Juliette Jones is stratching boundaries and building new landscapes

Volume 118, No. 11November, 2018

Interview by Bob Pawlo

Juliette Jones, a member of Local 802 since 2009, is a multi-genre acoustic and electric violinist who has worked with Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, John Legend, Janelle Monáe, Hans Zimmer, Justin Timberlake, Toshi Reagon, Lizz Wright, Pharrell, Common, Frank Ocean, Hit-Boy, Florence + The Machine, Nicki Minaj, J. Cole, Ryan Leslie, Kid Cudi, Richard Smallwood and Sheila E., among many others.

She founded her string production company, Rootstock Republic, in part to change the landscape of what it means to be a string player of color in the music industry. Rootstock’s core initiatives include:

  1. Social justice by using the arts as a vehicle for activism.
  2. The cultivation of unique, sustainable relationships with allies who uphold the value of arts education, with a focus on young string players of color.
  3. International collaboration and programming focused on building platforms for diversity in the arts.
  4. Community engagement and accessibility to the arts through the curation of new performance opportunities dedicated to those who are often marginalized.

Jones has scored, recorded and contracted for major events, including the Emmy-nominated salute to Elton John at the 2018 Grammys and the Oscar-nominated film “Mudbound.” She also scored for Solange Knowles’ performances of “A Seat at the Table” at the Hollywood Bowl and Radio City Music Hall, as well as for the Beijing Philharmonic (in partnership with Ebony Bones). Her collaborators include the award-winning choreographers Michelle Dorrance and Camille A. Brown.

Jones recently scored and co-produced “Dear Nina: A Sonic Love Letter to Nina Simone,” a re-orchestration of select works from Nina Simone’s songbook, which made its NYC debut at Joe’s Pub. She is currently concertmaster at the Broadway musical “Pretty Woman.”

Local 802’s Bob Pawlo recently sat down with Juliette Jones to talk about her amazing musical journey.

Photo by Tabia Lisenbee-Parker


Bob Pawlo: I’d like to start with my usual opening question because it opens so many doors. When and how did your journey in music begin?

Juliette Jones: I was five when I started playing the violin. I still remember my mom taking me to see Midori solo with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra when I was six. I started lessons at the Community School of Music in Buffalo and also started running track around the same time. I was taking lessons and simultaneously training four days a week. By the time I hit 14, I was being prepped to compete in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia. But I ended up injuring my knee the very next summer. My physical therapist referred me to a sports medicine camp, and I was coincidentally also invited to study at the Eastern Music Festival at the exact same time. I had to make a life-altering decision and ultimately chose to go the festival. That choice really steered the rest of my path.

Bob Pawlo: How did the Eastern Music Festival help you commit to music as a life path?

Juliette Jones: It offered a really beautiful opportunity to sharpen my technical facility while exploring my musical voice. Being in that type of incubator where you have endless access to instruction and inspiration affirmed my choice to pursue music full time. That decision ultimately led me on a three-year trajectory ending up at the Peabody Institute, where I earned my bachelor’s degree in music. But before that, during my senior year in high school, I was one of two winners in a concerto competition produced by the Buffalo Philharmonic. I got to play the first movement of Lalo’s “Symphonie Espagnole” with the orchestra, which was incredible. It was that piece that got me into Peabody, Eastman and the New England Conservatory, and it also helped me win a number of scholarships.

Bob Pawlo: What was college like for you?

Juliette Jones: Good, but strange because I mysteriously tore a ligament in my right wrist during my sophomore year and ended up having to leave school for almost a year. I studied with Victor Danchenko and worked much slower than either of us had been used to because he’d never worked with an injured student before. We had to learn to find each other. Instead of me rejoining orchestra right away, the dean decided that I should join chorus – which I was initially not that excited about. But that offered yet another way to connect with my voice. It actually was one of the more rewarding opportunities because it helped to shape my ear. I had to separate myself from years of training and understanding of how I made music with my instrument and instead connect with the music that was inside of my body.

