An interview with pianist, vocalist, composer and activist, Rick DellaRatta
Sushmita Mukherjee and Ethel Lebenkoff
for Peace is an organization that grew out of one man’s vision that
peace is in fact possible. However, according to the founder of Jazz for
Peace, Rick DellaRatta, peace does not come when we strive alone, no
matter how good we may be in what we do. Instead, he believes that we,
as human beings, can only progress by “collectively embracing the best
human qualities.” Jazz for Peace’s mission is to do just that, by
bringing jazz to the common people worldwide, as well as spreading peace
through their Jazz for Peace Concerts. They strive to bring this message
of peace by joining forces with multicultural musicians from around the
world, entering regions that are politically controversial by means of
live concerts, video taping concerts and p
On September 25, 2002, Rick was invited to lead a band consisting of Israeli, Middle Eastern, European, Asian and American Jazz Musicians in a concert inside the United Nations for an International audience. Rick named this band “Jazz for Peace” and has continued these concerts at a venue on the upper west side of Manhattan called Jazz on the Park, as well as numerous other performances at events in and outside of New York City, including the West Coast, Mexico and Europe. Jazz for Peace concerts have featured Rick, along with such notable jazz artists as Paquito D’Rivera, Victor Lewis, Lenny White, Eddie Gomez, Ray Mantilla, Rick Margitza and many others. Rick’s Jazz influenced orchestral composition “Permutata” was recently recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra. The Jazz for Peace” benefit concerts” are specifically designed to help other nonprofit organizations with similar philosophies and worldview with their fundraising. Please check out http://www.jazzforpeace.org/ for more information.
Why don’t we start with a bit about your childhood – you know, the
strong influences, the culture around you as you were growing up…?
DellaRatta: Well, let’s see. I guess I grew up “all-American,” in
a small town in upstate New York. I was brought up a middle class
Catholic. Growing up, I watched the destruction of the middle class, the
destruction of the unions, and all the ramifications of the Reagan
politics. In fact, I strongly associate the climate of my early years
with the documentary, The
American Dream. I felt a profound emptiness in that world. I
remember trying to establish a career as a newspaper delivery boy, until
I smashed someone’s window – and that was the end of that. Finally,
I discovered the piano, and it opened up a whole new world. You know,
now, in retrospect, I realize that it is this emptiness that creates
consumers – we are always trying fill up this gaping hole with things!
And the system supports this emptiness and the resultant consumerism. In
fact, if you don’t choose to be a consumer, you are persecuted.
When did you decide to become a musician?
Both my parents are musicians. So, music was always around me. However,
it was not jazz. When I discovered a pile of dusty old jazz records in a
public library in my hometown – it was like my life path was revealed
to me. Although I later trained in classical music and went to the New
England Conservatory, I knew my life had to do with jazz. I never left
that path. I believe that you cannot rationally “create” music –
music has to flow through and out of you – you are a conduit for this
universal expression. And being a good, skilled musician is only one
piece of the puzzle – you also need to be the kind of human being who
will not shudder to look at himself in the mirror at the end of the day.
When did you start to feel that things were not quite right with our
Very early on. Even when I was living at home in upstate New York, I was
talking with my friends about how things didn’t seem quite right. I
felt that we are not supposed to live amid so much selfishness and
hatred, and that we should be able to do something about it. The problem
is people do not read history. The idea of our society is to make being
a consumer appealing, and people fall for it. We are under achieving;
we’re not reaching our potential as human beings. I feel the only way
out of this mess is to work together as a species.
You know, I remember a quote from Gandhi that says
something like, “My life has completely changed because of this.” It
is the same for me, and Jazz for Peace. In some ways, if the powers that
be hadn’t screwed things up this bad, maybe I wouldn’t have become
who I am. I had to say “no” to a zillion opportunities in the
process. Maybe, if I was a little bit more stupid, more naďve, or more
ignorant, I would have been a “success” in their system.
How was the process of establishing Jazz for Peace? Did you face any
resistances or difficulties from any quarters?
Well, the idea of setting up Jazz For Peace came to me long before 9/11
– but it didn’t really get very far until a tragedy of that
magnitude finally shook people up. Even then, there are people who think
Jazz for Peace is “idealistic nonsense.” You know what’s
interesting? These decisions are always instantaneous – people make up
their mind even before hearing what it is about. I guess we have to
realize that healing can be painful. A lot of people are trying to avoid
the pain – and will chafe against you if you remind them of the
disastrous conditions we are living under – socially, politically and
economically. The type of path our country is on is unsustainable –
but it takes courage to acknowledge that. I think that these people are
like the quintessential addict – a person who knows drinking is bad
for him, that drinking is bringing him closer to his death every day.
