Friday, August 30, 2019

The Great Black Music Ensemble will perform in Minneapolis. Here are 3 reasons to go.

The Great Black Music Ensemble by Michael Jackson
Originally published at, August 30, 2019

The Great Black Music Ensemble (GBME) will make its Twin Cities debut at the Cedar on Friday, Sept. 6. These Chicago-based musicians are masters of improvisation and creative music. Here’s where we might add, “The GBME is like so-and-so, or sounds like so-and-so,” except there’s no comparison. They are wholly original.
The Cedar, the American Composers Forum (ACF) and the Schubert Club have partnered to bring the GBME here. This is a collaboration we don’t see every day: the eclectic West Bank music venue, the national service organization for composers and booster of contemporary classical music, and Minnesota’s earliest arts organization and presenter (mostly) of classical recitals.
The three nonprofits found common ground in wanting a Twin Cities audience to hear and experience this singular group – how it sounds and what it stands for.
For the ACF, Friday’s concert is a kick-off to its daylong Racial Equity and Inclusion Forum, which will take place Saturday, Sept. 7, at TPT. The forum is free, but reservations are recommended.
ACF President Vanessa Rose said in a recent interview, “I want nonwhite artists to have the platform and space to tell their own stories, write their own music, and be recognized on a greater scale than our organizations have done in the past.” The concert and the forum are steps in that direction.
Schubert Club Executive and Artistic Director Barry Kempton has been broadening his organization’s audience since 2014, when he launched a new series called Schubert Club Mix. Designed to take the formality out of classical music, the concerts are held in nontraditional venues and the music is a mix of old and new.
For the Cedar’s Executive Director David Hamilton, the chance to co-present the Great Black Music Ensemble “comes at an opportune time for the Cedar as we’ve started to expand our historical definition of global music by including more experimental and improvisational music and jazz in our programming.”
Those are their reasons. But what about you? Why should you spend next Friday night with a bunch of musicians you probably don’t know and music you for sure haven’t heard?
1. Because of who they are.
The GBME is the premier performing group of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). That’s a very big deal.
Founded in Chicago in 1965 during the Black Power movement and the civil rights movement, the AACM is an artists collective that nurtures and promotes experimentation, individualism, innovation and originality. It is a musical revolution that began more than 50 years ago, when free jazz meant cultural freedom, and continues today. Its contributions to modern music are immense and include thousands of hours of recordings.
A mind-blowing number of important and influential musicians have come out of the AACM.
Henry Threadgill won the Pulitzer Prize. George Lewis and Anthony Braxton are MacArthur Fellows. Jack DeJohnette, Muhal Richard Abrams and Roscoe Mitchell are NEA Jazz Masters. Mitchell is also a United States Artist Fellow. Wadada Leo Smith is a Pulitzer finalist. Nicole Mitchell, Threadgill, Smith, Abrams and Lewis are all Doris Duke Artists; Lewis is also a Guggenheim Fellow. His history of the AACM, “A Power Greater Than Itself,” won the American Book Award. Several AACM members are or were professors at major colleges and universities.
The mighty Art Ensemble of Chicago (whose motto “Great Black Music: Ancient to the Future” says it all) was formed by AACM members.
The AACM has spread to New York City. Its members, now numbering more than 130, are making new music all over the world. Its 50th anniversary in 2015 was widely celebrated in concert halls, at festivals, in museums and art centers, including the Walker.
2. Because of the music.
The GBME’s July performance at Chicago’s Pitchfork Music Festival was “an amalgamation of sounds that ranged from the fluidity of jazz improvisation to moments of pure funk, urging festival attendees to dance as much as they could” (Third Coast Review). Their music is filled with improvisation and invention, but it also draws from other black music traditions: funk, reggae, swing, African and Caribbean styles.
Here are two short segments from a performance by a larger version of the ensemble. The first is from a composition by Saleek Ziyad called “Ancient Creation.” It imagines ancient civilizations before colonization, and it’s played with such joy. The second is from “Move: An Afrofuturistic Ijó” by Tomeka Reid.
3. Because of who’s playing.
The GBME is intergenerational and flexible in size, ranging from three to 30 musicians. The group at the Cedar will be 13: Ernest Dawkins, soprano, alto, and tenor sax, and clarinet; Taalib-Din Ziyad, flute, alto flute, voice; Adam Zanolini, flute and bass flute; Ben LaMar Gay, cornet and electronics; Stephen E. Barry, trombones; Darius Savage, acoustic bass; Alexis Lombre, piano; Edward House, tenor saxophone; Dee Alexander, voice ; Sam Trump, trumpet and flugelhorn; Reggie Nicholson, drum set; Donovan Mixon, electric guitar; Art T. Burton, congas and bongos. The repertoire will be drawn from the great pool of AACM composers.
This will be the first time the GBME has performed in the Twin Cities, but AACM artists have played here often over the years – some at the Dakota and the late Vieux Carré, many at the Walker, where performing arts curator Philip Bither has long been a fan and supporter. Key AACM members Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell, Wadada Leo Smith, Henry Threadgill and Douglas Ewart have all performed at the Walker, some several times. Threadgill celebrated his 75th birthday there earlier this year.
The relationship between the American Composers Forum and the Great Black Music Ensemble will continue beyond this weekend. On Wednesday, the ACF announced that three composers have been commissioned to write new music for the GBME: Elizabeth A. Baker, Adegoke Steve Colson and Rudresh Mahanthappa. Each will receive a $7,500 commission. The premieres will take place in Chicago in fall 2020 as part of the AACM’s 55th anniversary season. Sounds like a good excuse for a trip to Chicago.

