Saturday, February 27, 2016

Radio Interviews in March

Singer and bandleader Jacqui Sutton, DJ, historian and visual artist Tierney Malone, and writer and composer Chris Becker
I grew up with radio. (Well, radio, and then MTV.) While my first exposure to jazz was through my father's record collection, and records I subsequently bought to share with him (Miles Davis' The Man with the Horn and Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays' As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls were the first two jazz albums I bought), pre-MTV FM radio turned me on to a lot of musical artists and styles I still listen to today. As a got older, I recognized the value of listener-sponsored community radio stations, and eventually went on to be interviewed about my work as a musician and writer on great stations across the U.S. Most recently, I've been a guest on Tierney Malone's show "Houston Jazz Spotlight" to talk about my book Freedom of Expression: Interviews With Women in Jazz. This month, I am looking forward to two opportunities to talk about the book on two more great listener-supported radio shows.

The first will be with Nou Dadoun on his show "A-Trane" which airs out of Vancouver, British Columbia, Fridays, 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. (PST) on CFRO 100.5 FM and online at Co-Op Radio. I'll be on Nou's show March 4.

I've been a fan of Joyce Jones' show "Suga' In My Bowl" for awhile, so it's particularly exciting for me to have the opportunity to speak with her about the book. "Suga' in My Bowl" airs in New York City on Sundays at 11:00 p.m. (ET) on WBAI 99.5 FM and online at My conversation with Joyce will air March 20.

These days, FM radio is typically very bland, with little or no information from DJs as to what you're listening to. It seems listener-supported radio is what's left, and wherever you live, it deserves your support. Podcasts are cool, but there's no substitute for experience of discovery and education that live radio offers.

What's your favorite station? Let me know in the comments below.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Interview With Cellist Nioka Workman (Excerpted from "Freedom of Expression: Interviews With Women in Jazz")

Freedom of Expression: Interviews With Women in Jazz is a collection of inspiring and in-depth interviews with 37 women musicians of all ages, nationalities, and races and representing nearly every style of jazz one can imagine. The interviewees include Carmen Lundy, Terri Lyne Carrington, Eliane Elias, Helen Sung, Anat Cohen, Diane Schuur, Sherrie Maricle, Sharel Cassity, Brandee Younger, Jane Ira Bloom and many other incredible artists. The 320-page book includes 42 photographs, and a 25-page introduction to the history of women in jazz.

Freedom of Expression: Interviews With Women in Jazz is available for purchase from Amazon. Here in Houston, TX, you find the book at Brazos Bookstore, the Jung Center of Houston Bookstore, and Casa Ramirez FOLKART Gallery.

What follows is an excerpt from the book: the introduction to and a portion of my interview with cellist and composer Nioka Workman

Nioka Workman photograph by CEA

In a 2003 interview for All About Jazz, Philadelphia-born bassist Reggie Workman credits Philadelphia’s musical culture and a nurturing home environment for inspiring him to study music. 
     “Now that I look back on the situation,” says Workman. “I realize how much the culture has to do with the evolution of a people. . . . A lot of our institutions . . . the school systems and so forth, didn’t encourage too much cultural evolution, but that was a natural thing in our community. I think my parents recognized that and it developed from there.” 
     The impact that the home environment and the culture of a community can have on a young person is a recurring theme in my interview with Reggie Workman’s daughter, cellist, composer, and improviser Nioka Workman. Workman grew up in Brooklyn, and initially studied both music and dance at the New Muse Community Center (where her father was the music director), Henry Street Settlement, and Third Street Music School Settlement. Not surprisingly, her family supported her in all of her aspirations. 
     “They definitely are all about supporting whatever it is you decide to do, as long as you’re happy,” says Workman. “But music, that’s who we are. . . . my uncle [Arthur Harper] played with [trombonist] J.J. Johnson. I have cousins who played with Chuck Berry. . . . I have all kinds of music in my family. It’s just part of my life.” 
     For decades, the cello has provided an especially unique voice in the world of jazz and improvised music. Cellists such as Fred Katz, Tom Cora, Hank Roberts, Diedre Murray, and Abdul Wadud have expanded the role of the instrument by embracing musical idioms from around the globe, as well as extended techniques, amplification, and electronics, to produce an expansive, sometimes startling vernacular of sounds. Workman explores all of these sonic territories as a solo performer, in the electric cello and guitar duo Iron Blossoms with electric guitarist Hui Cox, and as the member of her six-piece acoustic chamber ensemble, Firey String Sistas! Workman’s technique is rooted in her study of classical and jazz repertoire as well as the music of the “masters of soul, funk, and R&B.” This, together with her passion for and understanding of a wide variety of other creative mediums, including dance, performance art, and theater, has allowed her to develop a deeply personal and compelling style on both acoustic and electric cello. 
     In 2011, Workman formed the Firey String Company [FSCO], an organization dedicated to presenting educational workshops and concert programming and creating “nurturing environments for creative and improvising string players to perform, share, learn new skills, produce new work and network.” FSCO is especially committed to empowering female musicians, and in her interview, Workman points out that women have always participated in the development of jazz. 
     “There have always been a lot of women playing improvisatory music, which is what I prefer to call it,” says Workman, “and now, a lot more are being recognized for what they do . . ."

