Bandleader Roxy Coss uses music to build community

Feature Profile

Volume 118, No. 5May, 2018

Interview by Bob Pawlo and Maria DiPasquale

Photo: Desmond White

Local 802’s Bob Pawlo and Maria DiPasquale caught up with Roxy Coss to learn more about her musical journey and her plans for the quintet.

Maria DiPasquale: To start off, where are you from, and how did you end up in New York?

Roxy Coss: I grew up in Seattle, and I went to William Paterson University in New Jersey, where I earned a bachelor’s degree in jazz studies and performance. I moved to NYC during my senior year of college, so I’ve been here 11 years now. New York is the place to be for jazz. It’s definitely the center of jazz in terms of numbers of musicians and opportunities to play. I never imagined making a living or doing what I do anywhere besides New York. I’m primarily a saxophone player, but I do everything, basically. I double on flute, alto flute, clarinet, bass clarinet and soprano sax. I compose, and I play whatever gigs come my way. I would say I seek out jazz gigs, but other gigs will pay the rent, and I enjoy different styles of music. I’ve played everything from jazz clubs and jazz tours to club dates and teaching. I’ve played Off Broadway, I’ve done big concert halls, and small bars, so pretty much any venue you can imagine.

Bob Pawlo: You seem to have developed a fresh individual approach to improvisation. How did this come about?

Roxy Coss: From a very young age, I had a different approach than my peers. Especially when I was young, there was something that really turned me off about just cutting and pasting patterns into a solo. My peers would do that and sound amazing, and they learned the bebop language by the age of 12. It was very impressive to our teachers and peers, but it really bothered me, because that’s not you. What jazz is all about is the individual and having a unique voice. So being able to more fully realize that voice as I get older is really rewarding and inspiring for me. The language comes out more naturally as your own, rather than being a cut-and-paste type of thing. It’s not that you shouldn’t be fluent in the language, but you want to be able to say it as your own rather than regurgitating something.

Bob Pawlo: And who are the artists who inspire you?

Roxy Coss: So many! My all-time favorite tenor players would include John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Dexter Gordon, Joe Henderson, Hank Mobley, Sonny Rollins and Stan Getz. Those are some of the greats. As a jazz musician, you’re always a student and you’re always learning. I’m mortified to say I just discovered Mary Lou Williams. But she’s been really inspiring to me in her life and her music. I continue to look for inspiration and find it not just in people who are no longer living, but in my peers as well. Going out and hearing live music gives me inspiration for my own voice in a way that listening to recordings doesn’t really do.

Bob Pawlo: When you’re playing and you’re just about to take your solo, what’s going through your mind?

Roxy Coss: Hopefully nothing. My biggest goal when I’m performing is to remove my conscious brain from the situation and that’s the time when you forget everything you learned and you hope that that higher power steps in and you become the vehicle. A lot of people talk about this, but it’s really true. If I’m soloing or writing, for me the moments that feel and sound the best are when I can step aside and let the music speak for itself. I think that’s why there’s that eternal search to be so technically proficient, because the more technique you have, the easier it is in a lot of ways to step out and stop thinking. Because if your fingers get in the way or your mouth gets in the way, then you get pulled back into the moment.

Bob Pawlo: You’re from the generation that’s totally versed in technology. How does that world affect artists like yourself, and how do you utilize the existing technologies?

Roxy Coss: I’m in a weird generational place in terms of technology, because I remember life before the internet. I would listen to CDs over and over again, and you couldn’t have unlimited music because CDs cost real money. I would learn every solo on a CD and I would know what key the next tune would be in, even though I don’t have perfect pitch. I think there’s some disservice being done to the process of learning jazz by technology, so I challenge myself on a regular basis to keep listening to music the way I used to and getting to know it as a friend. But technology can be a great tool and resource. As a professional performer, I’m playing with lots of different people at any given time and they all have different requirements, so being able to go online and instantly have access to that information is great. These are tools and advantages that we have and we should use them, but you have to know how to use them. As the saying goes, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Technology is a tool. You use the tool for what it is and then remember your end goal.

Photo: Desmond White

Maria DiPasquale: As a professional musician, what challenges have you faced?

