Interview with author and composer Toni Jannotta

Toni Jannotta started as a dancer, became an actress, performed in children's theater, sang in musical theater, and ended up in jazz clubs. She has written jazz tunes and performed in the U.S. and abroad. Her current project turned her into an author and composer. "My Little Heart, Ruthie" is an illustrated story rhyme with a narrated, jazz-inspired CD to go with it. Toni lives with her piano and violin in Southern California.

What inspires you to write about healing?

At first I wasn't so much inspired to write about healing as I was urged by something inside me I could not contain. I think the act of writing helps anybody who is healing and I was in heavy healing mode when "My Little Heart, Ruthie" popped out of me. I think sometimes art is so much bigger than we are.

How did you realize that music and art heals? When did it happen to you?

For many years I simply made vocal jazz CD's. I just wanted to make my music and get paid. It was all very simple. And then in 2010, I was awarded an arts grant called an "Artist in the Community Partnership Grant." I was supposed to take this grant and use it to help with some community problem. Frankly, I didn't think I had much to offer but I submitted a proposal anyway. My idea was to create a live performance where jazz improvisers helped the homeless tell their stories. And I got the grant. And I started serving the homeless. The entire experience touched me so deeply that I was hooked. I knew then that my future in writing and music would be to help and heal.

What kind of awareness do you want your project to remind victims of abuse?

The key message of this project is to remind people, convince them, that any harm they suffered at the hands of another, was never their fault. Society so often wants to blame the victim. I want this project to reach the child inside the reader. This is why I made it a children's book. To reach the child in middle school, or the child inside the adult, that they were never to blame for what happened to them. To realize #itwasneveryourfault is awfully liberating. And we all deserve to be free.

How are they able to figure out that they deserve to love themselves?

I think, if you've grown up in an environment that is filled with chaos or is harmful in any way, it is hard to believe you are lovable. Loving yourself is something, then, that must be learned. So we help each other. We mirror kindness so the person standing in front of us eventually believes in their own worth.

"My Little Heart, Ruthie" is an illustrated story rhyme with a narrated, jazz-inspired CD, why did you name your book/album 'Ruthie'? Who is 'Ruthie'?

I have no idea why I named the main character Ruthie. The story just blew out of me like a storm and Ruthie came with that storm. The other main character is Clyde. At the time, I knew a trombone player named Slide Hyde and out popped the name Clyde. Go figure. I wish I had a better answer for this one. Haha. But as far as who Ruthie is, I'm certain now that Ruthie was the wounded child inside of me. Clyde was the happy and healthy heart I wished I could be. So I had them talk to each other so one could bring the other one out. At the end of the day, no matter who tries to help us, I think it is that inner conversation that we have with ourselves that decides our fate.

What kind of illustrations and musical styles did you use to present it?

Ruthie and Clyde are such opposites that I thought of them as musical opposites as well, opposites who fuse together. Ruthie is the uptight classical player and Clyde is the loose jazz guy. I have always been inspired by Chic Corea's tight harmonies and dissonance so I used this kind of thing for tension in the first movement and then I made an effort to open up the chords for the second movement, so that the two instrumental themes at the beginning of the composition are first sad and lonely, and then hopeful. At the third movement the narration and our story begins. I'm also a big fan of Prokofiev. My first book was Peter & the Wolf and my first record was the music that went with it. This is what I wanted for "My Little Heart, Ruthie" - you listen to the music and narration as you read the book.

The illustration style was suggested to me by the illustrator, Jennifer Mones. This style is called "paper cut-outs." Since I wanted the book to be a little healing story for adults and kids, Jennifer suggested that this illustration style can be a little edgier with an adult charm while still be engaging for a younger audience, say teens and tweens. People have really raved about the artwork in this book and I am forever grateful that Jennifer and I found each other. I call her the Amazing Millennial.

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