But, he also knows that quitting drinking is hard work. So, he tells
himself – well, this is my last day of drinking, and I’ll quit
tomorrow. Of course, that
tomorrow never comes!
Even now, a lot of my friends and well-wishers try to talk
me out of my life. They feel I can be a lot more successful, if I can
only make a few small compromises. I guess, ultimately, we are defined
by the decisions we make, and we have to take full responsibility for
What role do you think New York City played in your process – both as
a musician and in the conception of Jazz for Peace?
Well, New York City is the Mecca for all musicians. It is the place for
any jazz musician worth his salt to eventually wind up. When I was
studying at the Conservatory, I knew I had to come here one day. It is
an important place for the energies and convictions it tends to
accumulate. Also, this is the ground zero of 9/11, from which Jazz for
Peace sprang. You know what strikes me as the greatest thing about New
York City? Every once in a while, you can actually find music at
Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center that is better than what you will hear
in the subway or at Central Park! It is a city that draws talent like no
Do you have any strong influences or role models?
I actually have a lot of role models – both great musicians as well as
other great people, whether artists or statesmen. I think one thing that
is common among my heroes is that these were people who were not always
welcomed by the society they lived in – they didn’t do well
financially or in terms of social prestige. I think this realization
made my choices clearer for me. I realized that I had to choose between
living the life I want, with the values I admire and wish to live by, or
end up chasing a mirage of social and financial success. Imagine, for
example… Van Gogh never sold a painting while he was alive. Mozart did
not live beyond his early thirties. Think how Martin Luther King died…
I guess at 43, I have already outlived many of my heroes!
You know, when I told people that I was coming up to interview you, some
of them asked me, “But, why a jazz musician? Isn’t jazz too elitist
to bring people together and move the masses?” What would you say to
It hurts me when I hear that; but I know it is true. The problem is that
the people who control the delivery of jazz to the public are the ones
who make it elitist. I know in my heart that Charlie Parker did not
create jazz for a bunch of snobs who go to a jazz concert once or twice
a year – when they are too bored of their bridge games! Jazz was
created as a gift to humanity. That is the function of any great music.
Unfortunately, when jazz is presented to the public these days, it is
not really the art form of jazz. Jazz was never meant to be packaged
music – the heart of jazz is improvisation. Sadly, the distribution of
jazz is now in the hands of elitists and capitalists. These are the type
of people who do not believe in mutual benefit. For a deal to sound
right to them, it has to be, “I win and you lose.”
Do you have any regrets, right now, regarding how your life has
No, I can’t think of any specific regrets. But I do identify with the
scene in the movie, Schindler’s
List – where the guy is shown crying at the end, because he
wasn’t able to save some more people. When I first saw the movie, I
felt that it was a bit pretentious! Now, I identify with it – I
empathize with the character. Because we are living in a world that is
so spectacularly lacking in common sense, I am afraid that no matter how
much we each try, we will only be able to touch the tip of the iceberg
of human suffering.
Finally, if you were to imagine your best aspirations come true, what
would that look like?
Oh, that’s easy. My best aspiration is to set an example, to trail
blaze a path for other people who are good at what they do, who want to
succeed, but who do not want to corrupt their souls to find success. I
want to prove that there is something beyond the myth that so many of us
have grown up with – that
the good guy always ends up last – and that to succeed, you need to
put your self-interest above everybody else’s wellbeing. Haven’t we
evolved past that?
Mukherjee is a cellular biophysicist by day, a volunteer community
organizer with the Humanist Center of Cultures and the editor of
DiverseCity Magazine by evening and weekend, and a very-soon-to-be mom.
She was born in India, is married to a white American psychologist, and
considers Bangladesh her second (or third?) home. She speaks English,
Bangla, Hindi and Urdu fluently, and a smattering of Espańol in
Lebenkoff is a painter of Jewish heritage, based in New York City. She
paints about her world: her thoughts, her feelings, books and magazines
she reads, people she meets, things she walks by and sees. Her seemingly
simplistic paintings are hybrids: conceptually complex, visually
expressionistic and abstract. And, they are often playful. Ethel grew up
in upstate New York, and studied art in California and in Umbria, Italy.