Lenore Raphael — Jazz is in Her Heart
by Whitney L.J. Howell
Lenore Raphael remembers becoming a story-teller at the precocious age of three. But she didn’t tell the kinds of stories that prompt a time-out or a spanking. One day, she simply walked up to the piano and started telling stories with her fingers — and she has spun her musical tales ever since.
"I remember the first time I sat down at the keys. I’d been listening to my brother play, and I mimicked what he’d been practicing," said Raphael, a professional jazz pianist who splits her time between New York City and Cary when not on tour. "I was a bit like Mozart at that age — just playing without any practice. My parents didn’t even know that was unusual for my age until they finally took me for lessons, and the teacher told them so."
Raphael exclusively studied classical piano until age 19, but the jazz bug actually bit her at age 12. It makes her laugh now, after more than 30 years as a jazz performer, that her first influence in the genre wasn’t even a pianist. It was Clifford Brown on trumpet. To my amazement, she said deciphering how jazz musicians put their music together was easy for her. Soon, she was "mixing up Mozart and Chopin," and she now turns the tables sometimes, putting a Bach spin on jazz standards.
Composing and playing jazz makes her happy, she said, and she practices between four and five hours daily with her pet cockatiel Spike perched on her shoulder. But when she plays for an audience, her goal turns to stirring up thoughts or emotions people haven’t felt recently. If her performances take them to another place or remind them of someone, she says the evening is successful. And, every now and then, someone shares a story with her.
"I was so touched one night when a gentleman approached me after I’d played ‘My Foolish Heart,’" Raphael said. "He told me that he’d fallen in love with his wife to that song, and he added that she’d passed away a few years prior. I knew that I’d said something important to him."
Given her passion for performing, I was surprised that Raphael spent her first two working years as a New York City public school music teacher. She quit, though, after realizing being in the classroom wasn’t her calling. She devoted three years to playing along with and studying her jazz albums before plunging into professional performances. Her talent has taken her across the United States, Canada, and Europe.
But Raphael’s desire to teach the public about jazz didn’t fade, so she pairs it with travel these days. In most cities where she performs, she holds a master class at a local university. This summer, she held a class at East Tennessee State University and taught students who mirrored her teen-age years.
"I ran a jazz piano camp for a week with 12- to 16-year-old classical pianists," she said. "I got a kick out of it because they were classically trained students who came to my camp because they wanted to learn jazz."
Not wanting to exclude non-musicians from the jazz experience, she launched "Lenore Raphael’s JazzSpot," a weekly Internet talk show, slightly more than a year ago. In each episode, she interviews a different jazz musician. They also perform together, often for the first time. The talk show, she said, has been another "huge experience" for her.
"Everything I do is all about heart," she said. "I give everything I’ve got into each performance and show. No matter what it is, it’s natural for me to project all my energy into what I’m doing."
Raphael will perform on Oct. 30 at the Halle Cultural Arts Center in Apex with the Triangle’s Rick Eckberg on bass and Peter Ingram on drums. Her website is lenoreraphael.com, and "Lenore Raphael’s JazzSpot" airs on purejazzradio.com on Sundays at 8am and 8pm, Fridays at 11pm, and Saturdays at 3pm eastern time.
Whitney L.J. Howell is a freelance writer specializing in personality profiles, community, parenting, and health news. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.