Madison, WI

Milwaukee musician Donna Woodall on performing at Madison's Jazz Festival, the summer of 2020 and her teaching career

Maggie Degnan

By Maggie Degnan
2021 Juneteenth Celebration in Penn ParkMaggie Degnan

Every June for the past 32 years, the city of Madison hosts the Madison Jazz Festival (formerly the Isthmus Jazz Festival). Jazz lovers from around the state converge for over a week to witness electrifying performances and talented musicians. On June 19, Milwaukee singer, bandleader and songwriter Donna Woodall performed at Penn Park at the Juneteenth Celebration. Juneteenth is the anniversary of the emancipation of enslaved African Americans. On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers arrived in Texas, which at the time had been controlled by the Confederates, to announce that the enslaved Black Americans were free by executive decree. The formerly enslaved people in Texas coined the term ‘Juneteenth’ to commemorate the historic day. On the eve of her performance, Woodall spoke with NewsBreak for an interview.

The theme for this year’s festival was ‘Black Resilience: Rising from the ashes.’ Donna said for her, especially in light of the pandemic, resilience has been a big part of this past year.

“We were shut down, and then we watched on television an entire summer of George Floyd and struggle. It was a really tough 2020. As a musician, as a teacher who had to teach virtually all year and as an African American I felt like I was fighting a war on two fronts.”

A newly retired 8th grade English teacher, Woodall spent years of her life telling stories and analyzing literature. It was English that often overlapped with her musical abilities, in and outside of the classroom.

“As an English teacher, some of my songs come from literature,” she said. “Quite often for my students, I would write and sing songs, often translating stories into songs; there's a lot of reading overlap as I explored poetry with [my students].”

Woodall wasn’t the first in her family to explore the overlap between literature and songwriting: she comes from generations of singers and teachers.

“Growing up, everyone in my family sang. Even at a young age, I was taught harmonies and how they blend-it's always been a part of my life. My mother was a jazz singer in the Milwaukee area for many years before she passed away,” Woodall said. “She was basically a walking encyclopedia of jazz songs, and a lot of what I learned came from her.”

Woodall’s buttery voice and pointed songwriting resulted in a style of its own, one she refers to as “soulful folk.”

Woodall describes her musical sense as such “If Carole King and Cassandra Wilson had a baby, they’d produce me.”

While Woodall is widely known for her bluesy covers, she’s successfully released original songs in the past, including her first CD ‘The Subject of Love.’ Listeners can hear lyrics clearly inspired by different literary works, such as on her song ‘Rebecca,’ inspired by the novel and 1940s movie of the same title. “It’s about a woman who is in the shadow of a past wife,” Woodall stated.

This eclectic blend of different genres to create this specific sound is what sets Woodall apart from her peers. With her unique, blended musical sounds and literature-inspired lyrics, Woodall established herself as a one-of-a-kind artist.

“I grew up with a wide variety of music. My parents were into everything from jazz to pop, to soul to funk to country. It was very difficult for me to find one genre that to fit into because I grew up loving it all, everything from the Beatles, to Stevie Wonder to Cassandra Wilson, to Tracy Chapman. But I find that as a writer, I tend to lean a little more on a guitar-bass-bluesy sound, blending those with jazz, because at the core of what I do is jazz.”

Woodall works with her husband, bassist Ethan Bender. The pair met in the mid-90s when they were in a band called Street Life.

“We were the house band for the Milwaukee Bucks for many years. And we've just always hit it off as a musical pairing. It was easy for us to write together. And then once we were married, it was easy to work together,” she said. “I love working with my husband. We're constantly discussing music and how to better our product and how to be creative, etc.”
Donna Woodall and her band performing at the Juneteenth celebrationMaggie Degnan
Donna Woodall and her band performing at the Juneteenth celebrationMaggie Degnan

This wasn’t going to be the first time Woodall performed at the Madison Jazz Festival. “I was part of the festival with a different act, Jerry DiMaggio. My mother and I were part of a performance and did a few songs with Jerry DiMaggio, she’s a Madison artist. It was a really long time ago.”

In addition to the performance at Penn Park, Woodall opened for internationally renowned Chicago-composer Marquis Hill at the University of Wisconsin- Madison’s Memorial Union Terrace.

“We’re really excited to open for Marquis Hill. It’s a thrill to be a part of the Madison Jazz Festival. I used to come up all the time to hear different acts back when it was the Isthmus Jazz Festival. I love the Madison audience, I just love performing here. People in Madison really get jazz. They sit and listen, they just really get it. I always enjoy coming to Madison to perform.”

At the end of the interview, Woodall also gave thanks to her bandmates that would perform with her at the celebrations. She described her guitarist, Tomas Antonic, as a skilled Milwaukee guitar master. On the keyboard was Connie Grauer, a nationally established artist, with multi-instrumentalist Jeno Somlai playing on the drums.

Currently, Donna is working on a new song inspired by the science-fiction author Ray Bradbury. For access to her music and show schedule, interested parties can go to her website at

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UW-Madison student majoring in Journalism and Spanish with a certificate in Public Policy. Articles provided will have a special focus on government, racial inequities, student and community leaders and other local matters in the city of Madison. Soon to be Badger Herald State News Associate in Fall 2021.

Madison, WI

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