Friday, August 23, 2019

How heartbreak led to a breakthrough

The father of a child with health issues, Twin Cities musician Chris Thomson learned to trust his skills and rediscover the joy of creativity.

Originally published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, August 23, 2019

Chris Thomson/Cedar Thoms
Courtesy of the artist
Call it a comeback, a rebranding, or both. After four years of infrequent sightings, Chris Thomson, a highly regarded tenor saxophonist, returns to the Twin Cities music scene — as Cedar Thoms, electroacoustic artist.
The photo for his new album, “Celestial Being,” shows a young boy facing distant mountains. He’s small and slight, and the back of his neck looks tender and fragile. The letters CEDAR THOMS wrap around him almost protectively.
The music is optimistic and uplifting. Saxophones and clarinets float over and twine with electronically generated sounds, plush and layered, rhythmic and percussive.
The title refers to his daughter, Eden, who was born in May 2015. She was sweet and beautiful but small. She struggled with eating and vomited after she ate.
Doctors were consulted and tests were done.
Just after the holidays, a blood test revealed that Eden has a rare genetic abnormality described as “a chromosomal deletion on the q arm of the 12th chromosome.” There are four or five known cases in the world.
“We were told that Eden likely won’t walk and might not talk,” Thomson said. “It was a horror story.”
Over the next several months he and his wife, Emma Nadler, a therapist, helped Eden endure major surgery on a tiny, twisted intestine, a feeding tube, bouts with pneumonia, a hydrocephalus scare, countless doctor visits and multiple hospital stays.
“We’ve seen her in some precarious places,” he said. “It was kind of — your time is not a given. You assume you’re going to be here, but you just don’t know.
“It was a visceral experience.
“I didn’t want to go through the door of despair and hopelessness. [The album] was a way of creating something and staying hopeful and representing something for the kids, my wife and myself.”
A personal breakthrough
Thomson’s first full-length album since 2007’s “The Three Elements,” “Celestial Being” will be available online Tuesday. Two nights later, he will play an album release show at Icehouse in south Minneapolis with Martin Dosh.
Chris Thomson and Dosh. Courtesy of Icehouse.
Except for Greg Schutte’s drumming on two tracks, everything is written, programmed and performed by Thomson (known as C.T. to his friends and colleagues).
In the years before Eden — and her 7-year-old brother, Avi — the saxophonist performed widely and often. Besides gigging with his own quartet, he worked with Delfeayo Marsalis, the New Standards, Mason Jennings, Anthony Cox, Aby Wolf, Chris Morrissey and Dave King, among many others. With support from the Jerome Foundation and the State Arts Board, he created and performed the music for an evening-length work by TU Dance.
Today, if Thomson wants to play a show, “I have to secure a PCA [personal care assistant]. I have to pay someone, often more than I’m going to make, so my wife is not overburdened with the two kids, who both take their own energy. Emma’s super-supportive — I couldn’t ask for a more supportive partner — but I have to really, really care or it’s not worth it.”
Touring with Bon Iver in 2016-17 was worth it, but tough. Thomson was part of the saxophone section for “22, A Million,” Justin Vernon’s third studio album. He played with Bon Iver on the West Coast, in New York and Europe.
“We were playing in some of the most incredible places,” Thomson said. “I was at the peak of my external experience as a musician, and Eden was in the hospital and not doing well. Here’s this high, amazing time, grounded in a daughter in the hospital and my wife trying to hold it all together while I’m across the country. It was really rugged, and really rugged on my partnership with Emma.”
Shortly before they learned the news about Eden, Thomson released an EP called “Empathy” with his jazz quartet (Patrick Harison on accordion, James Buckley on bass and Cory Healey on drums).
The music explored how fatherhood had made him face his own demons, become more patient and develop empathy for his son. Avi is a high-energy child — “his own little force,” Thomson said.
In early 2017, the family sold its two-story house in southwest Minneapolis and moved to a one-story home in Deephaven to be closer to Nadler’s parents. “They are crazy generous and supportive,” Thomson said. “They have been monumental in helping us stay sane and afloat.”
A year or so ago, Thomson and Nadler shared what he sees as a major breakthrough.
“We were on a walk together, and it had been a hell of a run — pretty awful — and we both realized how much joy and happiness we get from creating. Sometimes I wish I had other skills besides music skills, but this is what I’ve got. This is what I’m working with. You’ve just got to own what you’ve got.”
With the new album and the new name, Cedar Thoms, Thomson is also sending a message. “I want to collaborate. I want to find people who think what I’m doing is interesting and work together. I’m sending up a flare. This is what I do. Does anyone else feel this way?
“Cedar Thoms and this music is my reopening to the love I feel for music, the community of musicians we have in this region, and the creative process. It’s saying I don’t want to have despair. I want to have hope. … The end goal of all of this is I just want to make good music.”
‘The hope is there’
As Thomson sees it, “ ‘Celestial Being’ is Eden.”
“She was a small, ethereal creature. She is so sweet and innocent, and she’s gone through such an insane journey in her first four years. She’s also so joyful, considering what she deals with. Not to be too graphic, but she throws up multiple times per day. She goes through it, and it’s done, and she pops right back into her little sweet, joyful spirit.
“It’s crazy. I don’t know how she does it.”
Eden is on her way to being 5. She’s growing, she’s walking (with braces), she’s talking and reading. Starting in the fall, she’ll attend preschool three hours a day, four days a week.
She still has a feeding tube, but her parents are hoping that won’t be forever. “The problem is, for the first chunk of her life, she equated eating with pain. … There’s a doc we went to in Boston, a highly regarded gastroenterologist, who did a study on Eden a couple summers ago. He’s seen kiddos in her situation outgrow it. So the hope is there.
“We’re in consultation with occupational therapists, speech therapists, physical therapists, gastroenterologists, a developmental pediatrician and pediatric neurology. It’s a treadmill of medical appointments. … With Eden, I have no expectations of what will or won’t happen. I’m mostly at peace with that.
“You know how you have a lot of expectations for your kids and what you want them to be? All bets are off with her. It’s heartbreaking. And in a way — in a really interesting alternate universe — it’s liberating.
“I feel these songs come from an unconscious place. From being open. I let go of the theory, trusted in my music skills and let my unconscious speak. That’s totally Eden’s effect on me.”

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Can the pipe organ be cool?

A new generation is creating cutting-edge music on this 'big toy box full of sounds.'

