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Before she is center stage, Jacqueline Schwab shares how her music celebrates cultures


When you watch the documentary films of Ken Burns, like The Civil War, Baseball & the Tenth Inning, Benjamin Franklin and others, you're also listening to Grammy winning interpretive scores of vintage American music performed by pianist and composer Jacqueline Schwab. The soundtracks are integral to the stories, but her live concerts tell multicultural stories equally well with no pictures.

WSHU’s Tom Kuser spoke with Jacqueline Schwab about her new album, called I Lift My Lamp: Illuminations from Immigrant America. Schwab will perform selections from her album at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 16 at the WSHU Broadcast Center at Sacred Heart University.

Wayne Hankin

JS: Thanks for having me. Nice to talk with you.

WSHU: Certainly! You have a really attractive and unique way of combining the vintage music of several European, as well as homegrown sources with your interpretations on this album. But what inspired the immigrant theme for this collection?

JS: Oh, first of all, I'm so glad you like it. I'm enjoying it.

I think it came at a point in my life when the music that I was playing, which I continue to play, didn't didn't fulfill everything that I wanted to do. And at the same time in our social and political arena, it seemed like there were a lot of hate filled messages, surfacing and coming into our discourse about immigrants about prejudice, and difficult questions arising about these.

So, I decided to launch myself into this project. And I hadn't gotten totally enchanted with international folk dancing, when I was in high school, it really saved my life. I was shy, introverted, looking at my shoes all the time. And, somebody I think it was, my mother took me to a folk dance. And this is in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which it really was then called a “melting pot.” We don't use those words that much anymore. And at international folk dancing, I really found for a long time, my home, my tribe — I call it my CD liner notes, a community that celebrated differences, and yet accepted everybody, I sort of mined that material as a starter for the recording, but then I went further than that, too.

WSHU: You mentioned in your liner notes about struggling to understand your own identity.

JS: In hindsight, in retrospect, I was very lucky with my parents. They didn't have an easy time of it. They didn't have a lot of money. And they were odd ducks in some ways in Pittsburgh, too. But they really infuse their children — I'm the oldest — with the value of celebrating the others.

So when I was in school, my parents belonged to an organization, I think it was through the University of Pittsburgh, that would just call up its members and say, “Can you entertain three people from ‘x’ country tonight or tomorrow night or next week or whatever?” I don't know how much money they gave them. So, we would have people in our house from different countries and that really fit my parents ethos. And so I was really lucky with that. But my parents were really different from each other. And in their religion and in their cultural background. And it was very confusing for me. And I didn't know who I was, really.

But in spite of that, they gave us really strong values that I'm really glad I grew up with.

WSHU: You've chosen to work on the album with music from several genres: European folk, Tin Pan Alley, classical, and the African American spiritual. “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child” is one of the tracks on the album.

JS: Yeah, and if it were a perfect world, it would be more of a map of the world than it is. But what I had to come to is, I couldn't suddenly become somebody who plays non-piano music from all over the world. And so I just picked worlds where I felt like I had musically had something to offer, but not with the idea of it being exclusionary.

I think what I'm really trying to say with this collection is that there's some beautiful music. Now, you go out and explore in your lives and find out what it really is like.

WSHU: You mentioned before the importance of dance as a youngster in Pittsburgh. One of the pieces on your album is a traditional Scottish reel. How did you bring dance into your music? How did you decide what to select to illustrate dance for the listener?

JS: Yeah. Oh, that's a good question. Do I have an answer? Well, you could have called this recording stuff. I picked pieces that I enjoyed playing that I've enjoyed hearing others playing. In some cases, I picked pieces because they were challenging me. I could live my whole life and probably will never play a Scottish reel the way I want to play it.

But anyway, I've been around communities that have played the music and so I took my best stab at it.

WSHU: You write about having a sense of some discomfort playing the music that's on your new album. Why was that?

JS: Well, I didn't have the discomfort playing it initially. But it was then when I went to record it. I really started reading and thinking and I hope people won't — I shouldn't maybe even bring these words up on the radio — but I mean, I hope people will understand that I'm celebrating what the music is that it's there. I'm not claiming to be of the community that is playing the music. I don't want to play a piece to say, “oh, the good old days,” because they weren't necessarily the good old days. They aren't the good old days. Now, they might not have been cool days. Then, we can still use it as an ideal.

So, the idea of celebrating other cultures could still be there.

Tom has been with WSHU since 1987, after spending 15 years at college and commercial radio and television stations. He became Program Director in 1999, and has been local host of NPR’s Morning Edition since 2000.