AMN mentors Jazz and Beyond - Non-Classical Music Piano

Meet Dee Spencer, Jazz professor and music director

This is a guest post by Nancy Friedman, an AMN volunteer.

Dee celebrates Mardi Gras on March 9 at the Cafe in the Castro

On August 15, the multitalented Dee Spencer—teacher, performer, music director—will offer an online workshop in jazz-piano improvisation through our Amateur Music Network at Home series. We caught up with her by phone just before she headed out to an evening gig at San Francisco’s Catch restaurant, which had recently reopened for outdoor dining.

What was your early musical life like?

I grew up in a musical family in Wilmington, Delaware. My dad sang, my mom sang. Dad was a huge opera fan, Mom listened to gospel music, my sisters listened to Motown. One of my uncles came to live with us, and he introduced me to jazz. When I was 7 or 8, my mother bought an upright piano and said, “Here you go.” I took classical piano lessons and became the designated accompanist for the family. In junior high and high school I wanted to be in the band, so I switched to woodwinds. I got a four-year oboe scholarship to Florida A&M University, in Tallahassee, and then ended up doing more keyboards than oboe! I became a piano minor, and while I was still in college I got a job at Epcot playing keyboards with a jazz/rock combo and accompanying the singers in the stage shows.

How has the COVID quarantine affected your performing and teaching life?

I teach jazz and musical theater in San Francisco State University’s School of Theatre and Dance. Fortunately, I’d already taught online. What’s changed is that all 18 weeks of instruction have to be complete before I click and launch on August 22. It’s intense! Also, obviously, we can’t do our productions in person yet—everything’s going to be online. It’s a different game, applauding for someone you can’t really see. But a lot of people are doing a really good job with virtual productions.

I’ve used the quarantine to do some songwriting, too. I was music director of One Mo’ Time, and my favorite song from the show is “Cake Walking Babies (from Home).” That was my inspiration for “Quarantine Cakewalk.” It’s a sheet-music exercise—you have to play it exactly as written. It’s not an improvisational exercise at all! [Editor’s note: Read about the history of the cakewalk. Go to our Workshop Resources page to listen to and download the sheet music for Dee Spencer’s “Quarantine Cakewalk.]

Tell us something people may not know about you.

I wrote our high school class song, “What Do We Have to Offer?” It got mixed reviews—my classmates said it “wasn’t happy enough.” But the band director and the choir director liked it, and that was good enough for me!

Something else people may not know is that I play third clarinet in the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band. I really like playing third clarinet—you get the lower notes, and you get to hear what the other instruments are doing. I like sitting in the back row—it’s so interesting to blend in with the trombones.

What can participants expect from your AMN workshop?

I’m an improviser, so I can go just about anywhere. I have various game plans, and I’ll see what everyone’s expecting. Are they new to improvisation? Do they already have experience? I want my audience to be engaged—to work hard and have a robust experience and also an enjoyable one.

It seems like COVID has forced all of us to become improvisers. Can you give us some professional advice?

Learning to improvise is a good thing! You discover things about yourself and the world. You’re taking a risk, and that’s good. It’s always good to stretch.

Register now for At Home with Dee Spencer, August 15 at 2 p.m. We may have time for one or two people to play for the group during the workshop. Please contact us at for more information.