Every now and then, you meet people who are total life-changers. They are the ones you almost hate to love because they are loved by everyone for the right reasons. Whether it is their warm and engaging personality that make everyone in the room feel loved, their ability to connect with individuals of all backgrounds and cultures, or their contagious big-dream, ‘get-it-done’ attitude.
One of my core motivations for starting Finding Renaissance was to highlight individuals who are game changers…people who immediately affect your life and embrace themselves for who they are. I’m a firm believer that we have to own who we are and strive to become “more human” and complete every single day. The next few posts will highlight amazing individuals I’ve met through my travels and stays in different cities.
In 2013, when I met Dave Vessella in Detroit, Michigan, I knew that he was one of the most talented, eclectic, and eccentric individuals on earth. Dave’s passion for music, compassion for others, and desire to strive for perfection was contagious.
Whether we were running around Chicago causing mischief, or rewriting songs from Les Misérables to teacher themed lyrics, Dave is someone I could count on for intellectual discussions, emotional stability, and a good laugh. Dave is the kind of guy who wants to get to know everyone for who they are: human beings with a story. Read on to find out why Dave is a Renaissance Man
Finding Renaissance: Dave Vessella
Name: David Michael Vessella
University/Area of Study: Columbia College Chicago; Jazz Studies: Trumpet Performance
Hometown: Burbank, CA
Current Location: Detroit, MI
Restaurant/Food: Any hole in the wall Mexican food
Color: It’s not the color. It’s the relationship between the colors
Hobby: I don’t have any small horses.
TV Show/Movie: Game of Thrones, Justice League: Unlimited, American Psycho, Patrice O’Neal: Elephant in the Room
Clothing Line: Whatever fits, feels good, and looks good
Artist/Music Genre: Jazz, Blues, Funk, R&B/Soul
Author: Chuck Palahniuk, Christopher Moore
Dave, we’ve known each other for a few years – just to get everyone on the same page, can you give us a little background on yourself)?
I grew up in Burbank, CA. It’s right next to Hollywood – where the TV studios are (think Warner Brothers, Nickelodeon, and Disney). I’m the kind of person that wants to see everything and go everywhere so I felt like I had to get out of wherever I was (I think I would have felt that way regardless of where I lived).
So I went to school in Chicago and studied music. While I was there, my friends and I would talk about Detroit a whole lot – the music, tech or data companies starting there, corruption/revitalization, etc., so it was always in the back of my head. Then I joined Teach for America and moved here.
We met while teaching in Detroit – did you plan on going into education? What got you into teaching? What did you do after?
After graduation, I became disillusioned with music and got it into my head that being a musician was a selfish profession. I felt like I had to do something that was worthwhile, and I’ve always felt that education – especially urban education – is the most important issue in this country. I had always loved educating from my experiences teaching music and decided to join TFA so I could do something that I felt actually mattered. (Really, it was music that I loved and I wanted to share it with everyone, not simply just teaching)
I joined with the best of intentions and left because I made myself sick from the stress. I lost eyebrow hair haha. In actuality, I wasn’t playing music and that was a real problem for me. I immediately started playing again and immediately felt like I was doing something I should be doing.
What are some of your go-to tracks that you like to listen to? What are some up and coming artists or songs that have caught your attention?
- Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald
- Count Basie and Frank Sinatra
- Miles Davis Kind of Blue
- B.B. King Anthology
- Anything that D’Angelo has done.
Check out Sidewalk Chalk from Chicago: a hip hop, jazz, soul, funk live band full of fantastic musicians and awesome people. One of my favorite bands to see live and just straight listen to.
There is a real community here behind the abandoned houses
You’re in Detroit – a lot of people have assumptions about the city…I know I still get a lot of questions about what it was like – what are some things you wish EVERYONE knew about Detroit?
Art, music, and culture is very important here, and much like New Orleans, it’s one of the reasons Detroit has been able to keep a sense of itself through all the bullshit. There is a real community here behind the abandoned houses. Look past those. Also, the food is good.
When I met you, you were a long-haired California guy that came from the music scene in Chicago – what are you doing currently doing in Detroit? Do you plan on staying?
Currently, I am getting my Masters of Music in Jazz Performance from Wayne State University. While in school, I’m playing and singing with a few different groups around town: Modern Jazz, Traditional New Orleans music, Funk, Soul – but really I’ll play whatever I can get my hands on. After the degree, I’m not sure what I will do. I’m about creating opportunities for myself and others, and if the best opportunity is here in Detroit, I’ll stay. But I also want to go everywhere and live everywhere. I might go to Europe. Or New Orleans. I can’t say for sure.
You’re one of the most creative individuals I know – one of my favorite memories of us is sitting on the bus writing songs about teaching to the tune of Les Mis hits. Our culture doesn’t always embrace art, especially for boys at a young age. When did you first get into art and realize your creative abilities?
I think I’ve always been a creative person. I was fortunate enough to have parents who were teachers and understood the importance of fostering what your child is passionate about.
I tried a lot of things growing up. I played guitar when I was about 5 years old and that’s when I started listening to blues like Muddy Waters and B.B. King. But I was also really into baseball. I used to draw a lot. I wanted to be a comic book artist for a while. I wanted to be a writer, an actor, professional athlete, artist, musician. I’ve had 100 artistic crises a day for the last 20 years haha.