Roxy Coss: The year that I graduated was the year of the economic crisis in 2008, and so I’ve heard that a lot of gigs dried up in that year and it completely changed the landscape of the economy for musicians. I think my generation has had to create a new way of approaching being a professional jazz musician. I think the older musicians have been able, to a certain degree, to continue on their path of whatever they did before because they had established this great foundation for their own careers. Today, musicians often have to create their foundation in a different way in order to establish our careers. I’m sure that’s true of other professions, but it’s especially challenging in an industry where it’s already hard to make a living.

Maria DiPasquale: Considering those challenges you faced as a younger jazz artist coming in right when the music industry shifted, what advice do you have for younger musicians?

Roxy Coss: You have to make your own thing now. You can’t rely on any path that existed before, you can’t rely on somebody else to make you a success. You have to be ready for when the opportunities come, of course, but you also have to find and create your own opportunities. That’s part of what led me into really focusing on being a bandleader, because I wasn’t getting tons of calls as a sax player. There are thousands of tenor sax players in the city and in the world and they can all play! So it’s a matter of, how am I going to set myself apart? How do I become myself most fully and most honestly? That’s the only thing that’s going to make me worth hiring over someone else, that they really want Roxy, whether that’s as a bandleader, making my band what it can be, or as a side musician.

Bob Pawlo: What are the skills needed to be a great bandleader?

Roxy Coss: I think that’s a really important part of the musical landscape that people don’t talk about. When I was a younger musician, I didn’t realize that leadership skills were something I needed to work on as part of my skillset. Getting your band to sound good is completely up to you: anything from choosing the musicians to creating an environment where they can really thrive, sound good and work together. It’s also about your band being able to translate your music while giving them room to be themselves and put themselves in your music. There’s a relationship between my voice and those musicians’ voices within the ensemble. As I’ve had more and more gigs as a leader, I’ve realized that it’s really important to me musically. A big part of what I do is being a bandleader.

Photo: Desmond White

Bob Pawlo: Tell us about the Roxy Coss Quintet.

Roxy Coss: It started originally back in 2008, when I had a weekly gig at a little restaurant on the corner in my neighborhood. It was a different format at that time, with trumpet instead of guitar. Having that weekly gig gave me a chance to really work on my writing, bandleading and arranging. We ended up recording and I released my first album in 2010 with that version of the band. A couple years later I did another residency at Smoke and that gave me a chance to try having a guitar in the quintet, and we started working on the repertoire for my second album, which was “Restless Idealism.” A couple years after that, I had a monthly residency at Club Bonafide, which allowed me to get this personnel together for the first time. That’s when this started to form, and then we did “Chasing the Unicorn” and finally another year later, we got this exact lineup together before we did “The Future is Female.”

Photo: Desmond White

Bob Pawlo: Are there any future projects coming up with the group that our readers should be aware of?

Roxy Coss: We are releasing our fourth album, “The Future is Female,” at the end of May. We did a CD release on April 18 and we’ll be touring with that project this year. We have a bunch of dates coming up – in August, we’ll be at Smalls. In September, we’re launching another thing I’m working on with Amanda Monaco, Lauren Sevian and Alexa Tarantino – a Women in Jazz concert series called Lioness, and my group will be the first of the four groups playing at Flushing Town Hall. And then we’re doing Music Mountain Festival in Connecticut and the Zinc Bar for the VandoJam in September.

Maria DiPasquale: Let’s talk about the Emerging Artists Project grant! Congratulations on your win. Why did your quintet decide to apply for the grant?

Roxy Coss: In this economy, I think it’s really important that there are programs like the Emerging Artists Project that really help sustain creative music. The industry has changed to the point where old models aren’t working, so we need to find different and creative ways to get paid for the work that we do. More people and organizations should look at this type of program and this type of structure for supporting the arts. The way that the clubs and the record label industry used to support us isn’t working anymore. My quintet is really thrilled to be a part of it. Beyond just the money, the fact that we’re working with the union is very important to us. I’ve always been very strongly politically inclined in terms of activism and people being treated fairly, and that’s what the union is all about. It feels like a real partnership to be able to work with the union on this grant.

