Saxophonist-composer Virginia Mayhew, a slender woman of great warmth and a ready smile, is by no means a physically imposing person, but the depth and breadth of her tenor saxophone sound — big, full & rich with nuance — has always been impressive. I first heard Virginia in the DIVA big band, was struck by her prowess and was immediately impressed with her as a person after a backstage encounter at the Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival at the Kennedy Center a few seasons back. The confidence and forthrightness she expressed from her horn with DIVA were borne out by her initial release, Nini Green (Chiaroscuro), which featured the great Kenny Barron and her longtime trumpet foil Ingrid Jensen; the same was true with her 2000 follow-up No Walls for the Foxhaven label.
Mayhew’s ’02 follow-up Phantom, took the hang-fly, no chordal instrument route with Jensen and a rhythm section and further illustrated her developing composer chops. She succeeded Phantom with Sandan Shuffle, which featured a horn section and guitar. Virginia’s latest is A Simple Thank You, a full-blown expanded ensemble recording that was a happy spin-off from a performance she gave at Tribeca Performing Art Center’s annual Lost Jazz Shrines concert series, curated by the undersigned. That coupled with her DIVA history and some current work she’s been engaged in led to a recent conversation with the San Francisco Bay Area native that began on the subject of her obvious enthusiasm for large ensemble work.
A Simple Thank You, your latest recording, is your first large ensemble record as a leader. Talk about the development of this project.
Virginia Mayhew: I’ve loved big bands since I first heard the Maynard Ferguson Big Band in the mid-70s. Since then, I have played in many great big bands, including the John Coppola/Chuck Travis Big Band in San Francisco (with Herbie Steward on lead alto), the Gene Gilbeaux Jazz Orchestra, also in SF… I got to play 3rd alto to my teacher, Kirt Bradford, for several years, then he moved to Hawaii and I took over the lead book… a great way to learn!
Once I moved to NYC, I was very fortunate to play a number of gigs with Toshiko Akiyoshi’s big band… what a thrill! I was also the lead alto player for the Sahib Shihab D.U.E.S. big band. In the early 90s I was the lead tenor player for the original DIVA big band, and have been a regular in Howard Williams Big Band every Monday for over 11 years. In short (long, actually), I’ve played in a lot of big bands. I’ve also played in a lot of salsa and merengue bands which feature a horn section.
My own groups have always had one or two horns, with the exception of a 4-night gig with Slide Hampton in the early 90s. I had wanted to write for a larger ensemble for many years and then you presented me at Tribeca in April 2005. That gig paid enough for me to hire a larger group, and I took that opportunity to write 90 minutes of music for septet.
Once I decided to do [A Simple Thank You], I asked some of my favorite players to join the band. In addition to my working quartet (the band on Sandan Shuffle… Kenny Wessel on guitar, Harvie S on bass, and Victor Jones on drums), I invited Marvin Stamm to play trumpet, Lisa Parrot to play alto and baritone saxophone, and Luis Bonilla to play trombone. (The horn section has since changed trumpet and trombone players… we now have Scott Harrell on trumpet and flugelhorn, and Noah Bless on trombone.) I write the music and arrangements for the band, but the players are what make it great. Each person brings their personal sounds to the group, and everyone plays together like the real band they are. The gig at Tribeca PAC was really a lot of fun and I was very excited about the Septet. Then I found out I had breast cancer and had to put the band on hold for a while. We started playing again in 2006 and recently had a very successful weekend at Sweet Rhythm in NYC.
You took the bold and refreshing step of being photographed with your hair shorn for the cover of A Simple Thank You while you were in the midst of your health crisis; given how hung-up we are collectively when it comes to cosmetics that took some courage!
My hair had fallen out from the chemo. My friend, master photographer Paul Aresu, said he wanted to photograph me like that. I really loved what he came up with. Then Harvie S, my dear friend and bass player for 12 years, wrote a beautiful song for me "A Simple Thank You". It just seemed to go together so well.
