Interviewed by: Mandy Moe Pwint Tu
Image credit: Beauty by Maneera
Any jazz enthusiast living in Perth will have heard of Jake Dennis and his heartwarming cabaret shows. Twenty-four, of Burmese heritage, Jake has made a name for himself performing shows at some of Perth’s best venues, including the Naked Fig Café, Downstairs at His Majesty’s, and the Ellington Jazz Club. His most recent endeavour will see him again in collaboration with the Mint Jazz Band, as he belts out his renditions of musical numbers from well-known artists such as Dean Martin and Whitney Houston, while he charms your socks right off with his cheerful demeanour and charismatic stage presence.
I caught up with Jake to talk about his new show, Gatsby’s Cabaret, his love of jazz and poetry, and the experiences he has had while performing.
Tell us about your upcoming show—what’s new, what’s different?
Gatsby’s Cabaret is different from all other Gatsby shows in Perth because in it I play a “black” Gatsby, thereby heightening the tension between the protagonist and his rival Tom Buchanan; an elitist, racist, “white” character who marries Daisy whom Gatsby loves. Having a coloured protagonist makes it interesting, since we’ll have Tom representing the wealthy establishment opposite Gatsby, who was not born into wealth, and has had to achieve it by his own ways and means. Tom is prejudiced against Gatsby who has become successful but is nonetheless in Tom’s eyes inferior for being coloured and part of the nouveau riche. In addition, the novel and film are told through Nick Carraway’s narration, but I tell the story from Gatsby’s perspective.
The cabaret features my four-piece band: Mint Jazz Band. It’s a three act cabaret, and we’ll be playing a number of jazz, swing, and blues numbers, along with a selection of modern tunes. We’ve also planned prizes for the Best Dressed lady and gentleman on the night. We’re on at Rigby’s Bar and Bistro on the 8th of May.
How would you describe cabaret to a person who’s never seen it before?
I’ve never actually thought of that! I’d say it’s definitely a show; it has many theatrical elements, in terms of storyline, costuming, and props—sometimes, if you’re lucky, there are dancers or acrobats. At any rate, it’s a step up from a live band gig, it’s a theatrical show!
Speaking of bands, I know you’ve been working with the Mint Jazz Band. Could you tell us how it all started?
Sure! It started about three years ago. It was Sports Day at UWA, and the lady I was playing with had moved here from Guernsey, and it so happened that her husband was also looking to form a jazz band. Since then, we’ve performed three cabaret shows—well, Gatsby’s Cabaret will be our third. We’ve sold out on every show we’ve done so far. I’m very proud of that.
Would I be right in assuming that your favourite type of music is jazz?
Yes, although I do love R&B, hip hop, pop, blues, and soul music as well.
What do you enjoy most about jazz music?
It has to be the lyrics in jazz. I’m especially taken with certain singers who perform with a lot of emotion and excitement.
What can you say about the audience energy at your shows?
When I perform, I love for the audience to have a good time, and to see them smiling, clicking, singing, and clapping along is a fantastic experience. I’m particularly fond of audiences who appreciate meaningful slow numbers as well as upbeat feel-good songs.
Which would you say was your best performing experience?
It would undoubtedly have to be performing my very own cabaret show (http://poetofjazz.com/2014/11/11/dreams-come-true/) to a packed house at Downstairs at His Majesty’s. It was absolutely great, definitely the biggest achievement of my career so far.
We can’t conclude this interview without mentioning your poetry. When and how did you get into writing?
I started in high school, after reading e. e. cummings, William Blake, Sylvia Plath, and Gwen Harwood. I then started sending a few of my poems off to magazines and asking for feedback from my English teachers. My first poem was published, and it went on from there. I can’t even remember which poem it was!
Have you ever performed poetry?
I have performed, on occasion, at the Moon Café as well as on local radio. But I mainly write poetry for the page, and the poems I write are better read than performed. I’m a better singer than I am a performance poet.
Would you ever consider going back to Myanmar to perform?
I’d actually love to put up a show in Myanmar to raise money for the poor. But the people I’ve spoken to about it there have said that it’s expensive to put up shows in Myanmar, and even if I did, not many people would be interested in hearing me sing in English. But perhaps, one day.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
Professionally I’d like to keep performing as much as I can; with any luck I’ll also have recorded an album. I would love to have my first poetry collection published. As for personal goals, I’d love to visit Greece, Egypt, and Japan. Perhaps I’ll even get married, who knows?
Jake is currently performing every Saturday in March and April at La Monakella, from 7pm to 10pm. You can book tickets for Gatsby’s Cabaret here.