Maria DiPasquale: What are your plans now that you’ve won the Emerging Artists Project grant?

Roxy Coss: Part of it is getting the business side a little bit more legitimate. It’s exciting to be able to contribute toward a pension for all the musicians and make sure that we’re all protected on any given gig. Especially for me as a bandleader, moving forward as we grow, it’s really important that I’m not taking on personal liability for being the bandleader. The support that the union is giving for that process has been really great. And then musically, we are excited because it’s going to give us a chance to focus more on the music. And once these things are in place, I don’t have to worry so much about those types of business things that I’ve been spending so much time on. We have a contract to make sure the musicians are getting paid fairly, so the grant is helping with that. Other than that, we’re really utilizing the grant to build what we’ve already put in place on a broader scale in terms of publicity for the band, and then developing the band itself and the content that we’re releasing. Having rehearsal space and affordable recording at our disposal is really exciting, because that’s a lot of the creation part of what we do.

Photo: Desmond White

Maria DiPasquale: When we last spoke for our Musicians of New York series, you were just getting started on creating the Women in Jazz Organization. Can you talk about why you started it and what it has grown to become?

Roxy Coss: It’s very isolating to be a woman in jazz. As I had more opportunities where I performed and hung out with other women in jazz, I realized how important it was for us to share stories. Knowing that other people are going through your same experience is really valuable in making you feel like part of a community and like you’re not alone. Simultaneously, there was this political upheaval happening in the country when Donald Trump got elected as president. I was not surprised that we weren’t ready to elect a woman as president, because in my everyday life I was experiencing a community that doesn’t value women the same that they value men. I wanted to do something to make an impact on the community in a way that would give a voice to women. I read Jessica Bennett’s book “Feminist Fight Club,” and it talks about having a group of women in any professional industry where you can learn from each other, go to each other, and teach each other. At the same time, my cousin is a human resource manager who started a diversity inclusion group for UPS and it was very successful, so I studied what that group looked like, so I could create that for women in jazz. I started reaching out to all my friends and they reached out to their friends, and pretty soon it was a very long, growing list. It started with 90, and now has grown to over 300 professional performing jazz musicians, women and non-binary people, who are connected through e-mail and Facebook. Almost every month we have a general meeting, really focusing on three things: that initial idea of community-building, getting to know each other, and having a support group and network; self-empowerment, so educating each other and sharing resources; and then the third thing would be the external – working on things in the community that we can change. That includes working on everything from jam sessions to concert series to starting a mentorship program. We’re really trying to change the atmosphere for not only the betterment of women and non-binary people, but for everybody. Everybody will benefit from this balance we’re trying to implement.

Maria DiPasquale: Ideally, what do you envision the future in jazz looking like for women and non-binary artists?

Roxy Coss: Hopefully I won’t have to be a woman in jazz and I can just be a jazz musician. I think there’s a fear to call us “women in jazz” at this point because we want to be idealistic, but we’re not there yet. If we don’t talk about these issues, they don’t go away. They just grow, they fester. We need to get all this stuff out there so we can get to that goal where everyone is equally represented and has equal opportunity and is treated as musicians and humans first. The future is global. My album is called “The Future is Female,” but really what that means is the future needs to be a world where women and everybody who’s underrepresented can have equal opportunity to contribute and have voices and be heard.

Bob Pawlo: In closing, what message would you like to send to fellow members of Local 802 and union members who will be reading this around the world?

Roxy Coss: We’re at a time where we need to be more of a community than ever before, and we need to support each other more than ever before. We need to stop thinking this American Dream way of the individual first, because it doesn’t help anybody. The stronger our community is, the stronger we are as individuals. I’m grateful for this opportunity to be part of the Emerging Artists Project because that’s what this is all about – building a community. It’s helping me build my community and my family in music, but it’s also strengthening the overall community by supporting us as individuals and as a band. I think that’s a great model to take into our everyday lives. With Women in Jazz, my band, and everything I do personally, I think that when you give to your community, it gives back to you more than you could ever imagine. So I hope that people see this project as a positive thing for everybody in the union, that it’s supporting everybody by building what it means to be a part of our union. It’s growing the union and it’s also growing us as a band and growing us as individuals, so everybody benefits.