When some women go through chemo and lose their hair, they wear wigs and try to look like they are not sick. I didn’t want to do that. I don’t think it ever works… you can always recognize that chemo look. I tried to have as much "fun" as possible, wearing wild wigs (blue or red or long brown tresses). I really liked the way the bald head felt and I kept it bald a little longer than I had to. Once it started getting cold though, I started to grow it back.
It didn’t feel like "courage" to have that [bald] shot on the cover… it just seemed like the natural thing to do. Many of my previous recordings (since Paul Aresu started photographing me) have had to do with my life. My next CD after September 11th, Phantoms, featured a very dark cover with me looking down; shot at 125th and Park in NYC. The next CD, Sandan Shuffle, featured my karate grandmaster Kaicho Tadashi Nakamura and myself. I was going through black belt promotion around the same time as recording that CD and wrote the tune "Sandan Shuffle." I asked Kaicho Nakamura to pose with me for the cover.
My mother wasn’t thrilled about [the bald photograph on the cover of A Simple Thank You], but I am very happy with the entire project. At this point, I am very appreciative of all the wonderful people and experiences I have in my life.
How has that breast cancer challenge informed your music?
I’ve always tried to follow my own path, but now I am more committed than ever to doing what I hear musically. I am very fortunate to have an incredible co-producer, Amy Hirsch, to help me with this recording work.
As you mentioned, your previous recording Sandan Shuffle, featured you and your martial arts master on the cover. How does that discipline interact with and affect your musical pursuits?
Music and my karate training have affected each other tremendously. Coming from music to karate, the idea of trying to perfect each technique was natural to me. Studying karate with Kaicho Nakamura has come to inform my life in many ways outside of the physical training. He stresses many important values, such as never giving up, constant polishing of techniques, treating people with respect, getting rid of ego and keeping a beginners’ mind. Kaicho and the students at Seido karate were tremendously supportive when I was sick. I was actually quite shocked by that, although Kaicho has always spoken of Seido as a "family" I didn’t realize the extent that people had absorbed that philosophy. Of course, the physical training of karate helps me to be physically strong, and my focus, breathing, and self-esteem have improved dramatically.
Talk about your current activities and what’s next for Virginia Mayhew.
In addition to my Septet, my primary projects right now are the Duke Ellington Legacy, which is a 9-piece group put together by Ellington’s name-sake grandson, and featuring the arrangements of Norman Simmons and the incredible singing of Nancy Reed. The group has 3 horns and is a lot of fun. We just released our debut CD, Thank You Uncle Edward and hope that will lead to more lucrative work for the band. The Ellington Legacy is a very refreshing take on Ellingtonia… we play all original arrangements by Ellington and Strayhorn (and a few others). Again, it’s classic yet contemporary. Norman Simmons has created so many wonderful arrangements for us!
I also have two quartets, one featuring the Sandan Shuffle group, and the other featuring pianist Norman Simmons. These groups are all very distinct and I’ve been able to work a wider variety of gigs because of that. I work with Brazilian jazz trumpeter Claudio Roditi on occasion, and every Sunday with Carl Thompson and Friends, every Monday with the Howard Williams Big Band. I also freelance and do a little bit of teaching.
I am hoping that one or more of these groups will really take off. The Septet fills a niche for places that want the excitement of a big band, but don’t have the budget. It is a classic jazz group, yet it has modern elements such as the guitar, the odd meters, and the original compositions.
Considering how each of your recordings stands alone as a distinctive project, do you have what you might consider any thus far unrealized "dream" projects?
I’m pretty much doing what I want to be doing! As far as "dream" projects, I’d like to be playing more gigs with these groups and also do more recording. I’m sure as time goes along I’ll have some new projects to explore. Eventually, I plan to turn the septet arrangements into big band charts… not because I want to have a big band, but so that other people can play them and I can make some money! I am so lucky to be able to live the life I am living!
The Independent Ear