Lyricist / musician

"Melissa Gilstrap wears many hats when it comes to music. Composer, lyricist, record producer, vocalist, you can list them all. What amazes me is that she excels at each one. I have had the good fortune to collaborate with Melissa in writing songs that appear on my two latest CDs as well as on recordings by other artists. The lyrics she created for these songs are astonishing in their originality, with subject matter that is far from ordinary. She has recently contributed her talents to a recording project with the late, great guitarist, composer, Tom Giacabetti. Melissa acted as producer of this CD as well as lyricist, vocalist and even as guitarist on one of her original instrumental compositions. I could go on and on , but suggest rather that you check her out for yourself.”

- LARRY McKENNA, tenor saxophonist and composer

Called “a brilliant songwriter” by WRTI 90.1 FM Philadelphia Jazz Host Jeff Duperon, Melissa Gilstrap is a multi-talented lyricist with a passion for music and art.  Her most recent work as a lyricist is showcased in the late guitarist Tom Giacabetti’s September 2016 CD release that she produced, “Tender Heart: Songs Of Tom Giacabetti And Melissa Gilstrap.”  Six songs with her words are premiered on the CD by the outstanding vocalists Denise King, Joanna Pascale, Sharon Sable and Paul Jost.  Her songs are earning praise:

“Gilstrap's lyrics hover somewhere between wistful jazz standards and cultured language, the latter reflecting her interest in poets like Emily Dickinson, Rilke, and T.S. Eliot.  Her words are artfully tailored to the music, and her sensitive use of vowel sounds (almost a lost art) allows the singers to achieve fluency and full vocal sonority. The flowing quality of the words and music gives the songs a feeling of familiarity like a jazz standard rather than sounding like a new piece that one must stretch to appreciate.”
–Victor L. Schermer,

Tom Giacabetti also expressed appreciation to Melissa:  "So, I’ve spent the better part of today focusing on your lyrics.  I understand better now how each word you write is more than an art form. It is the essence of being and making music really mean something and come to life. You are a consummate musician!"

Over the past 10 years, Melissa has written songs with the great tenor saxophonist Larry McKenna that received warm praise from fans, critics and jazz radio hosts.  Their debut song on Larry’s “Profile” CD, “Perhaps This Wintertime” premiered by Nancy Reed, was hailed by one critic as “destined to become a jazz standard.”  This ballad has been recorded by The Hot Club Philadelphia with Denise King and by Mary Ellen Desmond and performed by several others, including Lisanne Lyons in Florida and Jackie Ryan on both coasts. More recently, the McKenna/Gilstrap bossa nova “One Falling Tree” sung by Joanna Pascale on Larry McKenna’s “From All Sides” CD that Melissa co-produced was voted the #2 song out of 100 for 2013 by listeners of WRTI, who also voted it onto the station’s “Hot 11 Countdown” of favorite new releases for 18 consecutive weeks, with four weeks at #1. 

In 2014, rising star Philadelphian saxophonist and composer Sam Greenfield commissioned Melissa to write lyrics for one of his songs.  The result of their collaboration, "Some Stars Above," was debuted by another rising star, vocalist Alita Moses, winner of the 2014 Montreux Jazz Vocal Competition in Montreux, Switzerland.  Alita Moses has also publicly performed "One Falling Tree" and "Friends For A While," two McKenna/Gilstrap songs first premiered on Larry McKenna's "From All Sides" CD.

Musical from an early age, Melissa studied classical piano for 10 years and classical clarinet for eight years, performed and competed in many concerts, competitions and festivals through high school, and earned a merit scholarship as a teenager to study clarinet at The Levine School of Music in Washington, D.C.  She continued to perform clarinet in college and deepened her knowledge in several music appreciation courses, including History of Jazz.  She sings on two songs (”Batidinha” and “Japama”) and performs a guitar duet with Tom Giacabetti (the song “Like The 
Sky” that she composed on piano and he arranged for two guitars) on his new CD, “Tender Heart: Songs Of Tom Giacabetti And Melissa Gilstrap.” 

Melissa excelled in the study of literature at The University of Virginia, where she graduated With Distinction, an English Major with a Concentration in American Studies, a French Minor, and a member of Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society.  She subsequently earned her J.D. at The University of Virginia School of Law.


A busy corporate lawyer in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for many years, Melissa has consistently found time to pursue her lifelong passions for art and music.  She has always loved to draw, and her work as a child and young adult won many awards.  She has also developed her skill in photography with numerous darkroom courses, and her work has appeared in several shows including the prestigious Photography 20 show at The Perkins Center for the Arts, Morristown, New Jersey. 

An avid concertgoer, today she is known in Philadelphia jazz and classical music circles for drawing hundreds of musicians in live performances, and many of the world’s leading classical and jazz artists have signed these portraits. Her artwork graces the covers of tenor saxophonist Larry McKenna’s jazz CDs "Profile" and "From All Sides" and guitarist Tom Giacabetti's jazz CD "Tender Heart: Songs Of Tom Giacabetti And Melissa Gilstrap."  In addition, her photography is featured on the cover of jazz bassist Lee Smith’s jazz CD "Sittin’ On A Secret."  

Recently, four of Melissa Gilstrap's musician drawings were shown in the juried art exhibition “All That’s Jazz” (2015) and one of her musician photographs was shown in the juried photography exhibition "Live Philly Jazz – Through the Photographic Lens" (2016), both held at the Philadelphia City Hall art gallery.  Her artwork also resides in private collections.

Welcome to the website of Melissa Gilstrap, Artist and Lyricist!  My website is under construction.  More to come soon!  Thank you!