Phil Denny: Fatherhood and All That Jazz

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For local saxophone artist and father Phil Denny, music is much more than simply playing an instrument; it’s about a connection — with his family and his fans. Raised in Sarasota, Fla., by a single parent, Denny said that his mother Nadja Lehman was an integral figure in molding his early life and experiences. Divorcing before Denny was a toddler, he counted on his mother for guidance, support and even some of the traditional father-son activities. “I grew up without a father, my parents divorced when I was two,” said Denny. “My mom taught me a lot … how to throw a football. (She) was very impactful in that way.” Moving to Michigan when he was 10, Denny and his mother settled in the Lansing region to be closer to family. Today Denny considers Lansing his hometown and is raising two children of his own, Dreux, 13, and Brayden, 10, here. Though Denny is divorced from his sons’ mother he explains how his experience growing up without a father impacts the relationship he has with his sons. “When I learned I was going to become a father, I made myself a personal promise that I wouldn’t be a repeat of my father, that I would always be there for my children,” said Denny. “When we were struggling with a divorce I had to go, ‘ok, this is another hurdle I have to get over and I have to be personally committed to the children … just be there for them.’” Denny shares custody with the boys’ mother, limiting how often he sees them. Still, the time they are able to share is quality, and usually quite active. “We do a lot of bike riding, we like to go camping, we play a lot of sports; the kids are very active,” said Denny. “We spend a lot of time outdoors, but then we slow down and play games … it’s important to spend that quality time together.” Though the boys are heavily involved with sports (both of them currently have dreams of playing at the professional level), they’ve also inherited a bit of Denny’s creative and musical talents. Dreux recently starred as Tweedle-Dee in his school’s rendition of “Alice in Wonderland,” and he is also learning to play the piano. Brayden prefers percussion and is taking drum lessons on a regular basis. “I think that they are inspired by me as a musician and a father,” said Denny. “They certainly look up to me and think it’s cool. They’re very supportive of what I do.” Not only are the boys inspired and supportive, they’re Denny’s number one fans. When asked what they thought about their father pursuing music as a career, Dreux stoically replied “he’s really good at it, so it was a really good decision.” Brayden is also a big supporter of his dad’s career, and he enjoys the perks of Denny’s success. At our interview, Brayden candidly shared how much he likes going to his dad’s concerts, especially at the Radisson “because the lady there spoils (them) with hot chocolate.” Specialty beverages aside, Denny strives to connect with every fan, every time. For him, the music is more than just a concert, or a song — it’s about getting to know people through his music and allowing people to know him. “I’m a passionate player and strive to have a connection with the listener. I want to break down the barrier between the artist and the fan,” said Denny. “That’s my goal, to get to know the people. I think things are more personal when you feel like you can directly interact with someone.” With two singles currently on the market and a full-length album launching in late July, Denny’s career is taking off in new and exciting directions. Already a successful saxophonist, it’s difficult to believe he’s only been playing in a full-time, professional capacity for three years. Shortly after moving to Lansing Denny began playing the saxophone at the age of 12. Under the direction of his high school band instructor Josh Hicks, Denny began to perfect his skills, attending Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp and studying with a few different Michigan State University (MSU) jazz graduate students. In the late 1990s, Denny played in the Lansing Community College (LCC) Jazz Ensemble. Denny put his musical talent aside for a few years, working in the marketing and mortgage industries. Eventually, however, he was anxious to get beyond the desk. His desire for building relationships and “keeping it personal” were always a motivator. So, when times got tough, he turned to what he knew. “Because of the economic times I had to reevaluate where I was and where I wanted to go. I didn’t feel that I could walk into an employer and say, ‘this is what I want’ … so I fell back on my talent in music,” said Denny. “I believe in what I do and I enjoy it. What I do is more personal than if I were to work in the corporate culture.” Though he enjoys “getting personal” with his music, Denny does a great job of keeping his personal and professional lives separate. Many readers will be surprised (and likely some saddened) to know Denny is engaged to long-time girlfriend Amanda Fitch with their wedding date set for Sept. 8 of this year. When Denny is not on stage or spending time with Fitch, he loves nothing more than kicking back with his boys. Living in a co-parenting situation may not always be easy, but Denny is dedicated to being the best possible father he can be. “I believe in being honest with your children and open,” said Denny. “I ask questions, I encourage them to ask questions. I think that’s especially important in a co-parenting situation, because I may not be in tune 100 percent of the time.” As Denny’s life moves forward in many new and positive directions, he holds high hopes for his sons’ dreams, as well his own. “My hope and dream for them is that they’re open to new experiences and they accomplish what they feel is important in their lifetime. I want them to persevere and to not let obstacles set them back,” said Denny. “Making an impact on their lives is important to me because I grew up without a father. The most important thing for me is to share experiences together and to raise them into fine, young gentlemen.” Don’t miss Denny’s album release party 8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 10 at The Best Western Plus, 6820 S. Cedar St., Lansing. For more info visit www.philonsax.com.
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Tags: Cover Story, Father's Day, Phil Denny, saxophone