Originally published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, June 23, 2019

Kit Downes courtesy of ECM Records
What is old can be new again, in the right hands and under the right feet. For example, the pipe organ. With origins in ancient Greece, it is associated today mostly with church music and horror films.
Pipe organs are big, expensive, and complicated. Most have multiple keyboards, called manuals, and a pedalboard. Each manual can play many different sounds, controlled by knobs called stops. Organs are the opposite of portable. Each is site-specific, built for the space it occupies. An organ can have many thousands of pipes, hidden behind walls and even under the floor. Once they’re installed and voiced, they’re meant to stay put.
Until the building comes down, or is renovated or burns. After the devastating Notre Dame fire in April, musicians around the world waited anxiously to hear if the Grand Organ with its five manuals and almost 8,000 pipes survived. It did.
If you want to hear a pipe organ — and for some people, that’s a big if — you have to go to a church or a concert hall. And while the organ repertoire is vast and majestic, it’s rarely cutting-edge.
But that may be changing. Last month, the wildly talented young British organist James McVinnie, who zoomed to fame when he played at the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, joined London-based electronics duo Darkstar at the University of Minnesota’s Northrop auditorium for the world premiere of a Liquid Music Series commission called “Collapse.” An evening of swirling, immersive music, it was brand new and thrilling.
In early 2018, longtime Minnesota Public Radio host Michael Barone heard a new recording by another young British musician. Kit Downes is an award-winning jazz pianist with his own trio and dozens of recordings. But he chose to make his first solo album for the influential German label ECM on three different pipe organs, each with its own distinct character.
The music on “Obsidian” is a mix of his own compositions and improvisations, a haunting version of the Scottish ballad “Black Is the Colour” and a song co-written with his father. It’s lyrical and emotional, full of unexpected sounds, dynamics and colors. One reviewer called the album “a richly layered, moving soundscape with dark, whispering undercurrents.”

