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Pianist Lisa Otey is a perennial favorite in our Best of Tucson readers' poll. She was named Musician of the Year in the 1997 Tucson Area Music Awards (TAMMIES); and last month became the first solo-act to win the statewide Blues Showdown at the Rhythm Room in Phoenix. She'll represent Arizona in the International Blues Talent competition this October, in Memphis. She's been Music Director at the Gaslight Theatre for six years.
TW: WHAT EVIDENCE DO YOU SEE OF ART MAKING A DIFFERENCE IN PEOPLE'S LIVES?
I also work with the Invisible Theatre, primarily at Catalina High School, with a group of exceptional education students called the Pastime Players. All these kids have challenges with speaking, moving or remembering something. And not only do they have to remember everything we've taught them, but they have a whole week before we see them again. It's great to see how hard they work at memorizing their parts, singing harmonies, getting over their shyness and projecting. The purpose of the whole show is for them to show who they really are, so people don't just see what they look like on the outside.
I think it makes a big difference when kids perform. It raises their self-esteem, gives them confidence. They see they can do things they never thought they could do. And then they get applauded for it--that can only help. That's why it upsets me to see the arts getting cut from the schools, because that's something I think can save a lot of our kids.
There's another group in town that just started, called Coming To, directed by Trishe Dhezny. She started this program in San Francisco, then took it to Seattle, and this year she started it here. I think Dateline did a big story on the group she had in Seattle. She has about five kids in the Tucson program, and they're all recovering from different addictions. They took their stories and put it into a play, which they're performing for kids in different schools around town. The kick-off was September 16 at Tucson High.
It's great, because a lot of times adults go into the schools and they talk about drug addiction and alcoholism, and it's such a turn-off. Kids aren't interested in what some adult has to say. But these kids are all coming from that place--they're the same age. They can at least show them the fear and the pain that they went through, as part of their recovery story.
TW: WHAT'S YOUR FAVORITE ANNUAL FESTIVAL?
It's impossible to pick only one! First, I'd say the Tucson Blues Festival: It's free, they bring in national acts--the kind of top-notch acts you'd have to pay $30 a day to see elsewhere. About eight or nine bands played last year, and there were about 12,000 people in the park. The Tucson Blues Society offers this wonderful event for free, because they want everybody to be able to come. It's in October.
Another festival that's really great--for kind of the opposite reason in that it's all local--is the Juneteenth Festival, in Kennedy Park. Families come out, and they have wonderful food, and great music that goes all day for three days. It's a great place to see people you don't necessarily get to see around town: everyone from well-knowns like Barbea Williams, Mary Baker and Bloolyte (an excellent jazz-rock group) to things like this martial arts group that incorporated dance and percussion...I can't remember their name. It was amazing, though.
Bernie Starks, who was coordinating the music up until last year, did a great job of mixing (the program). More than an African-American celebration, he made it a celebration of community and diversity. It's probably one of our most underrated, or under-publicized, festivals.
TW: WHICH LOCAL MUSICIANS DO YOU ENJOY WATCHING?
One of my absolute favorite local musicians just passed on, and that was Richard Gomez. He played with Tony and the Torpedoes, with Anna Warr. His style was kind of subtle, but real hip. He would just kind of close his eyes and move around the keyboard. He reminded me of some kind of animal...he was just really cool. Even when he was sick, he was out there playing all the time.
And Anna Warr is one of my favorite singers. She's in her mid-20s, and she's what somebody called "100-percent woman." She's like 6-foot-3 or something, and I think Lebanese and Cherokee is her ethnic mix. She has an incredible voice that just shakes the room. She's got a great growl when she sings the blues, and she sings right from the soles of her feet.
We have so many good performers here. It's great to see everybody doing their thing, like Paul Elia doing his Frank Sinatra bit; and Carla Brownlee, who plays with me all the time on the saxophone. "Hurricane Carla" Brownlee is what they call her. She wrote the play Miss Small-Town Rock & Roll, which we recently did at the Gaslight.
TW: WHERE'S THE BEST PLACE TO HEAR BLUES DONE RIGHT?
The Boondocks is a great bar. They put out a lot of energy, bring in great local acts, and all these touring acts. Terry-O has been instrumental in that. I don't know how he got involved, but I'm glad he did. They're turning it into a really nice place.
TW: ARE THERE ANY UNSUNG HEROES YOU'D LIKE TO PRAISE?
Kathleen Williams works as a judge pro tem at City Court and Justice Court. She's been doing the pro-tem thing for the last five years, and I've gone down to watch her many times. She has a great presence about her...a great way of listening to all sides, and coming up with the best route. She cares a lot about domestic violence cases, and also used to work as a prosecutor down at juvenile court. She worked at the County Attorney downtown for a while, too, in the criminal department. She really is looking out for families and couples--looking for the best way for people to move beyond where they are, and the best way to keep people safe.
...And she's also a singer. She used to perform all the time in Northern Arizona. She doesn't perform enough down here, though we get her to do the Folk Festival once in a while. She gets like Louie Prima when she sings with me. She's really great.
She's also working on her Ph.D. in anthropology, so she definitely has a full plate. But we're very lucky to have her as a magistrate, and I'd like to see her get some recognition.
TW: WHAT'S THE BEST NEW WORK YOU HEARD ABOUT THIS YEAR?
This summer, Lawrence Taylor and Maeze Hickey were working on a documentary book on tunnel kids in Nogales (to be published by UA Press). Maeze is the photographer; Larry is the author. They've volunteered down there, at this "casa" on the Arizona side, for the last two or three summers, spending a lot of time with these kids. This book is mostly about the kids and their stories, and there are great portraits of all of them.
It's also a good reminder how much we're all responsible for our children, even if we don't have families ourselves. That we need to reach out and be involved in the kids in our community, and help keep them. Every one of those kids at some point in their lives had some dream, some talent that they thought they had, something they wanted to do. Somewhere along the way they've forgotten that, and I think it's our responsibility to help them remember it, and nurture it so that they can become that thing. Because that's the only way things are going to get better.