The Independent Ear

Pat Metheny interview

On the occasion of his 66th birthday (August 12, 2020), here’s a reprise of our June 2017 interview with NEA Jazz Master Pat Metheny.

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Jazz TV in pandemic times

Back in the 90s I enjoyed ten years with the former 24-hour jazz television service known as BET Jazz. After a few years participating in and hosting several video-performance powered jazz shows, including the Jazz Discovery talent show, BET Jazz head Paxton Baker asked me to develop a jazz education-based program which became JazzEdTV. The original footage for that show came from the then-annual Thelonious Monk Institute’s partnership with the Jazz Aspen Snowmass festival organization, to produce The JAS Thelonious Monk Institute Jazz Colony program.

That program, which produced an impressive number of today’s important jazz contributors, selected gifted young jazz studies students from across the globe to come to Aspen and Snowmass, CO for a 2-week intensive of small and large ensemble rehearsals, master classes with artists such as Herbie Hancock, Ray Barretto, Joe Lovano, Nathan Davis, Christian McBride, Lewis Nash, Nicholas Payton and others, and evening concerts by those masters and the students, sometimes in collaboration. My assignment was to conduct interviews with students and masters, and work with the video crew capturing the performances. Once back in DC I worked with BET Jazz’s editing staff to assemble my weekly, 60-minute JazzEd programs engaging the Jazz Colony footage.

To give you an example of the caliber of students invited to participate in this education camp, in ’99 the class included bassist Vicente Archer, pianist Martin Berjerano, drummers Otis Brown lll and Damion Reid, trombonist Vincent Chandler, trumpeters Avishai Cohen and Charlie Porter, saxophonists Patrick Cornelius and Walter Smith lll, trombonist Andre Hayward, vocalist Lisa Henry, guitarist Randy Napoleon among the student aspirants. Also in that class was a slender, unassuming alto saxophonist from Montreal named Joseph Omicil, who professionally would go by Jowee Omicil.

In 2016 I caught Jowee’s band several times at the jazz festival in Bari, Italy, a port city on the Adriatic Sea. Fast forward to our pandemic world and what for many of us in our first few weeks of shutdown/quarantine were times of peek television binge watching. Netflix was a welcome streaming oasis with it’s variety of series and documentaries. One evening we came upon a new Netflix series called The Eddy whose descriptions suggested that jazz music was a major component and whose director was the notable Damien Chazille. So we checked it out and saw immediately that a Paris jazz club was the setting, the musicians performing there clearly were not miming their playing, and the music was original and compelling. To top it off, I immediately became excited because occupying the frontline on saxophones was the same Jowee Omicil! After binge-watching The Eddy over several evenings, I reached out to Jowee with some questions.

The Eddy DESCRIPTION: The owner of a Paris jazz club gets tangled up with dangerous criminals as he fights to protect his business, his band and his teenage daughter.

Jowee, give us the story of The Eddy in a nutshell.
The Eddy is a story of a club owner – Eliat – and his collaborator, Taha Rahim. They had a dream when they were younger to open up a jazz club in Paris, and they did so. The Eddy is the group that is in residence at the club called The Eddy. The music is written by Glen Ballard and Randy Kerber, and The Eddy is Lada Obradovic on drums [editor’s note: she becomes part of The Eddy storyline – particularly from an interesting musical perspective – when she splits from the band, in a dispute with the clubowner, then returns], Damian Nueva on bass, Ludovic Louis on trumpet, Randy Kerber on piano, Joanna Kulig on vocals, Jowee Omicil on sax.

What would you tell our readers about the basic plot of The Eddy? I read a newspaper article that described The Eddy as a “jazz story.” My sense is that while jazz is a central force, this is not exactly a jazz story.
The plot: I would tell them they need to watch it to see the plot. To me it’s a good plot. I read a newspaper description of the show and described it as a “jazz show.” Exactly, it’s a jazz show because the idiom, the vehicle is jazz music – in different styles, but jazz. The story is not necessarily a jazz story, I don’t want to spoil the suspense… but it’s a story with jazz in it.

How did you come to be one of the band members cast in The Eddy?
I was referred by different people and also I did a casting and when I did a casting I got all the objectives, the qualifications they needed for the character, and that was a blessing.

I understand all of the band members on the show are professional musicians; talk about how you all came together as a band. Had you played with any of these musicians previously?
Yes, the musicians are all professionals. Yes, I had played with some of them previously, I played with Ludevic Louis on a TV show a couple of months before we joined the band, and I jammed with Damian Nueva, but I never played with Randy. But Randy and I did a jam prior to the band rehearsal, and I played a little bit with Lada, but we never played together before the show. Joanna was welcome!