“Obsidian” caught Barone’s ear.
“I’m always curious about the many ways in which the organ can express itself outside of what we think of as its norms — the traditions of use in the church and the virtuosic concert hall,” said the veteran broadcaster, whose program “Pipedreams,” distributed by MPR affiliate American Public Media, is the only national weekly radio show devoted to the pipe organ.
“Kit’s album utilizes the organ in a subtle and expressive way, which I found quite refreshing and very intriguing and attractive.” (Read some of Barone's other picks here.)
In April 2018, Barone featured selections from “Obsidian” on “Pipedreams.” He learned that Downes was planning a North American tour for summer 2019 and hoped to play a date in Minnesota. Barone modestly says, “I made that happen.”
Downes will make his Minnesota debut June 30 at St. Olaf Catholic Churchin downtown Minneapolis. More of his music was recently heard on “Pipedreams.”
Meeting Pärt as a choirboy
Downes played organ before he played piano. But first he was a choirboy at Norwich Cathedral in Norfolk, one of the great medieval cathedrals of England. He sang everything from Palestrina to Arvo Pärt.
He was 9 when he met the minimalist Pärt, who was writing a piece for the choir. “It was amazing,” Downes said by phone from London. “I enjoyed the reflective quality of the music. It stayed with me.”
He started taking organ lessons and playing church services, improvising on psalms and hymns. When he was 13, his mother gave him an Oscar Peterson CD.
“She realized that I was interested in the process of improvising,” Downes said. “She thought that jazz would be a natural kind of next step. And once I got into that, I completely forgot about the organ for a long time, because when you catch the jazz bug you go pretty deep into it. So that was that for about 15 years.”
“Obsidian” isn’t a jazz recording, but Downes credits jazz with his understanding of rhythm and harmonics.
“Jazz was the music I learned everything through,” he said. “I still say that about all the music I’m playing now. It all comes through the very broad prism of jazz music. Even if aesthetically it sounds completely different, it still owes much of its DNA to the records I listened to in my teens: American jazz.”
He credits British saxophonist Tom Challenger with bringing him back to the organ. (Challenger appears on one of the tracks on “Obsidian.”)
“I was getting to a point in my playing where I felt like I needed to make a more original statement,” Downes said. “I started thinking about playing the pipe organ, which for me wasn’t something new. It would be something old because it was what I played first, when I was a kid.”
He and Challenger played a couple of concerts together, with Downes improvising on the organ.
“When we started working like that, I found that all the things I’d learned since playing the organ as a kid, all the things I’ve learned through jazz and through contemporary classical music, sat in a really interesting way on the organ … It felt very freeing and liberating to play an instrument that was so colorful and had such a huge dynamic range compared to the piano.”
Kit Downes by Alex Bonney, courtesy of ECM Records
A new wave of experimenters
Downes calls the organ “a big toy box full of sounds.” One of the musicians he took inspiration from was pianist and Golden Valley native Craig Taborn.
“I was 25 when I first heard him with [American saxophonist] Tim Berne’s band, and that changed many things for me musically. His solo record, ‘Avenging Angel,’ had a big influence on how I wanted some of this organ music to sound.”
As Downes traveled and toured with “Obsidian,” he met “some really interesting organists who are doing really fascinating stuff as well. You don’t hear experimental music on the organ in the mainstream that often, so it’s a nice surprise when you find it.”
He offered a few examples. “There’s a guy called Jürgen Essl in Stuttgart who teaches improvisation. It’s not jazz, but that kind of sensibility in terms of modern harmony and use of the instrument. And Daniel Stickan near Hamburg. And Claire Singer at the Union Chapel in London. She uses the organ in completely different ways — like a noise instrument. Drone noise. She has abstracted the instrument, and that’s super inspiring. So there are people doing really cool things with it. I get very inspired by hearing a lot of that.”
When asked “Do you think it’s possible to make the pipe organ cool again?” Downes laughed.
“I’m not sure it was ever cool,” he said. “But it’s really cool to me … [The pipe organ] has become more of a museum piece. But because it has such a heavy history, it’s ripe for being abstracted and subverted, if you don’t mind the risk of it not working out sometimes, taste-wise or technically. I think that’s the appeal and allure of it: Something new through something old.”
Barone put it this way: “The Greek root for ‘organ’ simply means ‘tool.’ This is a device which — as John Zorn and Kit Downes and Henry Martin and Olivier Messiaen and Johann Sebastian Bach have proved — can be used in any number of ways. It’s really for us to say ‘Wow, let’s see what’s next around the corner.’ … The organ can do anything you ask of it.”

Monday, March 25, 2019

Music is his monument

A "national treasure" himself, musician Wadada Leo Smith expands the notion of "America's National Parks" at the Walker.

Originally published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, March 24, 2019