When did you first begin playing a musical instrument? 
Officially, I started taking lessons at the age of 10. But my father had a lot of instruments around his studio space. And my folks, they wanted us to try different things before they locked us into taking traditional lessons. So, we did dance, we did karate, art, and all kinds of things. We tried the piano, violin, I tried the bass—oh my God, and the bass was too huge. But I didn’t know they had smaller versions [laughs] or else I think I would have tried that out! 
     So I kind of went through an exploration period for a while before I landed. 

Was it required in the household that the children play a musical instrument? 
Not at all, not at all. 

You were living with your family in New York? 
Yes. Brooklyn is where I was raised. But I was born in the Village. We were there for a while, then we were in Queens for a minute, and then settled in Brooklyn when I was in elementary school. I’d say age 10 is when I started playing cello. In junior high, my dad was the director at the New Muse Community Center, and that’s where I started taking official lessons. You had all kinds of things going on there. 

What kind of music were you playing then? 
A lot of my teachers were going back and forth with my father. He wanted me to start with jazz. Actually, you could say that he was the first teacher because he gave me a few tunes to learn. “Embraceable You,” [trombonist] J.J. Johnson songs, whatever music he had around he gave me and encouraged me to play by ear. 
     So he wanted me to learn and play jazz first. But in any traditional lessons I had, the teachers said, “She needs more opportunities. . . .” So they started me with the Suzuki Method.83 When I went to Henry Street Settlement for a while, that was strictly Suzuki. [laughs] 

Would you go home and in addition to practicing whatever it was you needed to practice, play the music your dad was encouraging you to play? 
Oh, yes! I always wanted to play music with my father. That was my goal in life, you know? 

How about improvising? Was that a part of your musical world as well? 
Well, with my dad, I was mostly playing by ear. I don’t think that improvising is what we did. We just played music, you know? I mean, all of it is improvisation, but traditionally, that came in later after the classical training. 

Were you on track as a younger musician to be a classical musician before making a decision to play jazz? Or was it much more organic than that? 
I did everything organically at first, and at age 10, I was put on a classical track. So yes, at the New Muse Community Center I had theory and cello and lessons and all that. Then I went to Henry Street Settlement, and then I went to Third Street Music School Settlement, all of these different schools. 
     But I wanted to improvise and do new music and jazz. So, after I got out of school, I just started branching out. 

Using the word “jazz” sometimes is a little misleading. 

And when I listen to your music, I hear a lot of different things. 
I did a gig last night with [singer] Antoinette Montague. What a wonderful artist. 
     She sang a mix of all kinds of things. Blues was the main music that she felt the audience really responded to. But she sang “Here’s to Life” and all these beautiful songs by Nina Simone. To be able to go from a kind of an art song to kind of a Broadway-type song to an R&B song . . . I think you just have to stay open and study and learn different things. To use just one word, “jazz . . .” I don’t know. What does that word mean? 

It sounds like your family supported your decision to make a career for yourself as a musician. 
[laughs] Well, yeah! They definitely are all about supporting whatever it is you decide to do, as long as you’re happy. But music, that’s who we are. I mean, my uncle played with J.J. Johnson. I have cousins who played with Chuck Berry. . . . I have all kinds of music in my family. It’s just part of my life. 

So you didn’t have anybody discouraging you, saying, “This is going to be really tough for you financially, you’re gonna have to think of something to fall back on!” 
[laughs] Oh, boy. I hear you. If you love the process, where just being a part of the music is an honor, to just be alive and continue to grow and learn and share with people . . . it’s a choice. You just make a choice. 
     Some people choose to know when their vacations are, know when their retirement is, know when you’re gonna get paid. [laughs] You do have to pay bills, and some things you just have to do. And yes, I’m trained in the Suzuki Method. I can do that kind of thing, and I’ve done a myriad of jobs to support what I’m doing. And I’ve heard that “advice” over and over again. But I know where my heart is and I know where my focus is. 