Did you get the sense that the producers of The Eddy were striving for jazz authenticity in the show?
Yes, they strived for jazz authenticity, that’s why they brought in musicians who can play jazz. That’s something I honor because we got to play live, we were not overdubbing or miming, we were actually playing live; only the solos were improvised. But the arrangements we had to learn them by heart and we did so. I commend the directors for doing that, the authenticity of jazz.

What has playing and acting in The Eddy meant to your overall career pursuits?
For me it’s a great honor to have been able to act at this time in my life and career, because it’s an honor, and not only is it an honor, it’s a privilege and I learned so much. I learned to develop different emotions from the inside, not necessarily from the outside, because pretty much we think that acting comes from the outside – ‘the person is acting, the movement of their body…’ – but that’s not what it’s all about. Your emotion can come just from your facial expression, without you even moving. We must not forget I’m a big fan of movies with no sounds – with sounds, but no voice, like Charlie Chapman’s movies, only with music – the characters were only gesticular. That’s a part of acting that I really like, and I learned so much, more than I can describe in one answer.

Has The Eddy been renewed for a second season?
Not that I know of, but there are so many articles being written [asking] if Season Two is coming. So I will use the hashtag #SeasonTwoOfTheEddyComingSoon because the people are really asking. But you know with the Corona pandemic, we got hurt in terms of planning, recording, and so forth. But we’ve been blessed, we recorded the first season, and we are expecting a Season Two, but the people are asking [for a second season]… So what do we say? ‘Give the people what they want’ [laughs]. I’m blessed and grateful to answer your questions!


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Regina Carter’s message to the Swing States

After a bit of an absence from the recording studios, the perennial poll-winning violinist, MacArthur Foundation “genius” award recipient, and one of the finest people in contemporary music, the incandescent violinist Regina Carter has a brand new release. In keeping with these roiling times, thematically Regina’s new release “Swing States” takes her social justice message to the election booth. With a unique cast of musicians that includes trumpeter John Daversa, pianist Jon Batiste, Alexis Cuadrado and Kabir Sehgal on bass, and the great Harvey Mason on drums, Regina stresses the extreme importance of what some have termed the most important election in our lifetimes, the 2020 Presidential election.

Fresh off a splendid duo performance with her spouse, drummer Alvester Garnett, as part of DC JazzFest’s recently concluded virtual series Live From Our Living Rooms, comes “Swing States.” Clearly some questions were in order for Regina Carter, a true virtuoso musician and someone whose career arc this writer has had the pleasure of observing since her early days in the Detroit-centric all-woman ensemble known as Straight Ahead.

It’s been about three years since your previous release, your tribute to Ella Fitzgerald “Ella, Accentuate the Positive.” What have you been doing in the interim in terms of planning your next release?
The most difficult part for me in making a record is deciding on the message or subject, as most of my projects are theme based, highlighting matters that are significant to me. I had been
researching music and materials for a couple of ideas but the “Swing States” project was a priority.

Talk about your motivation behind this new release, “Swing States” and the social justice implications of this project, and how you chose the repertoire to perform on this date.
A friend and I were discussing how dark and divided the country has become and the topic came up about voting and those who choose not to vote.

When my brothers and I were children, my parents instilled in us the importance of voting and made sure we comprehended the fact that many people were beaten, killed and hosed while marching for the right for Black people to vote. Before each election, I remember my parents researching and discussing the candidates running and the issues. Voting was not an option in our household.

That conversation sparked the idea for this project, “Swing States”.

How did you go about assembling your Freedom Band to make this new recording?
I had a little help from my friends (smile). I collaborated with a few of the musicians on other projects and also thought it would be interesting to team up with some other swing state artists.

“Swing States” seems like quite the timely project, given all that is going on in this country in the wake of the George Floyd police killing. But clearly this is a record you’ve been planning and working toward well before our current social justice reckoning. What are the implications for this project with all that is going on here in summer 2020?

Voter suppression, especially in African American communities, racism and Black people being disproportionately killed by police are not new injustices in this country and the racist rhetoric spewed by the current occupant of the White House has played a role in encouraging violence. It is extremely important for ALL of us to be vigilant, educate ourselves about issues and exercise our right to vote, especially now; not knowing or caring about our core freedoms is the fastest way to lose them.

Forced to stay home for months during the pandemic and being glued to the news, everyone witnessed a huge dose of the ugliness and inequities of this country in full display.

Ultimately what do you hope your listeners will take away from experiencing this “Swing States” project?
I hope people will enjoy the music but I also hope it will inspire people to vote.

We recorded arrangements of several state songs from places that will ultimately determine the 2020 election; (Georgia) “Georgia On My Mind”, (Florida) “Swanee River” and “Dancing in the Street”, (Michigan) that became an anthem for the civil rights movement.