Wadada Leo Smith by Maarit Kytöharju
A potent force in creative music for more than 40 years, trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith stepped into the national spotlight in 2013. He was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for “Ten Freedom Summers,” a monumental work about the civil rights movement. Heads turned. Ears opened.
A Doris Duke Artist Award followed. Jazz critics’ polls named him artist, musician and composer of the year. A DownBeat cover story dubbed him a national treasure.
At 77, Smith has never been as popular and in demand as he is right now, or as prolific. The creator of “America’s National Parks,” an epic work he’ll bring to Walker Art Center on Saturday, is a geyser of original music. He has more than 1,500 new compositions he hasn’t yet played or recorded.
“I could record every day for the next five years, just about,” he said by phone from his home in New Haven, Conn. “I won’t be able to, but I could if there was a possibility.”
Since 2012, the year of “Ten Freedom Summers,” Smith has released 16 albums. His latest, “Rosa Parks: Pure Love,” is an oratorio for the civil rights hero “who made the right move of resistance at the right time,” Smith says. Recorded in January, and due for release this fall or next spring, “Appassionata” is a multi-movement work about Anita Hill, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Lorraine Hansberry, Pablo Casals and the Falling Man (and Woman) of the Sept. 11 attacks.
An integral part of Chicago’s seminal Association for the Advancement of Creative Music for 50 years, a professor of music for almost 40 years (he retired in 2013), a leader and member of numerous forward-thinking groups, Smith is a maker of what he calls “creative music,” eschewing “jazz.” He prefers “creation” to “improvisation.” Straddling what we think of as free jazz and chamber music, his compositions are spacious, inventive, pointed, haunted, and full of emotion and humanity.
Smith’s idea of a national park goes beyond the usual.
“He has an expanded view,” Walker curator Philip Bither said. “He celebrates places like Yellowstone, Yosemite and Sequoia. He also posits that we should make the entire city of New Orleans a national cultural park. And the Mississippi River, for its charged role in American history as a dumping ground for black bodies. And he thinks a national park should be made around writer Eileen Jackson Southern, an African-American ethnomusicologist.”
Born and raised in Leland, Miss., where his first music teacher was his stepfather, blues guitarist Alex “Little Bill” Wallace, Smith taught himself to play trumpet at 12 and started composing at 13. After five years in the Army, he moved to Chicago and has since lived in New York, California and Connecticut, though he never lost his Southern accent. He’s warm, generous and patient in conversation, firm in his convictions and refreshingly optimistic. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: You’ve achieved great honor and recognition in your 70s. Would your life have been different if that had come sooner?
A: You never know, but I would say this: I’ve never changed my dreams, whether I had an empty pocket or whether I had a bank account that was full. For me, the journey has never been about whether I was acknowledged or rewarded for my achievements. The journey has always been that I have lived an artistic life, all my life.
I’ve never suffered, I’ve never gone hungry, I’ve never been without a place to live, and I’ve always lived with what I have. At an early age, I read “Walden Pond.” Anybody who reads that can understand that no matter how much or how little you have, you can always manage to live and do the things you want to do, without having the social or political pressure to conform to the way everybody else wants you to be. 
Q: What made you want to start composing so early in life?
A: The idea that the same piece of music could influence more than one person in various and different ways. The kind of empowerment it gives the individual, to play an instrument or compose a note of music. 
