The Local Music Scene

Meet Jan Schmidt: A performer who loves the stage

By Michael Khouri
Posted 2/15/23

At 5 o’clock on a recent Wednesday evening at the Hometown Tavern in Warren, R.I., singer, performer, pianist and teacher Jan Schmidt took the stage.

Not the bandstand, where, in two hours, …

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The Local Music Scene

Meet Jan Schmidt: A performer who loves the stage

Posted

At 5 o’clock on a recent Wednesday evening at the Hometown Tavern in Warren, R.I., singer, performer, pianist and teacher Jan Schmidt took the stage.

Not the bandstand, where, in two hours, she and some of the most acclaimed musicians in New England were scheduled to perform, but a quiet, dark corner table where she enacted, for me, a brilliant monologue. She was a one-woman show chronicling an intriguing life story of music and performance.

Schmidt’s petite frame and demure visage belie a voice and a confidence that are commanding and substantial. Filled with theatrics, dramatics and improv, she delivered an oration replete with twists and turns regarding a career that began in second grade, with her first gig at seven years old. The East Providence resident was warm and self-deprecating, with a hearty laugh and smile to match. The audience was glued to his seat.

“When I was about five my mom bought me a plastic toy piano. I wouldn’t stop playing it, to the point where they were getting concerned with my obsession,” said Schmidt. ”They resigned themselves to my fascination and signed me up for organ lessons with Bill Volpe at Gasperinos music in Pawtucket. By the time I was 7, I had appeared on Dialing for Dollars with Hank Buchard. It was a very popular local television show back in the day. At the beginning of every show, they would spotlight an artist, musician, singer or performer. I played a little ditty on the organ on live TV and got to take a picture with Hank, which I still have. I was in show business.”

After that first gig, her destiny and future flashed before her young eyes. In her mind, the path that Schmidt’s life would eventually take was now mapped out.

“My mom took me to a show at the then-Loew’s State Theater (PPAC), when I was 8 years old. I don’t remember what the show was, but at intermission I got up out of my seat, ran down the aisle, crawled up on to the stage and started singing Neil Diamond’s ‘Song Sung Blue’ at the top of my lungs. My mom ran down to the front and demanded that I get down and back to my seat, but I wouldn’t come down. Security came and ushered me off the stage.”

In grade school Schmidt was singing and acting in recitals, and by high school she was a member of the drama club, where she excelled.

“I always got the lead because I was very serious, very driven and dedicated almost to a fault. I was then, and am now, captivated by performing. I guess I would do anything not to be ‘normal.’ My mom would tell me, ‘you’re just an ordinary little girl, calm down.’ It wasn’t like I thought I was elite or thought I was better than anyone else. On the contrary. But I didn’t want to be ordinary.”

After high school, Schmidt was accepted to Emerson College in Boston. There she enrolled in the theater arts department, holding a double major in creative writing/publishing and literature.

“Emerson had their own radio station. I was singing on a weekly program called Women in Music,” said Schmidt. “Learning about live radio and all the technical aspects of it were invaluable. I wanted to taste everything that was art. I was a published poet in my sophomore year. I represented Emerson at Harvard as a poet. I was singing, writing, performing, and painting. I was interested in all things artistic.”

“I had a performance teacher at Emerson who opened up a door for me that was crucial to my development,” recalls Schmidt. “His name was Richard Toma. He taught me how to carry myself, how to stand, how to walk on to a stage, to be and act above and beyond what I was as a person when I was performing. To be bigger than myself. How to make myself look on stage the way I wanted to look. We did all kinds of physical work to enhance and propel the performance. He was a genius.”

After graduating magna cum lade from Emerson, Schmidt spent some time at The Episcopal Conference Center in Rhode Island, where she felt it was time to, regroup and recharge.

“They had a music camp at ECC. I was a counselor. Later I was hired to be part of the administration and to be head of counselors,” said Schmidt. “There were 200 kids there for 10 weeks in the summer. I did a lot of work with the kids and also on myself – on my art, where Ii focused more on my singing.”

“Looking back, I think I entered the camp to escape. I’ve been escaping my whole life. I was always escaping from somewhere. Escaping and learning.”

 

Go west, young lady

In 1991 Schmidt escaped once again. She left music camp and traveled west to Los Angeles, not to seek a pot of gold but to expand the artist within her.

“I was living in LA, singing wherever I could. I started picking up some club gigs. I was also doing studio work here and there. It was mostly background singing. And because of my training in writing, I began to get work editing screenplays. There were so many opportunities to work in LA if you had the goods and the hustle.”

