Denise La Grassa's talent for composing music and lyrics revealed itself early. "I was writing songs like mad at 5, maybe 6 years old,” recalled La Grassa. “Once I had a fistful ready to go, I would head out and knock on neighborhood doors and sing the songs right there on their doorstep! I was hoping they'd like the songs enough to buy them. I thought if I sold enough songs, I could buy birthday & Christmas presents for my family.” The door to door song-selling ended once Mom caught wind of the young entrepreneur’s exploits. “But I did get a few dollars in my pocket, and more importantly, I gained confidence at an early age as a songwriter, which propelled me to continue my songwriting into high school and college," said La Grassa.
Her song-selling may have been stopped prematurely, but Denise continued writing. "In third grade, I decided to tackle play-writing,” said La Grassa. “My teacher, Mrs. Collins, read the stories, thought I had some talent and arranged a meeting with the elementary school principal. She allowed me and my fellow thespians the chance to perform a Christmas play for the school. We rehearsed in the library after school and got parents involved typing scripts, finding props, and designing costumes. The play was a huge success and I was on my way to fame and fortune.”
On break one summer from college, Denise traveled to a place called The Second City in Chicago and discovered a school for performers and writers. "I couldn't believe what I found. A SCHOOL for people with my interests! I left college and soaked up improv writing and acting. Within a year I was traveling with The Second City Touring Company and having the time of my life,” said La Grassa. One of her favorite improv techniques was called "Make-A-Song." The audience would shout out topics and ideas and she would make up songs on the spot. “I had a blast writing and singing melodies & parodies under pressure. My only regret is that I don't have recordings of those performances," said La Grassa
Following her stint at The Second City, Denise continued to work in professional theater, performing in plays and musicals. She also wrote and produced two musical One-Person shows. In between, she landed small parts in a couple of made for HBO movies, including Hometown Boy Makes Good with Anthony Edwards (She's the funny secretary.) And you can still occasionally catch her portrayals of real life people on the TV show Unsolved Mysteries. Despite her busy acting schedule, Denise made time for her music, performing with her band at nearly every Chicago music venue, including The Jazz Showcase, Katerina's, Andy's, The Velvet Lounge, and The Bop Shop. She also produced three CD's of original music. The Tracks was released in 1999, Pieces of Peace three years later, and April Dreams in 2009. Denise has also won 3 Emmy Awards for her work as a Producer for Wild Chicago and ArtBeat Chicago at WTTW-TV (PBS), and was nominated for many others in both Chicago and at WILL-TV (PBS) in Urbana/Champaign.
Putting It All Together: Jazz-Theatre
The Blues Ain't a Color is Denise's latest production. This original Jazz-Theater presentation offers conversations about America's troubled history with bigotry and race. Backed by a trio of musicians, La Grassa mixes powerhouse takes on her original jazz and blues with poignant dialogue delivered by an array of characters. Both funny and heartbreaking, The Blues Ain't A Color uses the power of original music, dialogue, projected artwork and doc-style video to shine a light on America’s continuing struggles with racism, fear, compassion, and dignity.
Now Lead Faculty of the Jazz Studies program at Lincoln College in Illinois, La Grassa is passing her talents and passion to a new group of students eager to explore their own talents and abilities.