Bob Pawlo: What were the keys to your successful recovery from your injury?

Juliette Jones: Patience for sure. I have since learned the value of listening to your body and also trusting how you feel. The thing I can laugh about now, almost 15 years later, is that none of my doctors actually believed that anything was wrong. I had gone through six months of physical therapy by the time my orthopedic surgeon decided to operate. What they found ended up being worse than they predicted. I want other musicians to know that an injury isn’t a death sentence for your career. My injury actually forced me to relearn my instrument in a really intentional way, and it steered me towards discovering other skillsets.

Bob Pawlo: Despite the injury, what are your favorite memories of Peabody?

Juliette Jones: Honestly, I would say hands-down, one of my favorite experiences was the orchestral program with H. Teri Murai. I learned how to count like nobody’s business! And I loved working with Maria Lambros and Michael Kanneh in the chamber music department. They taught me the art of ensemble playing, the importance of breath in phrasing, and how to be an effective storyteller. But after I graduated, I felt completely burned out because I’d worked so hard post-injury trying to make up for lost time. I was living with a roommate at the time who was deciding on a whim to move to New York. I decided to do the same and knew that I could pursue music full time even if I wasn’t clear about what that meant. I called my mom one day and said, “I’m moving to New York!” And she just said, “Okay!” She’s very cool in that way.

Bob Pawlo: And how was your arrival in New York?

Juliette Jones: It was shocking! I didn’t have a job. I had a partial vision. And I think I had $500 to my name and a dog, and my fiddle on my back, and that’s all I knew. But I had friends who were here and they taught me the value of community, And that became a really crucial lesson about my reality here as a musician, and as a citizen of NYC. I think when you set a certain intention for yourself, your opportunities will manifest. My first job was as a teaching artist in the Bronx, which was wonderful in a lot of ways, but also challenging because I didn’t necessarily want to teach. I enjoyed teaching, but that wasn’t the platform where I was most inspired to share my voice. But soon other opportunities came my way. I remember playing a session for Donnie McClurkin and another for Donald Lawrence under the direction of Darin Atwater, the founder and conductor of Soulful Symphony.

Around this time, I joined Local 802, and one of my union contacts told me that a really great way to stay on your feet in New York is to become versatile. Be willing to try anything. Be willing to learn everything. And I really took that to heart. I started taking gigs playing electric violin because I had one in my closet. I started playing with DJs and playing in clubs and experimenting with multi-effects pedals. If there was something to try, I did. If there was an audition to take, whether folks called for string players or not, I went. And as a result of actually taking an audition – because I was willing to try everything – I actually got my first job arranging for a song that went to radio. Like everything else in my journey, it was a reminder that nothing happens by accident, and to keep trusting the process: be willing to try experiences outside of my comfort zone.

The story goes like this: I actually found the job on Craigslist! There was a listing in their “gigs” section that called for instrumentalists and singers for a project with Alicia Keys. She was getting ready to hit the road, but wasn’t looking for violin. I decided to audition with the mindset that “just because they don’t ask for violin, doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t want violin.” I ended up meeting a producer that day who later invited me on another project. And when he asked if I could write the string arrangement, I of course said yes. I’d never written an arrangement before, but I figured I’d been studying and playing orchestral and chamber music long enough to figure it out. And I ended up scoring for a song that made it to #1 on the Billboard Gospel chart and stayed there all summer. I had family members all over the country saying that they were hearing it. That was really powerful, because it shifted the trajectory of my career. I wasn’t just playing. Now I was also starting to delve into music preparation. And that became really exciting for me.

Bob Pawlo: In addition to Alicia Keys, who were some of the other artists you were working with at that point?

