Season 2
37 Minutes

E77 | Jeannine Otis | The Rewards Of Flowing With The Wind

Jeannine Otis has been a substantial voice in music for over 40 years, effortlessly performing and recording in jazz, classical, dance, gospel and pop genres. She has toured as a vocalist with great musicians who have served as mentors including Grover Washington Jr., Arthur Prysock, Kool and the Gang, Joe Chambers and Donald Byrd, Rudy Mwangozi, Finnish Jazz composer Heikki Sarmanto and Vishnu Wood and his band Safari East.

Jeannine appeared on Broadway in "This Joint is Jumpin" and toured throughout Europe as the Strawberry Woman in "Porgy and Bess," singing in many of the great opera houses including those in Rome, Cologne, Venice, and Modena. Her recording MAGIC SONG with Heikki Sarmanto was re-released by The Warner Group worldwide in 2017, and her selections are included in over 12 jazz compilations.

Jeannine's passion for working in communities led to fruitful collaborations with Eve Ensler and celebrated composer Elizabeth Swados. For the last 30 years, Jeannine has also served as Music Director at Manhattan's iconic St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, the second-oldest church in the city.

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Jeannine Otis  00:00

We did the poor jazz was which at the time it’s about maybe 30 or 40,000 people. And I got up on stage and I looked over to the side and there was somebody who was very challenged in a wheelchair listening listen to my music. That was a very wonderful moment for me. Yeah. Cuz was my mom died there I was though no matter what. And I got disapproval from this person.

Achim Nowak  00:37

Hey, this is Achim Nowak, executive coach and host of the MY FOURTH ACT PODCAST. If life is a FIVE ACT play, how will you spend your FOURTH ACT? I have conversations with exceptional humans who have created bold and unexpected fourth acts, listen, and to be inspired. And please rate us and subscribe on whatever platform you are listening on. Let’s get started. It gives me such great pleasure to welcome Janine Otis to the MY FOURTH ACT PODCAST. Janine has been a substantial voice in music for over 40 years, effortlessly performing in jazz, classical and dance gospel and pop genres. Janine has also recorded extensively in both dance music back in the days and jazz. He’s a graduate of Wellesley College and also holds a master’s degree from Emerson College in Boston where she was also a teaching fellow. She has toured as a vocalist and shared the stage with great musicians of every genre and specially jazz who have served as mentors so I’m gonna just mentioned some names that you will all recognize Grover Washington Jr. Author price saw cooling the gang, Joe chambers and Donald Byrd Rudy mongos. He finished jazz composer Heike star monto and Vishnu Wood and his band Safari east. Janine has also appeared on Broadway and disjointed jumping and toured throughout Europe as the strawberry woman and Porgy and Bess singing and many of the great opera houses in Europe, including those in Rome, Cologne, Venice and Medina. Her recording magic song with hockey star monto was released by the Warner group worldwide and selections from Magic song are included in over 12 Jazz compilations. And this I want to add because I have a special relationship to this place for over the last for last 30 years. Janine has also been the music director at St. Mark’s Church in Manhattan’s East a village. That’s the second oldest church in the city and an extraordinary place for the arts. We’ll talk about that as well. I just shared with you, the life that’s more publicly visible to people. But during this entire time, Janene has done a lot of work in communities. As an educator, she’s passionate about it with often with communities, I hate this label that might be labeled disadvantaged, and using the arts to work with those communities. One last confession. Janine and I first crossed paths. I was doing the math Janine, this was almost 40 years ago. This is insane. We were just children in our 20s and had the pleasure of work together. And it’s just a joy to speak with you these many years later and reflect a little bit on life. And what’s next. So welcome, Janine, after this very long introduction.

Jeannine Otis  03:43

Thank you, Kim. I have such great respect for you and what you do

Achim Nowak  03:49

each podcast. I start with a simple question. And I want to add something to it with you, which is when you’re a young girl, a teenager, who did you think you wanted to be when you grew up? You come from a musical family, you performed early? So the question is, did you always want to be a musician?

