JANICE PERL is locally famous as a jazz singer, and an exceptionally fine one. She tries to make it to the Embassy Suites last-Sunday monthly Jazz Jam—which draws top artists from all around the Monterey Bay—and usually does. “I love to sing with great musicians,” she told me. But back in her youth she had dance ambitions. “I started singing in Los Angeles as a dancer picked for a tour with Dick Clark,” she says. “Several bands in the show wanted dancers who could sing. I knew I could sing from my young days in a chorus, so I became a backup singer on the tour.” Before going to LA, she appeared in several musical theater productions at Monterey Peninsula College and the Wharf Theater.
The Monterey native was born into and grew up in the musical Marotta family which, popularly-known for various performing events, owned a music store downtown on Alvarado Street next to the Golden State Theatre. (A fire in 2009 seriously damaged the building and destroyed a priceless collection of accordions, musical scores and other historical memorabilia.) She has two brothers, both musicians, and one sister. At 94, patriarch Mike Marotta continues with his music.
When the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra played a free concert for area school students last Thursday at the Monterey Fairgrounds, Perl joined them in the final number, a New Orleans funeral in honor of Nancy Fowler, a popular music teacher in Carmel who recently died in a car crash near her home. Perl sang “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” the dirge that preceded the band playing “When the Saints Go Marching In,” which then left the stage to lead a parade around the Garden Stage area. (All the kids followed those Pied Pipers.)
With her were five girls from Trinity Christian High School in Monterey who call themselves the Franklin Street Voices. They are studying jazz singing and Perl is the Performing Arts and Vocal Music Director there. With Sherilyn Bouwens she also co-teaches musical theater, a class this year of 22 boys and 13 girls. Prior to that she was lead singer in an evangelistic pop/rock band called Janice Perl and the Regenerate and in a Christian vocal band called Rhythm ‘n Jesus. She taught a class and served as vocal directer for the after-school musicals at Walter Colton Middle School in Monterey.
In the summer, Perl is on the faculty of the School of Dramatic Arts, the teaching wing of Pacific Repertory Theatre in Carmel. She also gives private singing lessons to some 15 students a week at the Dennis Murphy School of Music in Monterey where she and Murphy conduct a youth summer camp. Further, she is vocal director at First Presbyterian Church in Salinas whose music director is composer John Wineglass, well-known on both coasts. For the last five years she has also served with Wineglass as choral director at Shoreline Community Church in Monterey.
As a child, Janice Marotta attended Santa Catalina School in Monterey and then Monterey High School. “I had no idea then that I would be a teacher.” While at Monterey High, her older brother Dave, a studio musician like her brother Mike Jr., introduced her to jazz. “I was drawn to the odd meters in the Don Ellis Big Band recordings. I was listening to Chick Corea and Flora Purim while my friends were listening to The Doors.” An injury put her dance career on hold and she soon became the lead singer in Mike, Jr.’s band. Meanwhile, she often was engaged to sing classical music. For example, she is a soloist and vocal director for the big Christmas on Main Street event produced by First Presbyterian that uses a full orchestra, big choir and solo voices. “Five years ago my love of jazz was rekindled. I felt I was going back to my roots. I love the melodies and harmonies and chord changes in jazz that you don’t find so much in pop music.” She set about redeveloping her ability to improvise. “It gives me a lot of freedom. It comes natural. I think it’s genetic.” She sits in occasionally on weekends at the Monterey Hyatt with Dave Morwood and other area musicians.
To hear her sing at the Jazz Jam you’d be hard-pressed to come to any other conclusion. But in her early 20s, Perl knew that she needed to learn her craft and on the advice of a local musical couple, Peggy and Scott Brown, she drove every Saturday to Menlo Park for voice lessons from Scott Brown’s mother, Muriel Brown Older. “She had developed a curriculum for any genre of singing.”
Married to Jacob Perl, a Monterey-area musician, sound-engineer, photographer and web-designer, Janice Perl considers herself a freelance musician. Their daughter Miranda, who was in Perl’s jazz ensemble in high school, is now studying vocal jazz at the University of Northern Colorado.
“I’ve had nine lives,” Perl says. “Reigniting the jazz flame in the last five years has really brought me back to where I belong. I love it and the jazz people I get to work with.”