In light of the pandemic it may be a minute before you’re able to tour this work. However based on your high class duo presentation with Alvester Garnett during the recent DC Jazz Festival/Live From Our Living Rooms series, you seem quite comfortable performing online in the virtual realm. Do you get a sense that we’ll be in this virtual performance mode for some time to come, and if so how do you plan on working in this mode going forward?
Thank you, we had a great time performing at the festival! I’m thankful the online platforms exist so artists, venues, etc. can earn some income during this period. It is an odd experience though, performing in front of a computer, not seeing anyone or feeling the audience’s energy. That exchange that happens between performer and audience is crucial, but for the time being, performing virtually is our reality and I think it’s going to be this way for some time, unfortunately. Because the virtual platform is a world stage, we can’t present the same project every appearance as if on tour, artists have to be creative in what we present each time and that’s an exciting challenge.

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For the love of big band

With the release of her latest recording, For the Love of Big Band, vocalist-producer-educator Lenora Zenzalai Helm not only provides a sturdy signpost of her current artistic outlook, she has also successfully incorporated significant elements of her full-time jazz education work in the mix. Clearly this recording represents a bit of a milestone in Lenora’s career, so with those elements in mind some questions were obviously in order.

What compelled you to go the big band route for your latest recording?
I was compelled to go the big band route on this recording for a lot of reasons. I am a planner and after reflection about a recording project surmised this was an obvious next step. I’ve been thinking about the field and my obligation as a jazz educator, and I am focusing more on my unexplored areas of training. A nine-year recording hiatus is a long time to be away from the scene. I was thinking quite intently on what was unexpressed and unexplored in my discography. I didn’t want to do much of what I had in the previous six recordings. I felt compelled to go the route of a big band recording because It was the only ensemble configuration for which I had not yet released a project. I have sung with big bands as a guest artist in the past and the experience whet my appetite for being an integral component of a big band. In my current role as a professor in the Jazz Studies program at NCCU, the big band, (NCCU Jazz Ensemble) is a central component of the program. I’m the director of the NCCU Vocal Jazz Ensemble, and we often tour with the big band. My awareness and love for the big-band sound and repertoire grew from working in that setting since 2005.

I’ve had a lot of time to hear the repertoire, and my burning question was and is, where are the women vocalist big-band leaders? There are many women instrumentalists or women instrumentalists who may sing and who lead or led big bands, (Carla Bley, Toshiko Akioshi, Melba Liston, Bertha Hope, Carline Ray are a few names that come to mind). It is not generally thought of a woman vocalist as a big-band leader. This was troubling for me. The deeper I dug, the more curious I became.

We know of Ella Fitzgerald’s history as the leader of the Chick Webb Orchestra after he passed away. We know of Billy Eckstine’s Orchestra as vocalist/bandleader. The typical scenario is of a women vocalist working as a guest of a big band, but the documentation about women vocalist big-band leaders is scant. It doesn’t mean that none existed, just not well documented.

Working in jazz education has formed many questions of the field. I really am laying a foundation for the work I want my next decade to be about. When I graduated Berklee in ’82, my degree in hand, I looked for women in jazz to model or hold in mind as mentors. I had a conversation with Betty Carter around that time, backstage after her concert at Berklee Performance Center. I told her I wanted to sing Jazz. She looked me up and down and stared at me for what seemed an eternity (lol) and said, “it is hard . . really hard.” I shook my head yes, in understanding.

I held onto her words and vowed to do what it takes. She was the closest example I had at that time of a woman musician and bandleader that I had a chance to meet and ask questions. Though her advice was minimal, It was something to put in my hat. You can’t underestimate how important it is that up-and-coming musicians have examples of what is possible for them. I’ve just learned I earned promotion and tenure in my role at North Carolina Central University. I will start this fall 2020 as an Associate Professor, Jazz Studies. A seven year, all up-hill journey. Man! I expect to defend my dissertation also by this fall semester to complete my DMA. If I am successful, I will finally be “Dr. Hammonds.” It is a demarcation of sorts for me. I’ve been asking myself, “what else do you want to accomplish?” I like challenges.

The Tribe Jazz Orchestra is a new frontier. Twice now I’ve directed the band while another singer, Nina Simone’s daughter Lisa Simone, performed. It was great working with Lisa. She’s a consummate professional. Conducting the band for another singer was also very interesting. I was able to focus on just the conducting role and hear the band without having to concentrate on singing. I loved it!! I certainly welcome another opportunity for another singer to hire my orchestra to perform and I conduct/arrange/compose.