Jeannine Otis  04:10

I just was always involved in music. My mother was a choir. Director and she was an account. But she was acquired. So I think I was going to rehearsals in her womb. Yes. My cousins were the Jones brothers that help and Hank and my mother was very close to my cousin Elaine who married that’s how they became cousins. So there’s a story. When I was about four years old, we went to visit my aunt. And yeah, I’ve always been like, you know, crazy kid. So, so they put on the music and it was jazz. It was Sunday. new arrangements. And, you know, I’m not a kid. So they, you know, we used to have those stereo systems that had, you know, the cabinet. So I’m crawled under the cabinet. And, you know, because I love the music so much. And my uncle said to my mother, oh. And that’s, that’s, that’s the story. I think, that sticks with me. And

Achim Nowak  05:34

that’s what I’m curious about. The story you just told me I’m thinking, Yeah, well, music was in her veins. And in her blood, it was there, right. But you went, you went to two very impressive universities, you went on to get a master’s from Emerson, where you focused on on vocal work, but also on education. If I can play devil’s advocate, somebody could just said, you know, gosh, she’s such a great singer, just let her go out and sing. Right. And, and you got this education was that because mom and dad insisted on it? Was it because you wanted it? What was that, like?

Jeannine Otis  06:10

My family is comprised of an interesting, interesting mix of people. My dad was from New Orleans, and came up, you know, in this migration, that lot of people out and some people my mother’s family were from the islands. And so the idea was not to end up being an artist at all. Although people, you know, we had Hank and Dan and Alvin and our family and other people. But that was not what what the plan was, for me. The plan was for me to do all that and enjoy it and, and be good at parties or, or, you know, do something, but not to make it my career. So that actually brought quite a bit of conflict, early 20s. But my mother was just, she loved all of that, and totally understood it and support it crazy me and that that’s what

Achim Nowak  07:26

happened. That’s what happened. Nice.

Jeannine Otis  07:31

And at Wellesley, I got a lot of support for being an odd turn to think in alternative ways. Nice. I had a great theater teacher, who I visited, just up until he died a few years ago, often. Yeah. And so I found people who were just very supportive in my educational experience.

Achim Nowak  08:02

So I just want to throw some things at you because you’ve had this. And to me, this wonderfully eclectic life that is not in a straight line. And I think that’s, you know, that’s a gift. Back in the early 80s, I listen to a song the other day that you recorded back then, so I just want to throw out the title. And because you did a song called jiggle lips, yeah. Yeah. It made me laugh in a really good way. First of all, I love to jiggle led by this is Janine and her 20s doing what I call a soft rap song. Right? That’s what how does one end up? Coming from from Emerson with a masters? Then you’re in New York? And then how did somebody say, hey, why don’t you record jiggle, let

Jeannine Otis  08:55

you know, I just have followed the wind. So I was introduced by some friends in a show that I was doing, actually Henry Street showcase, called Berlin to this guy, Kenny Williams.

Achim Nowak  09:10

So let me just interrupt you because that was a very New York references Henry Street settlement, which is a wonderful place on the Lower East Side in Manhattan that also historically has really promoted the arts. Right? I just wanted to give Henry Street settlement a plug. So go ahead,

Jeannine Otis  09:28

please. Yeah. And they said, Oh, you gotta go meet Kenny Williams, who actually just passed away. So I went to his office in that 1650 Broadway, we’re all the people just kind of hung out. You know, a lot of people had offices do not progress. And then I met him and he introduced me to a guy named Bill Moore. And also Sam Jacobs,

Achim Nowak  09:57

who, who I also met Yeah,

Jeannine Otis  10:01

So between those two, they said, Hey, because this is really dated me this this new thing called route. It’ll be funny just look at the text. And if you want to add something, so I was just having fun. But then there the jiggle that people liked it, you know?

