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.