Being new to the sound as a sculptor of the energy and power a big band holds, I’ve a lot to learn and develop in my musical sensibility and expression. I’m ready to do more arranging and composing. That is my intent going forward. Not many people know that my first degree is in film scoring (Bachelor of Music from Berklee College of Music in film scoring/voice). I have unheard compositions and arrangements for ensembles of all size – including orchestral music. I have not really delved a lot into my background as an arranger and composer. It’s time. I’m “easing my toe in” so to speak with this recording, but it doesn’t include any of my own big-band arrangements, just lyrics. In fact, I sent the record to my musical “little brother” Orrin Evans, who called me after listening and said, “where is your music!” I had to laugh out loud. I love when my folk keep me honest. (shout out to Orrin!). This is very much a project I thought deeply about and journaled about though, and as the clarity came about for the repertoire, the cats to call, I felt more confident that this was my next phase. I actually started putting it together about 2 years ago when I was on a Fulbright in Denmark. Shortly after returning I did a “test” run at a jazz spot in Durham. I fell in love with the sound and energy of big band. So, yeah. Full speed ahead. Solidified the players, the live recording space and engineer (the most important selection for a live recording!), did a successful crowd-funding campaign and here we are. Grateful!

Am I correct in assuming that the personnel on this record is a mix of students and professionals? How did that come together as you planned this date?
Well, there is kind of a little story behind that choice, to have students and professionals together on this project. Dr. Billy Taylor was my out-the-gate example of a jazz musician who is also an educator. When I first began working at NCCU, I remember cornering Dr. Taylor at an IAJE event, sharing with him what I was working on with the NCCU Vocal Jazz Ensemble (VJE). After I exhausted my list of songs and exercises hoping he would say, “well done,” instead he asked, “but are you teaching them the history? With each song, make sure they know the history!” As I thought about the opportunity to teach through the music in this record, I chose to include the students in every aspect of the process. I discussed my song choices, invited my classes to rehearsals, and for the singers from NCCU VJE, had them learn some of my charts to rehearse with the big band.I believe in helping young musicians thrive.

It is really about “walking the talk” and facilitating how they learn the real-world experience for which we propose our classroom work prepares them. For the Love of Big Band provided the perfect opportunity because my vision was to feature a multigenerational, diverse lineup with regard to gender, race and experience. That’s what a tribe is. Not everyone in the village is the same, but the sum makes the whole rich. Because I’m a jazz educator, I am ensconced in the village where student musicians are amidst the professionals. They come to our gigs; we go to theirs. I think it provides a sense of being part of a continuum. So, Tribe Jazz Orchestra, to be true to its name, would need to include the entire strata of folk. Having students working alongside professionals on this record was also part of the intention for the project.

I think all professional musicians should have at least one student on their recordings or tours. Can you imagine the difference in the outcome of the coming generations if they don’t all have to learn everything by trial and error? There is a very valuable experience to be gleaned from being a fly on the wall or sitting alongside a pro or elder on the bandstand and in the recording booth. Invaluable! The student’s level of performance changes, up-leveled far beyond what the classroom or private studio lessons can do for them. It is the basic, “each one, teach one” axiom. Betty Carter is an example of jazz education from the bandstand. I thought this record date could be multi-generational, and that could only be achieved by finding outstanding students who deserved a chance to sit alongside professionals. What better way to learn how to put a record together unless
someone walks you through the process, whether as a fly on the wall, or intentional conversations?

As you planned this record date, what was your sense of combining a jazz orchestra and a modern chamber ensemble?
Well the modern chamber ensemble is for me an arrangers’ ideal “sandbox” of textures and colors. It requires the musicians to listen differently and respond differently because you have fewer bandmates (less than 10). The big band arrangements on For the Love of Big Band have sections that are paired down to just some of the members. This unit-within-a-unit approach provides various landscapes of rhythm and color to play with, so the vocals can weave around, up and down, and the listener has a bit of a break to the wall of sound when the whole band is playing. Two of the selections are recorded as singles, Stella By Starlight and A Conversation with God with the Tribe Jazz Orchestra Septet, the latter also appearing on the record as a big band version.

I learned this idea from Andrew Hill, and also from the writing of Duke Ellington. I was on the JazzPar tour with Andrew Hill and had a chance to listen to him maneuver his compositions with an octet (I was the +1 on the Andrew Hill Jazz Par Octet +1 album). Just fascinated with what he achieved with that ensemble instrumentation. I’m sure I will do a lot more of this kind of writing — modern chamber ensemble with jazz orchestra. In a modern chamber ensemble, it is understood that strings may be included or other non-traditional instrumentation. For instance, I love the sound of bass clarinet, cello and flute. Our cellist on the two septet pieces is Tim Holley who plays with a subtle beauty that in many moments is like a whisper. Yes, very much intrigued by what is in front of me, but again so grateful for what we achieved on For the Love of Big Band.

