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. 

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