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Interview With Mindi Abair (excerpted from "Freedom of Expression: Interviews With Women in Jazz")

Here is another excerpt from my book Freedom of Expression: Interviews With Women in Jazz. This is the introduction to and a portion of my interview with saxophonist Mindi Abair, one of the earliest supporters of this project. 

Freedom of Expression: Interviews With Women in Jazz is a collection of interviews with 37 women musicians from across the spectrum of jazz, including Carmen Lundy, Terri Lyne Carrington, Eliane Elias, Helen Sung, Anat Cohen, Diane Schuur, Sherri Maricle, Sharel Cassity, Brandee Younger, Jane Ira Bloom and many, many other incredible artists.

Freedom of Expression: Interviews With Women in Jazz is available for purchase from Amazon. Here in Houston, TX, you can find the book at Brazos Bookstore, the Jung Center of Houston Bookstore, and Casa Ramirez FOLKART Gallery.

Mindi Abair photo by Greg Allen

Saxophonist, singer, and composer Mindi Abair is the first musician I interviewed for this book. In retrospect, that may seem strange, if only because Abair doesn’t identify herself as a jazz musician. Then again, many of the other artists I interviewed for this book avoid using the word “jazz” to describe their musical output. 
     Abair’s music is often lumped in the much derided, misunderstood, and in my opinion, underappreciated style of music commonly known as “smooth jazz.” I say “misunderstood,” because the roots of what might be better de¬scribed as a groove-centric form of instrumental pop music come from a sea change in jazz that occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s. During this period of tremendous social upheaval, jazz musicians began making music that wouldn’t be out of place on soul and R&B radio stations and jukeboxes across the U.S. Musicians such as Ramsey Lewis, Les McCann, Donald Byrd, and Grover Washington Jr. enjoyed a degree of mainstream success playing a danceable style of jazz that embraced the backbeat, funk bass lines, gospel harmonies, and a sense of style that spoke to the politics of the time. Jazz purists, and especially music critics, hated it. Meanwhile, young listeners were intrigued by this new style of soulful jazz and were led to other strains of this music as a result. 
     Abair is certainly comfortable navigating the world of popular music. But her musical background is a little more complex than that of many pop stars. Her résumé includes playing saxophone with the quintessential boy band the Backstreet Boys and Boston’s hard-rocking Aerosmith, but she cut her teeth as a player touring with jazz pianist and composer Bobby Lyle in a band that included former members of jazz-fusion pioneers Weather Report and the impossible-to-categorize rock, disco, soul, and R&B musical group Earth, Wind & Fire. She has recorded several hits as a so-called pop instrumental or smooth-jazz artist, but she names women like Tina Turner and idiosyncratic singer-songwriter Rickie Lee Jones as early inspirations. As a child, she grew up on the road with her father’s band, the Entertainers. The track “The Alley” from Abair’s 2010 album Hi-Fi Stereo features her father, Lance Abair, on a Hammond B-3, bringing it all back to home to the music that first set his daughter on a path to study jazz while planning to be a rock star. 
     At the time of this writing, Abair is the president of the Los Angeles Chapter of Music that, through programs including the Grammy Foundation and MusiCares, provides money and resources for music education and musicians’ health needs. In an age of rampant piracy, a dearth of terrestrial radio airplay, and near-zero royalties from ubiquitous music-streaming services like Spotify, she is a strong advocate for the rights of composers and creators of music. 
     In this wide-ranging interview, which combines two separate conversations and is presented in this book in two parts, Abair talks about the importance of music education, her earliest experiences as a professional musician, and the “glass ceiling” that still exists in the music industry. 

When did you first begin playing a musical instrument? 
The first instrument I played was the piano. When I was little, I would just bang on my father’s keyboards. And I think my parents just broke down when I was 5 years old and put me into piano lessons. When school band started in fourth grade, I was told to pick up any instrument and that we’d go on from there. I chose the alto saxophone. I was 8 years old. The saxophone was bigger than me at that point! 

Many of the musicians I’ve interviewed had some kind of music program in their elementary school
I now do a lot of work with young kids in schools through the Grammy Foundation and other outreach programs. We sometimes bring kids from the inner city to our sound checks and have lunch with the band so they can see how we do things. I think it’s great to have the kids interact with the musicians who are out there doing it. They can ask questions and be inspired by it. It goes a long way. No one is going to be able to fill the gap when a music program leaves a school, but we can all give it our best shot to try. 