Considering this large ensemble context, how did you go about selecting the songs?
I selected every song! I guess you could say I cherry-picked the selections from my “I’ve always wanted to sing ________” list. On For the Love of Big Band I wanted the blues to be front and center, no matter what style we were playing. I chose songs that would allow the big band to be as phat in sound, and fun in feel as possible. Love that swagger of the blues with all that power of the horns! I’ve managed to program a Duke Ellington composition on every record, on this one we have two, I Didn’t Know About You, and Everything But You. I included the former even though it appears on my I Love Myself When I’m Laughing recording to see what it would afford itself with a big band arrangement. I spent a weekend with several women musicians from North Carolina to honor Nina Simone in spring of 2018 when I was invited to perform for a fundraiser to save her childhood home in Tryon, NC.

It was a big event with several organizations coming together to make it happen. The occasion caused me to travel deep into her discography and I pulled out Blues for Mama and Mississippi Goddam (arranged by pianist Lydia Salett Dudley who also participated in that event). I’ve been intrigued by Ms. Simone my entire career. I recorded her version of I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl on my Chronicles of a Butterfly release and No Images on my Voice Paintings release, but the thought of Nina Simone songs with big band gave me goosebumps just thinking about it. They are two of my favorite pieces on For the Love of Big Band. I wanted to focus only on singing for this project, and managing the entire production of 40 people, so I hired some of my favorite big band arrangers.

Saxophonist/composer/arranger Brian Horton, our guest conductor, has five arrangements on For the Love of Big Band; Soul Eyes, Blues for Mama, I Didn’t Know About You and No More Blues for the big band, and with the septet, Stella by Starlight. I have always loved the writing of trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater. I think his writing is so intuitive and always swinging. His arrangements on For the Love of Big Band are Bebop by Dizzy Gillespie (with vocalist Deborah Brown’s lyrics), It Could Happen To You and Sandu. He did another arrangement for me of a Betty Carter tune that I’m saving for the next record. Lastly, anyone who knows me knows I am a huge John Coltrane fan and usually include a Coltrane piece on my recordings. I had a former student who is now a colleague, vocalist/arranger Maurice Myers, to arrange a vocalese for the NCCU Vocal Jazz Ensemble, as well as join me to sing the duet on Coltrane’s Dear Lord, which with my lyric is titled A Conversation with God. We were going for the sound of jazz orchestra and jazz choir. The piece was a logistical challenge and I’m most grateful for the tenacity of our engineer Rob Hunter. He is just brilliant – on loan to me for this project from Branford Marsalis. Most grateful (shout out to Bran!). One of my mentors whom I had the privilege of recording with on my release Precipice, is pianist/composer Stanley Cowell. He re-imagined Gershwin’s But Not For Me on For the Love of Big Band, (which he recorded with me on my previous trio release Precipice. When I called and asked him about doing the big band arrangement he didn’t hesitate. Love me some Stanley! Just a beautiful cat and a brilliant musician.

How do you see this record as a departure from your earlier records?
One departure on this record from earlier records is not having any of my own compositions or arrangements. I regret that I had none of my original compositions on the record as in past recordings, though I do have my original lyrics to John Coltrane’s composition Dear Lord. I stayed focused on my singing and bandleader role. It was a new hat and a lot of responsibility. I wanted to enjoy the opportunity to immerse myself in the sound of such a large ensemble to express my love for swing and the blues. I focused on bringing a new experience for my listeners of my voice with a large ensemble. I tried to really dig into the interpretation of songs I love and how my vocal sound engaged with the energy of the horns. Another departure is the way you use and engage with your rhythm section. A rhythm section drives a big band (I’m learning it is the secret sauce) and those players have a particular intention in each arrangement. I was very focused on all of that. In previous records I thought more about each composition from the story, then the sound. With a big band, I thought about the sound AND the story as hand-in-glove. I
am excited to explore that relationship in future recordings. This will be the unit I work with over these next few years and subsequent records. I feel like a kid in a candy store.

What role did your jazz education career play in producing this record?
I am very much the kind of person who will bloom where I’m planted. I’m the kind of educator who enjoys the process and environment. I enjoy the privilege – and it is indeed a privilege to assist someone on a creative journey — of guiding new and
emerging jazz musicians to hear and see themselves in the continuum. The Tribe Jazz Orchestra project could only happen at this time in my career, because of my jazz education experiences. My musical awareness and interest were aroused differently from my previous years in NYC as a working and touring musician. There were no big-band leaders my age, really, especially vocalists. I didn’t think about having or leading a big band – only as a passing fancy to sing with one. Mentors also guided my decision for this project. Some directly, others indirectly. Jazz education and my jazz education career played a huge part in producing this
record, as I’m thinking about the response to this question. Of course, Dr. Ira Wiggins’ invitation to accept a position to build the vocal component at NCCU is pivotal. Wiggins (or Doc as we all affectionately call him), has carved out a sound that is legendary amongst HBCU big bands. (We were proud to be one of the ten inaugural big bands at the 2020 Jack Rudin Collegiate Big Band Championship at Jazz at Lincoln Center this year.)