Juliette Jones: I played with Kid Cudi on Letterman in 2009 which was extra special because I got to play with Larry Gold, who is a renowned cellist but also a highly-regarded string arranger on the Philly scene. He was the cellist and arranger for this project, so it felt like a kismet moment since I was just finding my footing in this world of arranging. After that I played with Ryan Leslie, Nicki Minaj, Aretha Franklin, Janelle Monae, Justin Timberlake, John Legend, and even Stevie Wonder at Summerstage. At one point I felt like I was divorcing myself from classical music, but really instead, I was just exploring the larger scope of what I could do with my instrument. And people were starting to recognize me on some other scenes in New York. They were starting to see me on the late night and music prep scenes, so people started to call me for a wider diversity of projects.

When I first moved to the city, I met someone who’s since become a friend of mine and who happens to be one of my favorite musicians on the New York scene – Lakecia Benjamin – and I remember asking her the secret to the working musician. She simply said, “People call who they know.” I really took that to heart, and made a promise to myself. I vowed to work hard and to make a name for myself, not out of some vain opportunistic way, but because I wanted my work to feel like a real contribution.

Bob Pawlo: Tell us about your production company, which I know has a social justice mission.

Juliette Jones: I founded Rootstock Republic in 2014. It was in part a response to address the lack of diversity that I was seeing across the board in classical and contemporary music: as a string player of color, there were a lot of opportunities that I knew were not being afforded to me because I didn’t meet the status quo (and still don’t). There’s unfortunately still a widely-accepted narrative pertaining to string representation and who’s generally found on the side of privilege and who finds themselves often marginalized. This is changing, which is a really beautiful shift that always should have been. The company is really a platform for string players of color to be afforded more dynamic and diverse opportunities to perform, be it live, be it in the studio…no matter the stage. We’ve had opportunities to work with the Grammys, Red Bull, Apple and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and have worked with musicians, choreographers, playwrights and film directors on award-winning projects. We intentionally want to invite more string players of color to be seen, to be heard, and to be recognized. It’s a powerful thing to be seen, and for your gifts to really matter.

Bob Pawlo: It’s about time. What’s the secret to being a good contractor?

Juliette Jones: I think you have to listen. You have to honor what people’s needs are. Every situation is different, and you have to know what will make the project better, easier, more efficient, and more productive. I think the biggest secret to me has been building a team. I work side-by-side with Jarvis Benson, who’s a brilliant viola player, my favorite collaborator and my best friend of 15+ years. We actually co-lead Rootstock (as of January 2016), and together we’ve created a roster of musicians who are not only our friends, but a team who’s become family and formed a community. This foundation grounds us so that we are operating from a place of trust and respect and not just talent. There’s a lot of people who play well, but energetically we equally consider what group of people will really help to make a project soar.

Photo by Tabia Lisenbee-Parker

Bob Pawlo: You put together the Elton John tribute at the 2018 Grammy Awards. What was that like?

Juliette Jones: It was surreal. I remember thinking of myself as this young girl in Buffalo, attending the community music school, playing in youth orchestras. Growing up, I just never had an expectation that life could actually look like this. So for the contractor to say, “Hey, we want you. We want what you have to offer” is a really powerful thing. I don’t take it for granted. It never gets old. And it will always be a powerful thing for folks to say that your voice is important.

Bob Pawlo: A few weeks later, you were the concertmaster for the incredible live TV production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” at the Brooklyn Armory. What was that experience like?

Juliette Jones: That was a complete trip. It was a whirlwind three weeks: super fun and a ton of work. You never know what a project is going to look like, feel like, be like, but every single person on the creative team, in the cast, orchestra and crew was exceptional and supremely warm-hearted! And it really felt like family for me because I also got to work with Camille A. Brown, who is one of my dear friends and collaborators. She’s a brilliant choreographer and dancer. From day one, everybody was on the same page about how hard we needed to work to execute this singular performance. There were 32 musicians spread out across three multi-story scaffolds. It was especially important to take care of the players, to make sure they had what they needed so that they could make the best music possible. I think it was evident in the room and on the recording that we were all moving on one accord, which is only more amazing because we recorded the album from our respective positions in the scaffold. We were all at the mercy of our in-ears and T.V. monitors.

