It's not exactly a Clark Kent-Superman situation, but Joaquin Deis does lead a double life.
By day, he's the mild-mannered senior custodian at the Divinity School, where he's been based 14 out of the 23 years he's worked for Yale.
By night, he dons a very different uniform -- a tuxedo or one of seven other costume changes in his closet -- and becomes Jack Deis, the man with the maracas in the Top Notch Ensemble, billed as "Connecticut's Hottest Versatile Jazz Group."
His alter ego is no secret to Mr. Deis' Divinity School colleagues. Since the group was formed nearly five years ago, Top Notch has performed at so many Divinity School functions "they consider us as 'their' band," says Mr. Deis, who is often greeted with hails and hugs from fans as he crosses the school's quadrangle.
The six-member ensemble has also brought its repertoire of traditional jazz standards, reggae, Top 40, cool jazz, and rhythm and blues to several other campus locations, including Woolsey Hall, and Trumbull and Morse Colleges. They've performed, in fact, throughout the tri-state area, at everything from benefit functions for the Dixwell Community House and an anti-crime program to area nightclubs such as Hot Peas and Butter in New Haven and Snub's Jazz Cafe in Providence, Rhode Island to special celebrations like the Elm City's annual downtown summer festival and the 1995 Special Olympics World Games. In May, Top Notch will take the spotlight at the Palace Theater in New Haven. See below.
Truth be told, leading two lives is life-as-usual for Mr. Deis. He has performed with several groups over the years, originally hooking up with a Portuguese band during his youth in New Bedford, Massachusetts. "I had a guitarist friend who was with the band. He said they needed someone to play the maracas, so I learned how to play," he recalls. "When I got on the bandstand during that first gig, I couldn't move. I got scared." Despite his initial stage fright, he stayed in show business and later went on the road with the Harry Belafonte Singers. He more recently performed with The Black Elms, a local jazz and soul group that included several of the current members of Top Notch. During his off-hours, Mr. Deis has also worked as a personal manager and a maitre d' in a jazz club. His Yale career has included assignments with the custodial staff in Sheffield- Sterling-Strathcona Hall and as night supervisor at Becton Engineering and Applied Science Center.
In addition to the maracas, Mr. Deis wields a tambourine, bongos and conga drum for Top Notch. He is a self-taught musician, who also plays the 12-string guitar and the flute. "If you like music, and you have a good ear, you can play anything you wish," he says. He and his wife, Gloria, are longtime Hamden residents and have six children, the youngest of whom is graduating from Fairfield University this spring. Mr. Deis' love of music is shared by his oldest and youngest sons, who both play the saxophone.
Mr. Deis and the other members of Top Notch rehearse twice a week and perform as often as three times weekly. The ensemble's members have "all been playing for years," says Mr. Deis, and all have full-time jobs outside of show business. The group's leader and cofounder, Phil Brown, is a surveyor who formerly played with the soul music group Untraceable Machine Shop; he is Top Notch's drummer, sings lead and background vocals, and writes and arranges music. Ricky Alan Draughn, lead vocalist for the group, runs a computer company with his brother and also sings with a gospel choir. Robert Winters, Top Notch's other cofounder, plays alto and tenor saxophone, and sings; he teaches special education and English at Hillhouse High School. The ensemble's music director, Willie Joe Moore, is a New Haven alderman and state civil servant; his musical specialties include playing bass and bass keyboards, singing and arranging music. Keyboardist Larry White is also a background vocalist and songwriter; off-stage, he works as a handy man. "I call him our 'utility man,'" says Mr. Deis.
While Mr. Deis admits that balancing a full-time job with a music career can be demanding, "it's like anything else in life," he shrugs. "If you want to do it badly enough, you set your mind to it, and you do it." Right now, he says, he enjoys his work both on stage and at the Divinity School, noting "the people there are fantastic. We've really appreciated their support." Should Top Notch, which plans to record its own CD in the near future, take off and hit it big, he says, "that would be real nice, too."
You can catch the Top Notch Ensemble on stage in upcoming weeks at the following dates and locations: Friday, May 2, 8 p.m.- midnight -- A celebration in honor of Alderwoman Mae Ola Riddick, Elks Club, 87 Webster St., New Haven; Saturday, May 3, 8 p.m.- closing -- A debutante ball at the Community Outreach Center, 654 Orchard St., New Haven; Sunday, May 4, 7-11 p.m. -- Humphrey's Restaurant, 175 Humphrey St.; Friday, May 9, 9 p.m.-midnight, Indian River Steak House, 471 New Haven Ave., Milford; Saturday, May 10, 8:30 p.m.-closing -- Community Outreach Center; Sunday, May 11, 6-10 p.m. -- Snub's Cafe, Providence, Rhode Island; Friday, May 16, 9 p.m.-1 a.m. -- Palace Performing Arts Center, 246 College St., New Haven; and Thursday, May 22, 9 p.m.-midnight - the Divinity School's Fatted Cafe., 409 Prospect St. For further information about upcoming engagements, or to be put on the group's mailing list, call 203-497-8939 or write to: Top Notch, 42 Elizabeth St., New Haven, CT 06511.
-- By LuAnn Bishop