I watched Andrew Hill, Dr. Billy Taylor, Stanley Cowell and Mr. Jimmy Heath carve a sound through their compositions for big bands, chamber ensembles, smaller groups. They all mesmerized and intrigued me because my question was always, “how can I get some of that?” LOL! Stellar musicianship, great writers, leadership in their roles in academia, musicians’ musicians. I aspire to be like them as a woman big band leader, musician, composer, arranger, academe.

In thinking about this answer Willard, here we are at the same conundrum. Again, where are the women? Jazz education has a terrible track record, lacking representation in women jazz educators. Plenty of women vocal jazz educators. Not many lead big bands, teach theory or arranging for instance, or have leadership roles in the Jazz Studies departments or programs. I know pianist Geri Allen was a director of Jazz Studies, pianist Dee Spencer, and Jeri Brown I think was the only woman vocalist that led a jazz program, now flutist Nicole Mitchell heads a Jazz Studies unit (University of Pittsburgh) as a woman director. And, I have a ton of respect for Roxanne Stevenson, (who directs the big band at Chicago State). We have to do better about clearing the way to equity of women represented in Jazz period.

The musicians on this record are all from your home area in the Raleigh-Durham area. Some folks sleep that part of the country as far as jazz and its jazz musicians, but what would you tell those folks about jazz talent in that area?
I believe that jazz has to have tradition, of swing and the blues. In North Carolina, there is a deep and rich tapestry of musicians who come out of the church tradition, and the blues tradition. A lot of what you hear from musicians in our area, especially younger musicians, is a result of the many universities that teach jazz. Dr. Ira Wiggins, Director of Jazz Studies at NCCU has influenced several generations of musicians in the Durham area for instance, and for a long time UNCC was the only place to earn a Bachelor of Music in Jazz Studies, and the first to have a Master of Music in Jazz Studies, not only at an HBCU, but in the state. You hear that legacy on my record, as many of the musicians (faculty and alums) are in my band. I came to North Carolina from New York kicking and screaming, but I’m happy I did. I thought I would lose whatever I assumed you get only in NYC to be a “real jazz musician.” Happily, what I did was assimilate into what felt very familiar to my Chicago, (South-Side) roots.

There is a true sound here in North Carolina. Think about the musicians from here: John Coltrane, Jimmy Heath, Roberta Flack, Thelonious Monk, Max Roach. The sound expressed itself on the record was organic. It wasn’t something we discussed beforehand and declared to any of the musicians to try and achieve. I attribute it to those deep church roots. The jazz musicians who choose to pay homage to the blues in their playing perform with a soulfulness that is palatable.

Dr. Wiggins and Brian Horton are both from Kinston, NC and there is a legacy of music from that region (think of James Brown’s saxophonist Maceo Parker). Reedman Brian Miller has a big, fat beautiful tenor sound, which you can also in his alto playing. Ameen Saleem (longtime bassist with Roy Hargrove) has that consistent phat sound, as does Lynn Grissett on trumpet – searing and soulful, he puts his stamp on his solos, and you instantly know to which tradition he pays homage. I could go through each chair in the band, all having ties to North Carolina, and concurrent threads through playing in church, maybe paying dues in NYC, and having experience in pop, soul and R&B. Lynn Grissett played in the horn section with Prince, trombonist Robert Trowers toured with Randy Weston and in the big bands of Lionel Hampton and Count Basie.

With so much history and experience amidst the personnel, I only had to make the right choices of repertoire, hire supportive staff, great arrangers, and a great conductor so I could focus on doing my thing. The record was crowd-funded and galvanized over 100 people who love Jazz, and recorded in front of a live audience in an historic church near downtown Durham. I felt like I had the wind at my back and a pocket full of all the gold in Africa. The entire process has been a blast! I hope listeners find it enjoyable.

Learn more about this enterprising artist at

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Performing in a post-pandemic world – Part Two

This dialogue is part two of a series of communications with touring performing artists discussing their sense of what their performing life will look like once the fog and uncertainty of our current pandemic life lifts enough to allow them to play to live audiences. We’ve posed three questions to each of these artists, questions about their post-pandemic performing life, their sense of what that will mean for the venues they typically perform in across the globe, and their expectations of those venues and themselves when it is safe to resume some modicum of their performing career.