Achim Nowak  10:25

Yeah. Well, I love the phrase that you sort of I was going with the wind, because in current times, for young people, younger people, that’s discouraged. You’re supposed to have goals, you’re supposed to be driven. And you’re supposed to aggressively pursue them. And sometimes magical things happen that you and I can chuckle about right now. Because you are going with the wind, right? Yeah. And there’s a beauty to it. I’m going to ask you an almost impossible question and an unfair question. But because you’ve done so many cool things, and let me let me let’s maybe focus on your performance as a as a singer. If you had to describe one or two moments, and for each moment, I know you’re excluding other moments that are also wonderful, which is the unfair part. But a moment where we go, Wow, this was a perfect moment. This is why I love singing. This is why I love performing. These moments make it all worthwhile. Like what what, what moments come to mind to me?

Jeannine Otis  11:33

Well, to go back backpack, I love so much of what I’ve done. Larry and I joke, we’re too immature that grow up. So I kind of live from moment to moment. And there was when I was at the Pori jazz festival, we talk in 1980. And, you know, I had flown to Finland, just after my mother died. My family didn’t want me to continue the stuff and but I did and when with this little money in my pocket, but when I got there, they have provided for me really well. And we went into rehearsals with this music that’s on that song. And we did a poor Jazz Festival, which at the time, it’s about maybe 30 or 40,000 people in the eye. And I got up on stage. And I looked over to the side. And there was somebody who was very challenged in a wheelchair. listening to my music. That was a very wonderful moment for me. Yeah. Cuz was my mom died. There I was though no matter what. And I got disapproval from this person.

Achim Nowak  12:54

What I think of, and then I could be totally going off on a tangent, but when you describe the moment where you see the person in the wheelchair, sometimes as artists, especially the moment we perform in bigger venues, it’s almost this anonymous experience, we receive the energy of people, but we forget the impact we have on individuals, right. And that was this person and, and the impact that we have on the world.

Jeannine Otis  13:22

No, I was gonna say often, as artists. You can really live in a world where you don’t know some people don’t. But you can really not have enough of a good idea of what you’re actually doing. You can This is a miss.

Achim Nowak  13:44

You already said so many beautiful things. I want to You mentioned your partner Larry Marshall, and Marshall, you’ve been you’re married, right? You’re not.

Jeannine Otis  13:53

We’re together for 30.

Achim Nowak  13:57

I wasn’t sure if it was legal marriage or not. But you’ve been together for a long time. Larry Marshall is a well known singer, primarily in my mind identified with Broadway type performances. You jokingly said it’s like with children who don’t want to grow up.

Jeannine Otis  14:16

I told him it was morning I was gonna speak very poorly of him.

Achim Nowak  14:22

Let’s play with that phrase. What’s nice or wonderful about being a child that is the one I grew up.

Jeannine Otis  14:29

Sometimes it feels like we’re in in a factory and the best way possible. If he needs someone a clink out a melody for him, or sit on book. That’s me. He does. He’ll sit on book or more for me though, he’ll say, you know, Janine, that really doesn’t make sense or it doesn’t make sense. And we met when Larry was that real low point in his career. And because of my orientation, we With pop music and classical music, but not so much theater where I would not Oh, very much. So I didn’t know. He just, he was somebody going through changes, I thought he was a writer, we were doing this show that was given us both a lot of Arjuna. If we I was assistant music director, we kind of developed this relationship where we help each other.