What instruments do you play? Are you more into the performance aspect or do you like writing music?
I play trumpet and I sing. I play what one would call a “composer’s piano” which means not well at all haha. I heard someone say that performing is about creating a moment and writing/recording is about perfecting a moment. I like them both but I’m most at home performing.
What are some cool opportunities that have come from music?
With Wayne State I had the opportunity to go to Panama to play at the Panama Jazz Festival with a group comprised of musicians from around the world. A few of us taught master classes to some of the young music students there. Everyone was so warm and welcoming. It was a life affirming experience. Unlike anything else in my life.
I saw that you have other creative outputs that you are selling on Instagram? When did you start making physical piece of art? Take me through your creative process a little?
I started painting when my grandmother died a few years ago as a sort of therapy: a way to work through the abstract and complex feelings I had about her passing. Art has absolutely become a therapy for me.
I love noticing the connection between all of the arts. To me, it’s obvious, and I apply my aesthetic to whatever “art-form” I practice…music, dance, visual media, language, cooking, martial arts, sports – it’s all the same to me. It’s all a process.
I’ve always loved working with wood and I think very graphically. So my art reflects that. While painting, I operate under two ideas: “less is more” and “everyone has something to say.” I don’t care whether your IQ is low or you’re the smartest person on the planet. Or whether you went to art school and can paint something that looks like a photograph or you just draw stick figures. Everyone has something valid that they have gone through. And art is about expressing that experience in whatever way possible. Who am I (or anyone else for that matter) to say what is valid and what isn’t?
Most people have dreams but they don’t necessarily make them a reality. You’re the kind of person who puts himself in a position to succeed, “your way” without conforming to social norms. What are your biggest life motivations? What are your current dreams you are working towards?
In a perfect world, I have my own band that tours the world playing our music. I’m painting, acting, writing, playing music etc.
I’m a big proponent for curating a career – especially our generation. I’m trying to gain skill sets and cultivate the ones that I already have into useful and fruitful endeavors. So I will keep creating opportunities that I can parlay into the kind of life that I wish to live. And whatever I have to do to get to that point is what it is.
Who are your biggest inspirations in life?
It’s funny that the title of this series is Finding Renaissance because one of my biggest heroes is Paul Robeson. Robeson was an amazing man – a renaissance man. Athlete, singer, activist, scholar. Check him out.
Others include Louis Armstrong, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Dave Chappelle, my family, and my friends. I try to surround myself with people that almost force you to do better or at least just fucking go for it.
While you are someone who is one of the most authentic and loving people that I’ve met, I know you’re also a passionate and have strong opinions. What do you hate/what are things you want to change in our world?
Insincerity. I can’t stand that shit. Just be real with me. When someone says “I love you” flippantly and doesn’t mean it, or asks you how you are and doesn’t actually want to hear about it. I wish it was OK to be whoever you are. My favorite people in the world are those that are unapologetically themselves. All the time. They empower you to be more of your authentic self.
Also, why don’t we talk on the phone? I call people all the time. I wish there was more of that.
What/who do you love?
Everyone. I know that sounds like a contradiction to what I just said about flippantly saying “I love you.” I also don’t fail to realize that I sound like every other hippy musician/artist preaching peace and love. Regardless, I see myself in everyone and I don’t believe in any actual separation between any individual. I think if you learn to love yourself and you realize that the other is actually you, then you will learn to have love for everyone. That’s my definition of empathy.
Life is improvisation, and often times, the note you meant to hit doesn’t come out.
OK, other than music and art, what are some facts about Dave that the world should know?
When I was a baby, I used to carry around a cassette player called My First Sony. It had a play and stop button. That’s it. And I listened to (Luciano) Pavarotti (the opera singer), Van Morrison, and Muddy Waters. On repeat. I was a fussy baby and it was one of the only things I actually enjoyed.
I have also been known to have hour(s) long conversations/debates about the Marvel or DC universe and which heroes would be best on a team or who would win in a fight, etc.
I know we share some experiences from Detroit and going through that process – the last few years have been full of lessons, transitions, challenges, and successes. What are some of the key lessons you’ve learned and some of the biggest changes you have seen in your life?
I’ve learned how to fail and I’ve learned to be uncomfortable. Both of which are essential for growth. If you can learn to fail and be ok with how uncomfortable that is, then you can navigate any situation with class and integrity. Life is improvisation, and often times, the note you meant to hit doesn’t come out. Now what are you going to do? Stop? Or adapt?
If you had to give a life advice statement to a stranger, what is the one thing you want others to know that you’ve learned from your life?
Don’t be a jerk; when you are, people remember, and won’t want to be around you. That goes for friendships, relationships, business deals. Be someone that you would want to share a 5-hour car ride with. Now that doesn’t mean that you should sugar coat things, be inauthentic, and get walked all over. Be real. But there is a line between being an asshole being who you are. Find it, and the right people will gravitate towards you.
About Matt Fier and Finding Renaissance: I'm a former Bible-school grad with a B.A. in Psychology with a minor in Biblical Studies. I've lived in six cities in six states since 2009, and had a lot of adventures. I'm now searching for The Renaissance in all of us. You can learn more here.