By Rachel Jones | Photograph by Michael Fornataro
When local singer Phat Man Dee walks into a room, she brings a ray of sunshine. Well, it’s more like a ray of sparkles! From the rhinestones punctuating her eye makeup to the ones that bedeck her fab boa, the jazz sensation — who the City Paper’s 2016 Best of Pittsburgh Readers’ Poll voted as the No. 1 Best Local Jazz Act! — exudes a fun energy that radiates on stage and in person. We chatted with Phat Man Dee to see how she found her voice and how she’s using it to make a difference.
How did you first get into jazz?
When I moved to Pittsburgh, I was blessed to attend the Center for Musically Talented, which is a public school program that does not exist anymore. We would learn musical theater, choir, musical ensemble. I got exposed at a young and formidable age to an extremely high-end musical education. Now, I teach voice with Liz Berlin [of Rusted Root] at the We Rock Workshop, which is a program we do with foster and homeless youth, through the Allegheny County Department of Human Services. We help them record an album of their own songs and then put on a concert. I also teach voice at the Afro-American Music Institute (AAMI). They focus on music in the African-American tradition, so jazz, R&B, blues, gospel, some rock. I’ve been blessed to learn from the greats, like Mr. Roger Humphries’ jam sessions and my voice teacher Beth Claussen; from musicians like Dr. James Johnson at AAMI and Chizmo Charles; hearing the late greats Sandy Staley, Gene Ludwig, Gerald Haymon; and playing with Donna Davis — may she rest in power. We have such an amazing legacy of musicians in our city. I’ve learned things from them that you can’t learn in any school.
Who are some of your musical influences?
The first record I ever gravitated to was Louis Armstrong’s best hits. I’ve always been pulled towards that jazz sound — the African poly rhythms and harmonies mixed with the European instruments. I love the organic cultural fusion that happens in jazz. It’s an intelligent music — you have to know the theory, the sound — but once you learn those things, then you can put your own spin on it. It also allows and encourages individual expression and improvisation.
What inspired your individual sound?
In the ‘90s, I dropped out of college because I didn’t want to spent $20,000 a year partying; I wanted to focus on my art. I came home and formed a local poetry troupe called the Bull Seal! Collective. We did a lot of shows with a local sideshow troupe called Circus Apocalypse. I spent much of the mid-90s traveling with another troupe called Circus Ridiculous. It was basically a circus in name and desire only. In truth, it was an asylum of punk rock children who wanted to see America. Also, when I was in high school, I had been a part of the Rocky Horror Picture Show at the King’s Court Theater. I was exposed to drag queens, fishnets, and boas when I was like 16, and I was like, ‘Yes!’ So while my look comes from drag queens and circus sideshows, my music is inspired by Pittsburgh’s rich jazz history.
In addition to teaching and performing, how do you stay involved in the community?
I’ve been a social justice activist since before we knew what those words were. Back in high school, I was lobbying for the environment and I was against the first time we went to Iraq. Since then, I’ve been very supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement and the rights of Indigenous people who have had their lands decimated by pipelines. I demonstrated for LBGTQIA rights and women’s rights, and organized multiple fundraisers. Pretty much anything that is for the rights of people to live free and pursue life, liberty, and happiness. I’m always down for helping a cause.
What projects are you currently working on?
In addition to my own jazz group, ‘Phat Man Dee and The Cultual District,’ which includes Carlos Peña, Miguel Sague III, and Howard Alexander, I’m also working with Liz Berlin to create an album called Social Justice Disco: Songs to Fight Fascists By. It’s half my band, half her band. I sing in The Lemington Gospel Chorale, too, and I brought them on the album for a beautiful rendition of ‘I Can’t Breathe.’ Our last song is called ‘Water is Sacred,’ and we’re doing that with my friends Johnny Cree Coe and his son, SunBear. I’m also in a new post menopausal punk funk band called ‘Qlitterati,’ with Christiane D, Geña Música, Tom Emmerling, and Izzy Arlet.
How do you hope to inspire your fans?
I would like my fans to learn how to be happy being themselves in the grandest, most beautiful style they can conceive. There’s so much in this world that’s trying to cut you down and box you in. Just say, ‘No, I’m going to just be me.’ And enjoy it! Support good works, be community-minded, and be the freak you want to see in the world.
SAVE THE DATE
@ Mr. Smalls Theater
We Rock Workshop student performance
May 12 + 13
@ Rex Theater
Morose and Macabre’s Atrocity Exhibition
@ Sherwood Event Center
CC’s Lifestyle & Mother’s Day Fashion Show Event
@ South Side Library Sunday
Hour Kick-off Party
@ Point State Park
Three Rivers Arts Festival
+ Pre-order Social Justice Disco: Songs to Fight Fascists By at phatmandee.com and enjoy exclusive, extra content! Plus, check out Phat Man Dee’s Take it to the Bridge series on YouTube, featuring music collaborations from her a two-and-a-half-month visit to Europe.