Bob Pawlo: When I heard that show, I enjoyed the warmth of that live string section, as opposed to synthesizers. We need more of that.

Juliette Jones: Absolutely! Michael Aarons and Michael Keller were the contractors on that project and responsible for helping that possibility come to fruition. Really, really powerful.

Bob Pawlo: Tell us about your participation in the film “Mudbound.”

Juliette Jones: I got a call from a dear friend, Tamar-kali, who’s been on the New York scene for over 20 years. A lot of people have known her from her punk and rock background, but her dad was a bass player, so she has roots in classical music as well. Some years ago, she formed an ensemble called the PsychoChamber Ensemble, which is an acoustic re-imagination of her rock-inspired band called 5ive Piece. Long story short, she is really good friends with Dee Rees, a really brilliant film director who was working on “Mudbound.” It’s a period piece that addresses the disparity between a white and black family in rural Mississippi, sparked by the return of their respective relatives from World War II. It was Tamar’s first time scoring a film, and Dee’s first time using strings. Tamar asked me to help assemble a team. We partnered with Stephanie Matthews (of String Candy), who’s another dear friend and collaborator, to help support with music preparation. It was an amazing experience because there we were on a film that was ultimately Oscar-nominated with a Black woman director, a Black woman composer, and a Black woman concertmaster! It was such an honor, and it was only made better by seeing the whole team’s names in the end title credits.

Bob Pawlo: Finally, let’s talk about your Broadway show.

Juliette Jones: Sure! I was recently hired to be concertmaster on “Pretty Woman,” which opened this summer. It’s my first time on Broadway, and it’s been a real honor to play with such a wonderful band of musicians who are not only talented but generous with their gifts and willing to lean into each other to make some incredible music every night.

Bob Pawlo: And of all the stuff that you’re doing – and doing it successfully – how do you juggle your practice time and preparation?

Juliette Jones: I’ve learned to put myself on a schedule for just about everything from practice to working out to music prep to administrative follow-up to sleep. It ultimately feels really productive and also helps me to meet all of my commitments without being completely exhausted.

Bob Pawlo: Are there any other projects coming up that our readers should be aware of?

Juliette Jones: Definitely! Jarvis and I are in the process of developing a new salon series for Rootstock called “Jukebox: Unplugged,” which is an acoustic spinoff of a performance that we imagined and produced at Joe’s Pub last summer. It’s our version of a live orchestral mix tape featuring String Sextet with DJ and live audio reactive visuals. The salon is our commitment to offering programming to communities in Brooklyn and Harlem, because we are equally dedicated to bringing as many people of color on the stage as we are in the audience. The salon will be offered as a free-to-low sliding scale performance series that will center collaborations with some of our favorite artists; and allow us to create a platform that can actually shift the narrative and trajectory of how we are all creating.

Bob Pawlo: Obviously in the last ten years, not only have you survived, but you’re thriving. What do you look forward to as a musical artist?

Juliette Jones: Honestly, I’m really excited about everything that I have going on right now, so I’d say I most look forward to continuing to build community and explore the dimensions of what we can achieve using our creative voice.

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

Juliette Jones: Moving to New York was really the first time in both my personal and professional career that I truly learned the meaning of community. And that’s exactly what Local 802 is. It’s a community. The members of Local 802 uplift the work that you’re doing and work hard to protect that. And I’m really grateful to be a part of a community of musicians who really celebrate the various nuances and facets of what it is that we do and how we create. May we continue to lean into each other – especially as we’re navigating multiple projects of our own – and support each other’s performances, campaigns and initiatives. It’s a powerful network that I’ve been proud to be a member of and hope to leave an indelible mark for the next season of musicians excited to find their footing.

Juliette Jones’ website is