involved with my love affair of science and math. I still want to go back and re-take all of my math: algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and then calculus! I want to see just how far I can go with calculus because math is like music to me. Some of the equations are beautiful. Some of them are elegant.

I also did a lot of art when I was a kid. I took a bunch of painting and drawing classes outside of school. I was very involved with calligraphy, which is hilarious because I have the worst handwriting. I liked the idea of combining all of it. I even considered applying to college as a biological illustration major.

One of the things that's always been a dream in the back of my mind is to be able to do something reminiscent of the salons that people used to have during the Harlem Renaissance, where the current people in the arts, with good cheer and goodwill, just get together and talk and exchange ideas. Painters, sculptors, musicians, singers, composers, writers -- and thinkers. There's an art to that, as well, where the way someone thinks is so beautiful that when they put it down on the page, it may be something that you think you know, but you learn it a whole other way just because of the way they wrote it.

Was the essence of the Harlem Renaissance present in any of the artistic communities you were involved with in New York during the 1970s?

I think it was similar but different. Let me rewind first. As a kid, I came up in what I consider to be an activist household. My parents were the only people that I knew who talked to us about being black people. When I was very young, we were properly called "Negroes" or "colored". That was fine but my parents were like, "Listen, we're black people. We are descended from people who are from Africa." My mother talked about my grandmother being a Garveyite. None of the other kids who I knew that were black had a clue about that.

I remember those early Malcolm X interviews from when I would watch the news. This great journalist did this piece on Malcolm about "The Hate That Hate Produced". I was fascinated watching Malcolm because, as a little kid, he was the first black man who wasn't apologetic. He was just stating what it was and he had the answer for whatever it was that they said. My parents were not so happy with him. I remember talking to them because they knew that I had been paying attention to everything since I was small. They listened. That changed their minds. They started really paying attention and said, "Well, he has a point here. There is something good here."

Towards the end of high school at Hunter, I was doing the political thing, organizing black students at Hunter. I was also part of the High School Coalition, which was a coalition of students from different high schools in New York. We actually had an office space. I don't know who we borrowed that space from, up on Lenox Avenue. We were involved with the political organizations. The period was very similar to what you see with Black Lives Matter. It's why I have affection for watching them. Young people were very passionate and willing to give their lives to make change.

As young women of color who were in this revered institution of learning, we asked how come there's nothing about Africa in the world history class? There were things that we wanted to see and of course, initially, no one wanted to hear, and so it got heated. At one point, they shut down the school because I think it freaked them out that we were so organized and we were right. We had meetings with faculty where they agreed to make certain changes in the curriculum.

Let's fast-forward to 2010. Hunter had become co-ed and moved to another location. There was a black kid who must have been the Valedictorian because he gave the graduation speech. In his speech, he talked about the same issues that we were dealing with. It made the news. The principal resigned.

In the '60s and '70s, people had a clear sense that these specific things needed to change. There was more of a certain kind of camaraderie and a certain kind of activism with artistic people: "Say it Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud". Black artists were doing black art. All of that trajectory from the activism coming out of the '50s through the '60s, and this realization -- "I'm a black person" -- was a profound relief for me because folks were finally beginning to catch up to where I had been since I was little.

I would love to see something happen now in terms of artists gathering and thinking about ways that we can serve because, as you know, I'm a big believer in service. I think that that is probably the highest thing you can do -- serve others. It's its own reward. If you do it for its own sake, you get back so much more than you put in because it expands exponentially. For me, it's that classic analogy -- you drop one pebble in the ocean but the ripples go far, far, far. If you live long enough, you get to see the fruits of what that is. I smile when I think about that.

I know you began teaching after college, but what was your undergraduate experience like?

I'd gotten accepted as a biology major everywhere I applied but went to Queens College because it was free. I immediately found out that the racism was going to be too deep in the math and science departments. In order to register for courses in your major, you had to get the approval of your advisor, so I made an appointment. When I arrived, she's sitting there at the desk, and before I say a word, she looks up at me and says, "Why did you make an appointment with me? Why didn't you make an appointment with your SEEK advisor?" SEEK was the program that brought in black and Hispanic students. I smiled and looked back at her and thought, "Okay, here we go." This after just having left all of the drama at Hunter. I said to her, "Because I'm not a SEEK student." She started stuttering, "Well ... let's do this. We're going to make another appointment." She never showed up to any of the other appointments that I made.

I had started calculus where I was the only person of color and, I think, the only woman. It was all white guys and the teacher would never speak to me or even look at me. I thought, "You know what? I just went through six years of this bullshit at Hunter. I've been writing since I was four-years-old. I can get a B.A. in English in three years with my eyes closed." I set about doing that with a vengeance. It was a good decision because I didn't see myself being able to do well with that kind of hostility.

I was doing a lot of poetry writing. I met Arnold Kemp, who was much older than all of us. He had served time in jail, I think, for armed robbery, had studied while he was in jail, had come out and was an incredible writer at Queens College. It was me, Arnold, and Richard Orange who formed a poetry group. We even had a percussionist, Leon Dash. We were doing what people now call spoken word, in the vein of the Last Poets.