Our participants in Part Two of this series of dialogues include the following bandleaders: Melissa Aldana (saxophone); Monty Alexander (piano); Jamie Baum (flute); Owen Broder (saxophone); Clairdee (voice); Akua Dixon (cello); Gerry Gibbs (drums); Monika Herzig (piano-keyboards); TK Blue (saxophones-flute); Ben Williams (bass); Charles Rahmat Woods (saxophones-flute); Helen Sung (piano).

1. What precautions will you take going forward – at least until we have a clear sense that Covid-19 has been successfully eradicated?
“To be honest, I feel comfortable performing before an audience right now! But that’s a knee-jerk reaction…taking my emotion out of it – for me, a major step towards feeling safer (and more responsible) to resume in-person performances again is having universal testing (and regular testing) be available…maybe even mandatory. A comprehensive system to keep track of everyone’s results would follow, although how we would do this will probably be hotly debated. Societal trust has to be re-built, so that I don’t see others as threats who could infect me. Although some enforcement will likely be needed initially, I hope that each of us will do our part to promote public health/safety, and over time come to trust that others have done their part as well. Some other thoughts: for jazz clubs to adopt the reduced capacity rules that restaurants have likely to adhere to (at least for now) seems a shame, and counter to what live music is all about – rubbing elbows, community, being close together, feeding off of each other’s expressions, exclamations, energy. Will musicians have to wear masks onstage? I wonder how it will impact the live performance experience for artists and audience alike. Performing to an empty club while being live streamed has been offered as another solution, but for me it is an artificial and sadly lacking alternative. But we have to make the best of the situation and I’m game to trying all the possibilities. But I still sincerely hope one day we can return to how live music was “in the past.” I think the international community is further along in the process of re-opening, and we should definitely learn from them.”

“I think there will be a huge change in the way we interact with audience[s], capacity of venues, the way we travel, the way we perceive the world. But if I am just talking about the music I personally feel this is gonna be such huge change for me since there has been so much time to think; the growth, to be on my own, etc…. and all of this has allowed me to get to know myself in a way that I would have never done it before and that is connected to the way I play and express myself.”

“If I try to imagine the more favorable scenario, it would be one where the audiences would be much less [smaller in terms of] attendees, of course seated several feet apart with everyone wearing health masks, including artists – horn players and singers. In my case as a piano player, the piano would need to have been wiped down with anti-bacterial sanitizer before the performance and I myself would be obliged to do so again to make sure there is no virus on the keys. Another thought – perhaps the safer kind of venues are open-air with people sitting several feet apart.”

“I tend to think outdoor performances will be a more realistic way to begin any live performances. From everything they are saying, the worst thing is to be in a small or medium sized venue for any length of time. If I were a bass, piano, guitar player, or drummer, I think I would fare better because they can play while wearing a mask, and I wish I could!. Obviously, when there is either a vaccine and/or therapeutics that work, that would help ease the concern as well.”

“Traveling is an issue. But once we’re in the performance space, I don’t imagine the primary issue will be proximity to bandmates on the stage. Hopefully by the time bands are performing together, the general public will have access to affordable and reliable tests, which would enable bands to safely rehearse and its members to interact with one another. But audiences will likely be limited in capacity, as it will likely still be a high risk for the foreseeable future to be in-doors with large groups of people. In the past, it was fairly common for artists to interact with at least a portion of the audience for awhile following a performance. I think this would have to be extremely controlled, if not avoided altogether.”

“It’s going to be a huge challenge for artists and presenters going forward. It is highly probable that artists and venues will continue to present more live-stream shows perhaps in conjunction with live performances. If the trend of live stream continues, I wonder how the criteria presenters currently use to select artists may change. I am concerned that many seasoned, less[er] known artists like myself will be left out with preferences going to legacy and “known” artists.

“Venues must make money to stay in business – especially since there will be fewer audience members due to social distancing restrictions. I LOVE performing in front of an audience. There’s nothing better than communing together with music. I realize that in order to adhere to sanitization rules and social distancing guidelines, presenters will have to rethink how many shows to present, how many people in the band, etc. I would be up for doing a 90-minute show in the afternoon, with a few hours in between to allow for cleaning, etc., and perform a second 90-minute show in the evening.”

“The public is getting used to being able to see concerts online at home. These are mostly live solo or duo performances. After the pandemic has calmed down, I can see concerts where bands are performing at a venue with either no one there or a limited amount of people in the audience. Tickets would be sold to view the bands’ performance online all over the world. Outdoor festivals/performances might be safer to do live. I would like for a vaccine to be in place before I start doing public performances.”

“I think I have only heard 1 or 2 musicians say they would take a chance and play in front of a crowd no matter how big the crowd was. I don’t see anytime soon for the majority of music performing clubs [or] concert venues opening up and having bands play in front of people sitting, drinking without the new norm called “Social Distancing.” If a club can only fit 100 and now through social distancing can safely only have 40 people or less how they will be able to pay bands or make a profit themselves[?].”

