by Bettina Covo and Todd Bryant Weeks
All photos by Walter Karling
The Jazz Mentors series, presented by Local 802 and the Council for Living Music, closed out 2016 with two strong events in November and December. Enthusiastic audiences filled Local 802’s Club Room to hear established jazz professionals discuss myriad issues ranging from the business of jazz to gender discrimination, generational concepts of improvisation, and esoteric approaches to performance.
On Nov. 28, the discussion “What is It (Really) Like to Be a Woman in Jazz?” featured panelists Nicki Parrott, Carol Sudhalter, Kim A. Clarke and Grace Kelly. The evening was moderated by bandleader and composer Diane Moser, who agreed this is a complicated question. The points of view vary. Some women don’t want to be referred to as a “female” instrumentalist, while others have fought hard for the right to share the stage with their male counterparts and are proud to be identified as women first.
Kim A. Clarke, who has worked in the New York area and internationally for decades, spoke frankly on the subject. “It’s a question I hate. I’m a musician and I’m a woman. Once people heard me play, they wanted to work with me simply because I could play. You have to remember: thoughts have no gender.”
Discussion followed about the panelists’ early days in the business, with particular emphasis on mentorship – whether from men or women – and how important it was for all of the panelists to feel supported in a male-dominated field. This support may have taken the form of simply being recognized for their contributions by predominantly male leaders. Or it may have been in recognizing other women in the field who were working – and seeking out guidance and modeling from them.
Bassist Nicki Parrott, who immigrated to New York from Sydney, Australia in the early 1990s, remembers going to hear one of the first established female jazz performers in Australia, Sandy Evans, when she was still a teenager. The event had a huge effect on her. Parrott said, “There is a great need for mentors. Find someone you can talk to and learn from. They shape your playing, your career and your life in many ways.”
Saxophonist-flautist-bandleader Carol Sudhalter, who grew up in Massachusetts, came from a musical family, though there were no women professionals in her family until she chose a career in music.
Sudhalter recounted her decision: “In my early years of playing, I was reluctant about looking for opportunities to play with others. Then I went to hear Lisa Brown play sax in a band. She motivated me to go out and find a band to play with and the rest is history.” Coming from a generation where female saxophonists were almost unheard of on the jazz circuit, Sudhalter expounded, “Seeing other professional women musicians gives us the permission to be one too.”
An audience member asked about competitive tensions that can arise between women band members, and Grace Kelly, who is currently working with Jon Batiste and the Stay Human band on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, shared her experience: “I recently played in a band with a female trumpet player. We didn’t say much to each other but when we played together, there was this great vibe, a feeling of sisterhood. Anyone can bring that positive, open vibe with them when working with other musicians, male or female, in order to change that attitude.”
Kelly went on to talk about her personal experience of sexism: “I come from the millennial generation. It seems we have a different point of view – no musician my age has ever spoken negatively about my being a woman instrumentalist. The sexist vibe seems to come from people not of my generation.” This positive statement was clear and resonated with the audience, though all agreed there was more work to be done and sexism was still a problem, especially in hiring practices.
A month later, on Dec. 12, Principal Jazz Rep Todd Weeks moderated Jazz Mentors 7 with a panel consisting of vocalist-composer Judi Silvano, violinist-bandleader Regina Carter, and saxophonist-bandleader Joe Lovano.
The session, entitled “Multigenerational Approaches to Improvisation,” featured an open discussion about improvisational approaches in different settings, mentorship, integration of different forms and structures while playing, and evolving jazz audiences.
Vocalist-composer Judi Silvano got her start in Philadelphia as a classical student of bel canto, specializing in contemporary music. It was not until she came to New York and start participating in the downtown loft scene of the 1970s that she found her way into jazz. She recounted, “I came to New York as a contemporary classical singer. I was introduced to jazz, improvising with other musicians. That’s how I met Joe (Lovano).” Silvano’s point was that there is often no clear pathway to a career in jazz, and that her classical training served her well by allowing her to be prepared for anything musically, even if improvisation came later to her than to others.
Carter, originally from the Detroit area, has been widely recognized as the most prominent and influential jazz violinist working today. She spoke eloquently about her approach to melodic improvisation during a performance, relating how advanced study and preparation allowed her freedom to explore new areas and tonal relationships. She commented on the process, “It’s about knowing and acknowledging where I am at that moment in order to truly express myself on stage or in the studio.” When asked about being a woman leader in the jazz world, Carter replied, “The violin is more intimidating than my being a woman. For me it’s not about gender, it’s strictly about the music making.”
Joe Lovano is considered by many to be the finest jazz saxophonist of his generation. His story began in Cleveland, Ohio where his father Anthony “Big T” Lovano, was a saxophonist and loyal union member. After stints with the Woody Herman and Mel Lewis bands in the 1970s, Lovano has since risen to fame in New York, and now tours the world with his various groups.
Lovano spoke about the need for focus and concentration in his work, mental preparation, and the ability to stay in the present moment in a Zen-like way. He elaborated, “Being prepared and relaxed allows you to go to the cosmos. You have to be free and open to it.”
Carter expressed it as “an out of body experience. Everyone feels it – it’s almost uncontrollable.”
Silvano added, “By focusing on the craft, it allows you to elevate and be lifted up.”
In closing, Lovano took it one step further: “It is about inner reflections and outer projections that ultimately connect us to the Divine.”
The Jazz Mentors series connects up-and-coming musicians with some of New York City’s premier artists to discuss the business of jazz. Each forum features discussion led by preeminent members and leaders of the jazz community about how to build and maintain a successful music career. We invite you join us for the next Jazz Mentors event on Monday, Feb. 13 at 5 p.m. For details and to RSVP, see www.local802afm.org/jazz-mentors.
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