Achim Nowak  15:32

I want to just briefly reference my own partner. I’ve seen first of all, I’m, I’m in a relationship with a lawyer, if anybody had told me I wouldn’t be with a lawyer, when you and I knew each other, I would have said, You’re out of your friggin mind. Like that’s, that’s the last person I want to be with. But it’s nice to have that kind of support, as needed in many ways in the household. So I really understand that. And the first day I met my partner, we met modern ways online, we went on a coffee date. I thought to myself, This is my best friend, I fell under on the first day. And that’s a really good, really good way to start a relationship, isn’t it? Yes. Because we’re joking about longevity already in this conversation. And that’s a beauty of getting older is that we appreciate the longer arc of life and what’s happened in that arc. That you have been the Director of Music at a really beloved and almost legendary church in Manhattan on the Lower East Side. For listeners who don’t know it’s, the church itself is wonderful because it has, it’s almost like a U shaped theater. That’s what it feels like that has this big center of space and you sit very close to the center and rightfully is a wonderful dance program. danspace project is housed there. And very avant garde theater director Richard foreman, ontological theater used to perform there. So this is a true home of the arts. It’s a refuge for artists, and it’s a spiritual community with a lot of history. You’ve been the music director for 30 years. That’s insane. Janine. For our artists, friends who are listening, how did you get that gig? Like how did that happen?

Jeannine Otis  17:24

Well, again, we blew through the when I met up actor agreement, Barry, I think he was on Gotham last but met it equity. And I was having a rough time. I think just

Achim Nowak  17:43

again, I want to say for our non showbiz people equity as the actor’s union.

Jeannine Otis  17:48

So we struck up conversation and a friendship. And I was really having a rough time with a lot things. So he suggested that I come with him to St. Mark’s, because none of us we want to embrace spirituality, but we don’t want to embrace the stereotypical thing where we’re all marching and joining fires of L whatever. So he invited me to St. Mark’s, and it was an it was Pentecost. And, and actually, this guy who became a kind of mentor had written this liturgy that involves acting. Actors reciting poetry. Yeah. Wonderful music Bill Russell. And shout out to Billy did, he just passed away, we had a big service for him. And so they embrace me, they embrace me. And that was in the 80s. And then the person who was the music director, left, he wanted to do something else with his life. And there I was, again, they always allow me to, to do keep doing performance things. And back, as long as I made sure that things were covered, over the years, I helped grow a concert series connected to the church.

Achim Nowak  19:22

I want to dig a little deeper. I love the way it happened. But then at some point, you mentioned that the person before you chose to leave and do other stuff you’ve chosen to stay. So what what keeps you there?

Jeannine Otis  19:38

Well, it’s interesting that you asked, I think in a way, I felt useful. Over the years, like the work at the church is uplifting, it kind of saved my life. You know, my your life so that you are really productive. still dreaming? Because the guy is now he works for Apple computers. And he’s wonderful. He’s brilliant. And and his choices this choice. Yeah, I think it’s just that it’s, you know, at this age of wake up, and I’m excited about what I’m doing. I need to know focus more on how to get on the Forbes list. When you have yourself when you worked on on your core, yeah. That connection with the universe is I know, I sound so

Achim Nowak  20:46

loud. I have a very concrete relationship to the divine. I experienced in certain ways conscious and everything you’re saying makes complete sense to me, Jenny?

Jeannine Otis  20:54

No, you do. Yeah. That’s what your honesty and your come from? I think it’s kept me alive in ways that are hard to articulate. Yeah.

Achim Nowak  21:12

A word from your sponsor. That’s me. I invite you to go to the website associated with this podcast Fourth, you will find other equally inspiring conversation with great humans. And you will also learn more about the my fourth act mastermind groups where cool people figure out how to chart their own fourth acts. Please check it out. And now back to the conversation. Now, one other strand of your life that I’ve alluded to, is your bleed decades of working as an educator through the arts in communities. That’s sort of the less sexy and less glamorous work. I often joke like, we know a lot of wonderful performers who sometimes do this work, I would say almost no mean this in a bad way. Like it’s a gig, you can get it. It’s nice, you use your art. But they haven’t demonstrated this long term commitment to this work that you have. Could you give our listeners who maybe don’t know, what it looks like to use the arts and a community just made you pick one project? Again, I’m asking the impossible question. Because you’ve done so many to describe what that looks like and describe why you Janine like, like to do that work? Well,