“Physically, I was not your average LA girl, who were typically tall, beautiful and blonde with, let’s just say accentuated features. I was a 5’ 2”, petite Italian brunette from Rhode Island,” said Schmidt. “One day I answered an ad for figure modeling at Disney Studios. In those days, the artists would draw from real people for the sculptor’s and the animators to create from. Because of our similar features, I got the job as figure and face model for Demi Moore, who was portraying Esmeralda in Disney’s animated ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame’. I was also the figure model for Meg in Disney’s ‘Hercules’. I went on to do figure work for Universal, DreamWorks and Warner Brothers as well.”

While singing, modeling and writing in LA, some friends from Rhode Island were passing through town and offered Schmidt a gig with them in the City by the Bay.

“Roomful of Blues stopped over in LA on their way up to San Francisco to do some West Coast gigs. They were good friends of mine and looked me up, offering me a gig singing with them for a short tour up the coast,” said Schmidt. “They were leaving the next day, but I had an audition for a Dr. Pepper commercial that morning and had to decline the offer. The guys were needling me, saying I wouldn’t get the spot anyway and that I would have more fun with them, but to my delight I did get it. I joined SAG then and there and made a healthy paycheck for the ‘You’re a Part of Me’ Dr. Pepper commercial, which can still be seen today courtesy of Google and YouTube.”

Schmidt said, “LA was great, but it’s like Mars. It’s another world.” So, in 2002, after 11 years of working out west, with a lingering need to be with family and faced with some unexpected health issues, she decided it was time to come home.

 

Back in Rhode Island

“When I arrived in Rhode Island, I dove right into the music scene, singing more and more,” said Schmidt. “I formed ‘Jan Schmidt and the Original Singers’ and joined ‘The Top Cats’. I was also gigging at Chans, with giants like Vinnie Pagano, Marty Ballou, Joe Potenza and Tommy Enright. These men took me in and taught me so much. I stood on the shoulders of these great musicians.”

But not long after settling back in this area, Schmidt was offered and accepted a job to perform with the Big Nazo Puppet Troupe, which as their website states, ‘….is an international performance group of visual artists, puppet-performers, and masked musicians who unite to create bizarre and hilarious larger-than-life sized characters, environments, and spectacles.’

“I wore a puppet costume, sang and danced for children all over the world. We did shows throughout Canada, Bermuda and the U.S. We even did a gig at PPAC. I finally got back on that stage,” she laughed. “It was a wonderful experience. My last gig with them was in Singapore.”

Today, home in Rhode Island after regaining her health, Schmidt is now giving back to an art form that has provided her a life of joy and fulfillment.

“These days I teach voice and performance class as well as some piano and theory. It’s about coaching people on how to listen and how to become themselves – how not to be afraid to reveal themselves. It is the most difficult part of the business,” said Schmidt. “Performing takes risk, courage and mettle, then comes the bliss. It’s all of those things, and that’s what I believe brings people to that high, joyous, miraculous state that you and the audience feel. It’s magical.”

Every Wednesday night Schmidt creates that magic hosting an open mic Blues and R & B jam at The Hometown Tavern in Warren. A special musical guest is featured and backed by Schmidt and her band, after which musicians are invited for a night of jamming, musical collaboration and discovery. Like a honeybee, Schmidt cross pollinates a diverse group of performers to create, each week, a one-of-a-kind blossom.

“On Sundays I sponsor and lead the 133 Club Blues and Jazz Series in East Providence, from 5 to 8 p.m. We feature a special iconic musical guest for the entire evening with distinct performances from band mates, and myself. People have come to lightheartedly call these Sunday gigs ‘Church’.”

Along with the Wednesday and Sunday showcases, Schmidt leads her own band, ironically named ‘Nameless’, with band mates Dave Richardson, Nate Goncalo, Joe Potenza and Garry Foisy. They perform throughout New England, specializing in tight harmonies and a’ 60s, ’70s, and ’80s repertoire.

Schmidt currently teaches five students a week, gigs 20to 25 times a month, while booking, networking and writing. I asked if she ever considered slowing down.

“If you have a gift in life, no matter what it is, you have a responsibility to give it away. It’s not yours to keep. The word ‘band’ means banding people together. It’s a beautiful thing we do. I’m in a constant state of gratitude,” said Schmidt. “I’ll never stop performing and singing. I’ve never lost the passion to do it. I’m still that 10-year-old girl in the mirror singing into her hairbrush.”

Find Jan Schmidt on Facebook and www.daverichardsonband.com

 

Michael Khouri is a Barrington resident writing occasionally about the Rhode Island music scene. Reach him at mkhouri@cox.net.

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