Arnold had a book published. He was working with Orde Coombs, who was a very well-known black editor at the time. Orde had a series of compilations. The first one that Arnold was in was short stories of the young black writers of the time who were doing things. He was going to do a poetry compilation so Arnold said, "Look, you need to be in this book because the work that you do is really good." Through Arnold, I sent two poems to Orde, and they're in the book. It's called We Speak As Liberators: Young Black Poets.

One of the people I wanted to ask you about was the activist Yuri Kochiyama. I would imagine that she was a tremendous influence in your political activism during high school and college. When she passed away, you wrote a wonderful dedication to her.

When I think about it, my heart hurts because I always wished that I could see her again. She was a truly remarkable individual. I never got a chance to see her after those years when I was in high school. We called her Mary back then. The thing about her that was just so remarkable is she really took you in. Here we were, kids of the Movement, and we were involved in all of these different things. She would take time, she would stop whatever she was doing, to sit down and listen to us. Mary was brilliant at making people feel comfortable and valued for their contributions. Because everybody knew about that side of her that was a ferocious fighter for what is right, it was even more meaningful that she took the time to so genuinely acknowledge you.

What's something that you learned from her that's stayed with you?

Listening. I try to really listen, especially when I'm teaching. I'll try to reflect back what it is that the students said, and give them perspective. Longevity gives you the ability, if you've been listening, to see different perspectives around an issue. Almost always what I'm trying to do with students, is giving them different ways to look at an issue because very little is black and white.

Do you see anyone in the music industry who embodies the qualities that Mary had?

That's an interesting question because there are individuals in our music community who pursue different things about the rights of artists, but I can't think of any one overarching person because there isn't one overarching organization. We have unions that do some of that work. There are towering figures like the late Ken Howard (SAG-AFTRA president). What an incredible loss. When he came to New York, he wanted to meet with those New York singers he'd been hearing about. There was no person in the Screen Actors Guild or the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists who ever asked to meet with singers in New York, even during the '80s. It never happened on my watch. It was unprecedented. He was very much a champion of all the different types of performers that SAG-AFTRA represents.

Where in the timeline did Janice Gadsden become Janice Pendarvis?

That was a process. I reached a point while I was in college where I just couldn't live under my parents' roof anymore. I loved them dearly but needed to stretch my wings. I left home, which was cataclysmic because that was not what was in the plan. I moved in with my cousin, Andrew Gadsden (who's now deceased), who was a musician, and Leon Pendarvis (Pen), who I eventually married.

Andrew used to live with us in Queens. He eventually moved out and became Pen's roommate. I'd known Pen since I was 13-years-old because all of these musicians used to come by -- Pen, Harry Whittaker, and Tinkr Barfield -- to see Andrew. That began my odyssey of dealing with the music business.

I started applying my poetry skills to writing lyrics. I had done a little bit of singing in the poetry group in college. "The Creator Has a Master Plan" was very popular at the time, so I was the one that they made sing. That was the only time I'd ever sung. For me, that was more like poetry than singing. Writing lyrics, I started saying, "I gotta sing this stuff to get these words to work." I started singing little piano-voice demos on cassette or reel-to-reel.

When I would show this stuff to people, the inevitable question was, "Who's singing?" "Me." "Oh you should sing." What really began to push me was that these weren't just regular people, this was Roberta Flack! She's saying, "If you don't come and sing on my session, I'll never speak to you again!" [laughs] I was terrified because that's not what I did.

Even before Roberta, Pen was working with Luiz Bonfá. Bonfá had come to New York because he'd wanted to do kind of a fusion-y thing. Bonfá learned that I wrote. Me and our friend McKenzie Willis and Bonfá start writing some songs.

Wow, Janice. Bonfá was one of the composers of Black Orpheus (1959)! That must have been so much fun writing with him.

It was fun. When you're talking about that community thing from that period, to me, this is it. There were more groups of people exchanging and working together. I guess part of why it doesn't happen now is because there's no outlet for it to really go other than a YouTube video. [laughs] To place a song today, you really gotta have a full-blown demo. People sold songs based on piano-voice demos. A lot of people didn't want to hear a production. They wanted to hear the song. It's a totally different arena now. It's not to say that one is better than the other. It's just very different.

One lends itself to this communal way of working, building a song from a demo, and the other seems to be more about the end result already being there rather than the process.

There's less collaboration. A lot of times now it's just one person doing everything, as opposed to different musicians on the instruments. People still do co-write songs but the thing we used to look forward to when we cut a track was seeing what other people were going to bring to it.

Bonfá said, "I want you to sing this song." The song was called "Always in Love". At that point, I hadn't really sung at all. I'm thinking to myself, “This is the legendary Luiz Bonfá who wants you to sing and you know you can't hold that note! Can we get someone to sing with me?” [laughs] We got Tina Fabrique to sing with me. I didn't even know that that song had been released. It was released many years later and then it took me forever to find a copy. When I heard it back, I thought, I see what Bonfá heard. I can hear the part where I'm not really holding the note but it didn't matter. It was the sensibility that I had.

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