Jeannine Otis  22:43

like some artists that we’ve we know their lives. You know, I had some real struggles with with mental troubles illness, with health issues. And I think that work is act a friend of mine said it’s thankless work, but it’s not. But you know, I can look around at times go, Wow, this kid showed up on time. We’re gonna do this thong we’re gonna or in the spring, because Larry does it with me sometimes. I started up this school, called a Paul ropes in school, worked with about 100 kids do an excerpt from The Lion King because the principal wanted the kids to connect with some sort of sense of ancestry. Yeah, a lot of kids. They’re from Africa, Haiti. Well, different parts of African Haiti. And, and, yeah, I mean, it’s it just is something I think that I really think is important to do. And, and if I paid but I think, more than that, I just have, I can just name in my mind, a string of things I did. I also do the same kind of work now with with people that would seniors. And we just we did a piece called Living with hope. Nice, where they share their stories. And, and as we were, you know, I get people to write and as they were sharing their stories, so Well, this is like a theater piece. Yeah. And we put it together and presented it and just the feeling of camaraderie and that you’re doing something well, and I have to also give a shout out to another mentor friend Liz suelos. Yeah, us, we work very closely together.

Achim Nowak  25:03

And, and again, for our listeners in lis waiters who died way too young. I would call her in the best sense a rebel composer, she did an amazing theater pieces. Some of them ended up on Broadway. So she had commercial successes, but she was in my mind’s of a non traditional gal. And tell us what we should know about you and working with a wonderful list of waiters

Jeannine Otis  25:31

and met her with Mary, we were doing a piece about Well, this was when they were beginning to ban books. Everything so I met her and, and we’ve, we all worked on this piece together, we have to write. And that’s where she works. I mean, she comes in with the end in mind, but then she inspires you to speak out, and we bond it. And then I was having some health issues. And I have a piece she wrote for me. Janine psalms that I’ve framed. Beautiful. But she Yeah, we did, worked in the Delta cord. And we just just just so much in terms of the values of what theater is. And Liz, I just loved her approach to work, she was honest, to her was important. Theater to speak to issues as well as be entertaining. But, but to speak to them, you know, honestly, and, and let people be a little uncomfortable, but let them come out thinking. I also work briefly with Eve Ensler. Yes, a little. But Liz was really, you know, we did a tribute to her. And her. Her wife was very gracious about all of that. And we did a piece together to three kings. Yes, which celebrated epiphany in the most unusual way with puppets. And the three kings were, were really, in the cost of play, just really pondering why they were doing this, and the music was very different.

Achim Nowak  27:26

I just appreciate you giving us a flavor of this work. And this as I’m listening to you, I’m also getting such a sense of how that work is really personally meaningful to you. Now, you made this wonderful, wonderful joke. I just need to be on the Forbes list now. And I, because part of the fourth act is an eSpeak to a lot of a lot of people who are their life experience is very different from yours. But the fourth act questions or this, which is I’ve had this extraordinary life, I’m hearing that there were ups and downs, but around it is just amazing work that you get to do. And you’ve also been supported and blessed by both spiritual communities, your your partner, Larry. So as you look to the future as a very accomplished musician, what do you want to keep doing or do more of? Are there any things that you want to do less of meaning like, I’ve done this for years? I don’t want to do it anymore. Like for as you look at your future? What does that look like within these questions?

Jeannine Otis  28:37

To call me an accomplished musician? That’s really something because I know you don’t. So anyway, the story on that there’s always a story with me, this guy came to St. Mark’s and he is very accomplished guitarist and teacher. And he summed it up for me just this as a couple of months ago, he said, you know, you can really love something, but you can know that it’s time for you to do something else. That’s right. And you don’t have to feel bad about it. That’s right. And I think I’m gonna always want to do a lot of what I’ve been doing, but I think I want to just make sure as I’m getting up in age now that I have a comfortable cushion for myself. And and I think I do emotionally have but I wanted to reflect in my mind. Not I don’t, I don’t think I’ll ever be the person who does something just

Achim Nowak  29:53

just for the money. Yeah.