Q: You were thinking about that at 13?
A: I was thinking about all that at 13. I had also read Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations” at 13. My thoughts have always been serious thoughts. 
Wadada Leo Smith by Scott Groller
Q: How do you manage to compose at such a furious pace?
A: I do it every day. I live alone. I have no extra distractions. I have few responsibilities. Most of them are to my granddaughters and grandsons and daughters, and I find time to put them into my close encounter every week. But I spend the majority of my time in my house alone. The only time I speak is when I do prayer or open up the telephone for a call.
Q: Do you look for ideas, or do they come to you?
A: They come to me. I’ve understood the stream of inspiration, and I know how to connect to it and tag it and get on it in a moment that I need to. And even when I’m not looking to jump onto the stream of inspiration, it’s a constant part of my reflections, because spiritual growth is based off of the same stream. 
Q: Your projects are ambitious and thoughtful. You’re not just making another album.
A: No, never. That’s what they used to complain about me — the early promoters. They would say, “Well, he’s got this kind of project and that kind of project. It’s too many.” My whole career has all been projects, particularly on the recording side.
I look at making art the same way the almighty made creation, though on the level of human reality. For every piece I do, I have something that’s inside of me, and what helps it is reflection, meditation, contemplation and research. I don’t ever start a new project until I get the buzz inside of me, and once that happens it begins to explode, and it keeps going until it’s finished.
Q: You’ve said that the late playwright August Wilson was an inspiration for “Ten Freedom Summers.” In what way?
A: Everybody thinks that his Pittsburgh cycle of plays are concerned with history. They are not. What he says quite clearly in some of his own notes is that he was dealing with culture, and [the plays were] an explicit way of mapping out the experience of a people in an oppressive nation. From that, I was inspired to think about: How does music fit?
I decided to look at the psychological impact of struggling for liberty, justice and human dignity, and being rejected. “Ten Freedom Summers” is based on my reflections on the psychological experience of African-Americans in this society. Knowing about August Wilson — reading his plays, seeing productions of his plays — gave me the courage to think the way I want to think.
Q: You mentioned Thoreau and Marcus Aurelius. Who have been other guiding lights for you?
A: Dr. Martin Luther King. I have all of his books, which I’ve read, and collections of his speeches. His speeches, to me, are very close to spiritual studies, and I have always used him for moments when I need to be uplifted — moments when I read and see stuff that’s absolutely appalling. I take out his texts and start reading, and I immediately come back to the same thing he was trying to teach the world: that love is the most powerful factor. 
Q: You’ve said that you’re an optimist. Even in a time when people are angry and divided.
A: I’m an optimist even when they say bad things about people I think are great human beings. I always believe the best will prevail, even if it comes from one human being on just one little tiny planet.
Q: Some people who come to the Walker to see you will have heard “America’s National Parks.” Some won’t. What would you like people to know?
A: Two things are important for me. The first is that the recorded document, the CD, is a historical thing. It will stay fixed until creation is gone. But in a live performance, I’m responsible to offer something in addition to what’s on that recording. So if the person has heard the CD, they will hear also a new configuration of those ideas and those dreams, a unique gift for just that moment only.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