Your father Lance is a musician? 
Yes. He plays Hammond B-3 on my track “The Alley” from my album Hi-Fi Stereo. He’s also on my second CD. 
Did your family support your early interest in music? 
My father was a professional musician at the time. He was touring with a band called the Entertainers. He played saxophone and keyboards. No one thought anything about it really. My grandmother was an opera singer and a vocal and piano instructor. They loved that I was playing an instrument. Neither she nor my father wanted to teach me, because they both felt that a kid needs a music teacher, someone who is going to be firm with the student. They didn’t want to be that person. They didn’t want to be the person who might drive me away from music. They wouldn’t teach me, but they got me teachers. I took piano lessons for many years, but there really weren’t many saxophone teachers in our area. I grew up in St. Petersburg, Florida. Every once in a while, someone would show up at a local music store who would teach saxophone and disappear in a couple weeks. 

What kind of music were you studying and playing as a kid? 
On the piano, I was playing the normal repertoire. Bach inventions. Chopin. After a couple of years, I started to bring in music that I liked. Pop music, like Tina Turner or Toto. My piano teacher hated that. She thought it was all music of the devil. [laughs] 
     On the saxophone, I really only had had a handful of lessons by the time I entered college. But I would listen. I would do what they do in band, which was the usual course of study. But I would listen and play along with the radio. Which means I have an amazing knowledge of pop music. [laughs] I didn’t own a bunch of jazz records, but I had top-40 radio. That was the music I really dove into. 
     It wasn’t until later, in high school, that my father bought me a David Sanborn record. I heard that and thought, “Wow! This doesn’t sound like what we’re playing in school. He’s like the pop music on the radio, but with a saxophone.” So I started learning all of his records. That led me to the band the Yellowjackets. I loved the Yellowjackets. They led me to Miles Davis, but at the time, I got and listened to the newest Miles Davis record, Amandla, which featured Marcus Miller. That album was not necessarily “jazz” jazz. That sent me on the search for older Miles Davis recordings, which led me to Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane, and all of these great jazz saxophone players. But that was not what I grew up listening to. I was playing along with saxophonists like Clarence Clemons or Maceo Parker or Junior Walker and songs by Janet Jackson, the Doobie Brothers, and Earth, Wind & Fire. 
     It took awhile for me to get to jazz. Most of my music now is not jazz. Probably the only reason they call me a “jazz” artist is because I play the saxophone. What I play is very pop, rock, and soul influenced. 
What kind of music did your father’s band play? 
Blue-eyed soul! 

Was playing music his job? 
It was. I grew up my first four or five years on the road with his band. All they did was travel. My mother traveled with us as well. I was raised by her and the band. [laughs] 

You attended Berklee College of Music. Was there a time while you were there, as you were learning your instrument and more about what you wanted to do as a professional musician, that you just thought, “I want to leave school. I just want to go out to L.A. and do it!” Did you experience that kind of impatience? 
Oh, absolutely. 

What made you decide to stay in school? 
At a certain point, I was playing six or seven nights a week and going to school, and I thought I just don’t need the piece of paper [the diploma]. No one is going to hire me because I’ve got a piece of paper saying I have a degree in music. They ’re going to hire me because I’m what they want. I’m the artist they want to hire. At the time, I thought, “Why not just leave and go to L.A.? It’ll be the start of my career. I’ll get started a little early, it’ll be great!” 
     I called up one of my friends, the only person I knew who lived in L.A., and he was friends with Randy Jackson, who at that time of course wasn’t on American Idol. He was an A&R guy at Columbia Records. My friend told me to call Randy and talk to him about my wanting to leave school early. 
     I called Randy, and he said, “Both L.A. and New York City are really big markets. Each city has an incredible amount of fine musicians, really excellent musicians who know who they are and they know what they want to say. They’re experienced and they’re going for it. So you’re walking into a situation where you need to be as experienced as possible and ready as possible. It’s going to do you no good to get out here, be in the right city, and the right club, and not be ready.” I thought that was good advice. I took it. I stayed in school and came out to L.A. once I had the piece of paper in my hand. I figured I would spend my time at school becoming excellent at what I do, instead of going out to L.A. when I wasn’t ready or experienced enough to become the player my drive and ambition told me I could be. But I had to pay my dues first. 
Advice like that from someone who was a veteran in the music industry must have carried some weight. 
Yes. He wasn’t some kid my age, 18 years old, telling me, “Yeah! We can just leave! That’s the right thing to do, right?” And we both just agree with each other.