action/example :: interview :: Jazz for Peace, Profile of Rick DellaRatta
by Suneeta Kaimal
At age 8 in Schenectady, New York, Rick
DellaRatta began playing the piano in secret. DellaRatta remembers, “I
felt I was on a creative journey – but then was caught and brought in to
take lessons.” Years later he stumbled upon jazz records, stacked in a
library. Shocked by the number of records amassed in this unknown
collection, he began to listen to them.
“I felt an affinity to my original journey began while playing
piano, but also felt a creative link and a relation between the art form
[jazz] and my own. My improvisational style was similar to jazz. There was
no option – it was a natural affinity.”
On October 4, 2001, the first concert Jazz for Peace concert was
held in upstate New York at the Troy Savings Bank Musical Hall in Troy,
New York. Puerto Rican Eddie Gomez on bass, Cuban sax player Paquito
D'Rivera and American drummer Lenny White joined keyboardist DellaRatta.
DellaRatta recalls, “After the first concert, the tremendous response
from the public and in the press propelled the project forward.” Jazz
for Peace was born.
On September 25, 2002, DellaRatta was invited to lead a band of
Israeli, Middle Eastern, European, Asian and American jazz musicians in a
concert at the UN. Despite poor promotion by the UN, the performance
reverberated around the
“In college, I saw a link between the classical, contemporary and jazz styles. I felt a responsibility to the art form of jazz – America’s greatest art form that Americans do not even know about. If I wasn’t going to step up – who was? I began taking advantage of opportunities to play jazz at the expense of more commercial shows, often canceling profits and always sacrificing income. But I felt it was my lot in life. Jazz artists must be patrons of the arts; we are expected to support the art form because the public is stuck in a cross between ignorance and helplessness.”
In 1994, Rick recorded his first album, Take it or Leave It
with Dave Lieberman on saxophone and Lenny White on drums. The release of
this CD led to performance opportunities in Japan, Brazil and in New York
at the Blue Note, Birdland and the Five Spot. He released a second CD,
Thought Provoking, in June 1997 on Stella Records, featuring Eddie
Gomez on bass, with Lieberman and White.
DellaRatta continued to travel world to play music – Japan, Hong
Kong, Bulgaria, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Iceland, Italy, Norway, Sweden,
Finland, Switzerland and Germany, but very rarely in the United States.
Struck by this disparity he mused, “How strange that jazz artists
greatest performances are not in their own country. On my tour of the
world, I discovered that jazz was embraced, respected, and studied. I
thought it was odd I had been to Japan six times, but never played in
In 2000, DellaRatta’s world tours took on political aspirations as
he began to increasingly notice conflicts around the world. The constant
media barrage on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the seeming the
futility of the situation had a great impact.
“I thought how easily we could bring people together through
jazz. George Bush couldn’t do it, Ariel Sharon couldn’t do it, Yasser
Arafat couldn’t do it, but jazz could. What began as an off-hand comment
to a colleague became a revelation that we could bring together, tour the
Middle East and places of conflict and demonstrate that we can get along
in a positive way and build relationships.”
The events of September 11 both fueled and augmented this vision.
DellaRatta explains, “After 9-11 Americans realized that problems in
the world could affect them.”
Inspired to act and affect change, DellaRatta composed and read a poem entitled “Jazz for Peace,” on Sept 26, 2001 at the Savannah Jazz Festival. The crowd of over 5,000 responded warmly to his words, encouraging DellaRatta to spread his message and instigating the Jazz for Peace movement.
Jazz for Peace began performing weekly benefits concerts in Duke
Ellington’s old haunt, Jazz on the Park, in New York City. Volunteers
select organizations which they feel reflect the same values Jazz for
Peace promotes. The concerts are performed at no cost to the
organizations, who receive the proceeds and related donations. To date,
Jazz for Peace has sponsored over 50 organizations.
DellaRatta describes his music as containing Brazilian rhythms. He
performs in both English and Portuguese, a talent gleaned from his time
spent working with Brazilian musicians. He plays with a variety of
musicians, both from his travels abroad and those who contact him to be
involved in the project.
The show play lists are determined by a combination of pieces that
relate to a particular audience or which highlight certain members of the
band, but always deferring to the spontaneous inspiration of performance.
DellaRatta composes his own music as well as playing jazz standards, many
of which were adapted from Broadway compositions.
When composing, DellaRatta allows himself to be influenced by
anything in his surroundings and by every stylistic period “allowing any
influence to reveal itself through the music.”
From the initial impetus to affect positive change, DellaRatta
developed specific missions for Jazz for Peace: to continue the benefit
concerts; to expand the concerts to other cities, states and countries; to
bring jazz into schools and promote understanding and to donate musical
instruments to underprivileged children.
“To know about your country’s greatest art form is not optional.
Kids should have exposure, but they’re not choosing, the adults are
choosing for them and short-changing them. It is basic common sense: jazz
crosses cultural, religious, racial, language and other boundaries that
normally hinder working together in a positive manner.”
DellaRatta points to Charles Black, a legal scholar who argued Brown
v. The Board of Education before the Supreme Court, as exemplary of the
power of jazz to effect people in profoundly positive ways.
In the March/April 2003 edition of Legal Affairs, the article “The
Jazz Man,” states, “[Charles] Black credited Armstrong's sorrowful yet
irrepressible jazz with compelling him to join the fight for racial
equality. Listening to this music in his corner of the South between the
world wars, Black said he began to understand segregation as "that most
hideous of errors," which he called "the failure to recognize kinship."
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Pointing to such telling indications of the power of jazz,
DellaRatta laments the lack of acknowledgement jazz receives in the United
States. He argues that throughout Europe, there is significantly more
funding. With additional funding, he would take Jazz for Peace out to
every school and bring understanding and acknowledgement to plant the seed
in children and to help further expose the art form.
Unfortunately, he feels that many people who could receive
tax-write-offs or could afford to donate money do not. Though often
inundated with offers of old musical instruments, it is difficult to raise
the money to repair and deliver the instruments.
Despite these difficulties, DellaRatta feels, “every time a
person is influenced in a positive way though our mission and music
endeavors – that is a marking of success in itself.”
Beyond his personal dedication to jazz, DellaRatta has been honored
with awards such as The 2000 MAC Award for Recording of the Year for his
double album live CD release titled Live in Brazil & The Blue
Note. Rick was also a 1998 and 1999 ASCAP Popular Award Winner, the
1997 Back Stage Bistro Award Winner for outstanding singer/instrumentalist
and a Mac award nominee for outstanding jazz artist.
And word is spreading.
Last May while on tour in Europe, DellaRatta played in Croatia. He
was listed by name only, unaffiliated with Jazz for Peace, playing to a
sold out hall in the country’s largest jazz festival. Immediately after
the concert, without any prompting, the media inundated him with questions
about Jazz for Peace.
“Jazz for Peace is helping to gain
acknowledgement and awareness in America for what jazz already is – the
greatest art form and our greatest gift to the world. We are bringing
together all walks of life in a positive way. We hope to have the effect
that Louis Armstrong had on Charles Black. We want to influence people to
embrace the creativity, intellectuality, individuality, artistry and
humanity in jazz – the type of qualities that help us to reach our
potential as human beings in our souls.”
2004 1-42 Online