The Year of the Woman in Monterey

Tia Fuller and Ingrid Jensen during the Geri Allen tribute
at the 61st Monterey Jazz Festival in 2018
Photo by John Whiting
Originally published in the program for the 61st Annual Monterey Jazz Festival, Sept. 21-23, 2018

When asked to comment on women in jazz today, saxophonist Tia Fuller starts by looking back. “We’ve always been there,” she says. “Lil Hardin Armstrong, Cora Bryant, Mary Lou Williams … It’s just that the history books have been about his story.” 

The 61st Monterey Jazz Festival will help to write a new chapter. More than half of this year’s performances feature women as leaders, co-leaders or side players. Some 60 women jazz artists will be on the grounds, many with their own bands. Most are instrumentalists. The majority play what are traditionally (and inexplicably) viewed as “masculine” instruments: saxophone, trumpet, clarinet, bass, drums.

Women have been welcomed at Monterey from the start. The inaugural year, 1958, featured Billie Holiday, Ernestine Anderson and others. Women have been artists-in-residence, commission artists and showcase artists. But this year feels like a turning point, one from which there’s no turning back.

A changing zeitgeist, fueled by the #MeToo movement, has made women jazz artists more outspoken about inequality, underrepresentation, gender discrimination and harassment, and harder to silence and ignore. If 2017 was a “year of reckoning and recognition” for women in jazz, as the New York Timeshas said, then 2018 is a year when we’re seeing some results. 

The Atlanta Jazz Festival in May featured a whole day of women headliners. Fuller was there with her group. So was trumpeter Ingrid Jensen. Fuller remembers thinking, “This is exciting for me, because we’re able to have more voice. Men aren’t necessarily seeing it as this feminist movement, but more as ‘Yeah, women do need to be more present!’”

Keychange, an international campaign begun in Europe in late 2017, is asking music festivals to achieve gender parity by 2022. New York’s Winter Jazz Festival is among the 100+ festivals around the world to sign the pledge. 

We Have Voice, a collective of 14 women in jazz and experimental music, has released a Code of Conduct to Promote Safe(r) Workplaces in the Performing Arts. The message: Zero tolerance for harassment of any kind. Seattle’s Earshot Jazz, Chicago’s Hyde Park Jazz Festival and SF Jazz are just a few of the institutions that have adopted the code. Fuller and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington are members of We Have Voice.

Tia Fuller at the 61st Monterey Jazz Festival
Photo by John Whiting
“What I wanted to do this year was make a strong statement,” says Tim Jackson, Monterey’s artistic director. “It started with putting together our next Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour band. Half the band is women, and they’re on the front line, in prominent roles with the trumpet [Bria Skonberg], saxophone [Melissa Aldana] and vocals [Cécile McLorin Salvant].”

Fuller and Jensen are this year’s artists-in-residence. Last year, they were part of “Women in Jazz,” a lively panel discussion in the Blue Note tent. (An edited version appeared in DownBeat.) “Women in Jazz Part II” takes place Sunday in the Pacific Jazz Café, a bigger venue.