Jeannine Otis  29:56

I don’t know where that lies in terms of sanity.

Achim Nowak  30:03

Another thing I’m curious about, I’m a former New Yorker who left 18 years ago for Florida. You have lived in Staten Island for a long time, which is often the Forgotten borough. When I think of Staten Island, I think it is very romantic commute via the Staten Island Ferry to the city and back during your and all of your years in Staten Island. Have you ever thought oh, I should be living in Manhattan? I should be closer to 1650 Broadway or, or it’s fine to be where am I? How did you end up in Staten Island? And why did you stay?

Jeannine Otis  30:37

Everything is a story with me Go for it. I did live in Manhattan. And fortunately, I had not such a great experience. In my apartment somebody broke in while I was in the apartment. And I’m sure that if I lived at Fifth Avenue and 90 Street, that wouldn’t happen. That’s not I don’t know if that would happen. So then, I found Staten Island actually through friend St. Mark’s to Durban and it’s it’s affordable. I know that I There are parts of Staten Island that people discuss in various ways. But I’m loving supportive. Unity just regular people. And sometimes that’s just really nice. And found a very come out. In in. In tragedies like Sandy or some of the things that have happened. I’ve been really happy to be in a community where people ask you if you need help getting you know your car, no or

Achim Nowak  31:56

no. all makes sense. It totally makes sense to me. When you look back at your life and the many different things you’ve done, the highs and the challenges and if you were to give some, some word of advice to young Janine, the free spirit wild child as you described her, based on what you know now and not to change anything not to change your date the history of what happened. But what do you know now that you if you were the wise, the wise inner voice? What would you like to say to young Janine

Jeannine Otis  32:29

I was thinking about all this. And we’re having homecoming for the past two weeks at St. Mark’s, which is wonderful. And there’s some really, it was wonderful music. And I thought about what that meant to me. At this age, you can kind of be at a time when you you get to the core of it more and my I felt like I am okay, I want to I’m thinking maybe I’ll end up back in Michigan. I’d like to I’d like to have a house like I grew up in a house like buy a house I’d like to work still a music and have that support everything and and again have neighbors worry about my lawn and and still worried about issues at the same time.

Achim Nowak  33:34

Thank you so much for well, just to get the gift of of you the work you do and giving us a little glimpse into some moments from your life. I can’t imagine that our listeners on curious about where they can find your music or where they can learn more about you Where Where would you like to direct them to?

Jeannine Otis  33:58

I was listening to Amazon yesterday amazed that a selection from the new recording into my heart is on Amazon. And the magic song with Heki has been re re labeled renamed Janine Otis and the Helsinki Philharmonic. Can you imagine? Amazing I don’t have anything to do with this. So I’m I’m thinking, wow, this is a gift. You can hear that on Amazon.

Achim Nowak  34:35

Because you’re being very humble someone I’m going to add a few more things so you can learn more about Janina DeGeneres website Julian I recently bought a whole bunch of music on iTunes from Janine go to iTunes put in Janine Otis, and you’re going to find some of the old dance tracks, the soft rap but you’re also going to find into my heart which is Your latest CD which is I would say a jazz CD, but nine songs it’s beautiful. And as I say goodbye I’m going to we’re going to lead out with one of your songs from into my heart and thank you again so much for this conversation Jimmy. Thank you bye for now

Jeannine Otis  35:28

I saw a bird you tried to fly to the skies and my eyes watched him as he climbs so gently he was floating saying goodbye to friends. Go Go Go, go, go, go, go. Go. Go go go go. Go Cookie, cookie God, God. In me dude. I saw zebra was feeding from God. Grass Roots then I saw the sea brought waves to cross the sea. I love

Achim Nowak  36:55

reading like what you heard, please go to my fourth And subscribe to receive my updates on upcoming episodes. Please also subscribe to us on the platform of your choice. Rate us give us a review and let us all create some magical fourth acts together. Ciao


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