The 2018 Showcase Artist and Jazz Legends Gala honoree is vocalist Dianne Reeves, who was recently named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master. “Monterey was one of the first major festivals she played, early in her career,” Jackson says. That was in 1984. She’s been back several times since.

Monterey wanted to honor the late and much-loved pianist and educator Geri Allen, who died in June 2017. Allen was a great friend to the festival, a profoundly influential artist and an inspiration to many women. Jackson put Fuller and Jensen in charge of curating Friday night’s tribute concert in the Arena. They brought in Carrington and pianists Kris Davis and Shaime Royston. 

Also on this year’s game-changing line-up: stellar clarinetist Anat Cohen, immensely creative soprano saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom, internationally acclaimed saxophonist and flutist Jane Bunnett and her group Maqueque (five young Cuban women), trailblazing jazz guitarist Mary Halvorson, and avant-garde flutist Jamie Baum. 

Jackson says, “A lot of situations just fell into place to make this the Year of the Woman at Monterey. But the real key will be next year – making sure that next year, and every year after, there’s a strong gender balance in the programming that we do. And that we’re putting each artist in the best situation for success, and the best venue, and the best project possible, to set them up to have an incredible rapport with the audience.”

By phone and email, our two Artists-in-Residence offered up some thoughts and insights about where we are and what they would like to see happen next.

On the state of women in jazz today

Tia Fuller: There are more opportunities now because people are talking about it. Women are feeling more empowered to speak out. Men are being held more accountable to give more visibility to the women who are out there. More festivals and clubs are providing platforms for us to be seen.

Ingrid Jensen: The state is solid. There are more and more women gaining the skills and experience necessary to rise to the top of a very challenging and ever-evolving musical field.

On what can be done to make jazz more open and accessible to women players

TF: We have to raise the level of consciousness in the formative years in school, so these environments are equally as nurturing as they are toward boys and men. So we can see more young ladies out there on the scene who don’t have to wear this armor of protection to go and sit in at a jazz club.

IJ: Education! Conversation and support. Band rooms need to have more pictures and CDs of female musicians, as well as the standard Wynton, Dizzy, Miles, and Ella posters.

Ingrid Jensen at the 61st Monterey Jazz Festival
Photo by John Whiting
On why some instruments are considered “masculine” and what that even means

TF: I think it’s about who has traditionally played the instrument. When we think about a saxophone, who do we think about? Trane or Bird. We don’t think about Vi Burnside, who went to high school with Sonny Rollins, played tenor saxophone and was a soloist with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm.

IJ: I never got that “masculine” thing when it comes to a hunk of metal. Maybe it’s an American thing? I actually wanted to play the trombone. Both instruments were equally acknowledged as legitimate choices by my Canadian parents and band teacher. Does this mean we have to ask men why they chose flutes and piano? 

On their own women role models

TF: Definitely Terri Lyne Carrington. She started out playing with Clark Terry early on. It wasn’t even an idea for her not to play because she’s a woman. Her mindset is, “If something is in your way, you just move it out of the way.” She will always hold people accountable if they’re not giving her the respect she feels she deserves. She calls them out right there.

IJ: My latest role models are Cécile McLorin Salvant, Becca Stevens and Tia Fuller. All stellar humans who inspire me. Early role models: Stacey Rowles, Marianne McPartland, Lil Hardin Armstrong, Melba Liston. Also Laurie Frink. She was the first female trumpet teacher I had, and her incredible teaching launched my career forward.

Any advice for young women instrumentalists today?

TF: Move in faith, not fear. Move faithfully into your purpose and the direction of your life. Know this is a continuous thing. There’s never an arrival point. Know this is not going to be easy, but it’s going to be worth it.

IJ: Study hard! You cannot Instagram your way into this music. It takes a long time to get good at it, so get on the edge of your seat and get going. Don’t take any abuse from anyone. Use the discouragement that naturally occurs along the way as food for power to get even better. Get a good teacher and get out and play as much as possible. ASK QUESTIONS!