“I’m learning tech skills in abundance right now and I hope to implement some of these strategies for collaborations and for connecting with audiences. Of course I look forward to the days of traveling the world again but maybe the music business has tilted to far to relying on live performance income and it’ll be good for a bit less stressful musician’s life, for the environment, and for audiences to have more connection avenues that don’t require excessive travel at all times.”

“It’s very difficult for me to look far ahead as news coverage changes daily and we have to ascertain truth from fiction. One thing is for sure I will always remain positive and optimistic that live performance opportunities will resurrect. By the same token I do believe the landscape for the performing arts will have a new reality. For now I would not feel very comfortable performing in small indoor clubs/venues, unless [they were] large enough and some sort of social distance could be achieved. I think the safe bet going forward is to cultivate outdoor venues, arenas, theaters, etc. With supervision we could maintain social distance in the audience as well as onstage. In addition, with live streaming happening on a large scale, future concerts could be streamed for a small fee. This can create another avenue of revenue for the promoter.”

“It is very hard to imagine what my post-pandemic performances may look like. I just finished reading a New York Times article about promoters and venues basically looking to 2021 at the earliest for reopening large concert venues. I foresee it being a very slow and cautious process. The uncertainty of how to return and what steps need to be put in place are very important. I am very anxious to get back to a “normal” performance atmosphere and honestly I’d rather wait a year (or however long it takes) to get back to a performance environment that everyone feels comfortable with – fans and artists included. I’m not sure if I can feel good about creating something so sacred as music in front of fans that are forced to sit six feet apart. The question becomes: “what is the quality of the experience if we try to return too early?”

“Planet Earth’s economic and social culture has been brought to a screeching halt. That being said, I would not feel totally comfortable [performing] until a vetted vaccine (preventative) or curative treatment is available.”

2. What precautions will you take going forward – at least until we have a clear sense that Covid-19 has been successfully eradicated.
“Basically what the health authorities have been advocating: I wear a mask whenever moving around outside, using hand sanitizer when not at home (or not having access to sinks where I can wash my hands), avoid touching my face, washing hands thoroughly after coming home, and try to take better care of myself (getting more sleep, regular sleep, exercise, healthy eating habits etc).”

“Just try to be as cautious as possible.”

“Even if the virus has been “successfully” eradicated, folks who are like me (including age-wise: 76) they would likely maintain a higher level of vigilance and caution. Therefore a great deal of that earlier carefree attitude that has always been a part of the ‘jazz’ scene would go out the window.”

“I have not left my apartment in 9 weeks except for an occasional walk on our second floor plaza… we are still in lockdown mode in NYC [as of May 21]. It is hard to know when and how to move forward at this point. I will follow the protocol of wearing a mask when I go out, trying to keep 6 feet distance, etc., but in terms of performing live… I can’t say yet.”

“At the moment, I am still generally operating within the parameters of lockdown. As things begin to open up, my priority will be to get tested, which will inform how I move forward. I will be closely following the CDC’s recommendations for safe practices. I plan to continue to avoid physical contact, such as shaking hands, to maintain a safe distance from other individuals, and to carry sterilizing wipes with me for things like music stands, microphones, and other performance equipment that may have been handled by a number of other people.”

“Until we have a clear sense that the Covid-19 virus has been successfully eradicated, the best precautions I can take are to continue to shelter in place, wash my hands, wear as mask, and social distance. When it is “safe” to return to performing, I will continue to do those things. The hardest thing for me will be to resist hugging. Giving a hug is something I’ve always done and is another way that I connect and say “Thank you” to my bandmates and the people who attend my shows. A good thing that has come from the shelter in place mandate is the flexibility of time allowed to create – working on exciting projects to continue to promote my new album and show. Hopefully, these things will entice audiences to come to the live show whenever it is “safe” to perform live again.”

“Limited contact with the audience… mask and social distancing, no direct contact, no hand shaking. Have previously signed CDs, etc. for sale.”

“The next option is live streaming, and guess what – now thousands of people all over the world are going to be live streaming every day and that will be an overload, and the majority of people watching jazz will have to pay and most likely pay for the more well-known artists, and most stuff will get ignored making all those ignored bands earn less money. Now if the more famous person or band is getting more internet attention, how many times can they attract a crowd?”

“Minimal contact with people outside of my direct circles; safe travel precautions with masks, lots of hand sanitizers, playing only with people in my ‘bubble.'”

“The main precaution I take currently is to use a mask and gloves whenever leaving my home. I always respect social distance rules and rarely do I eat food prepared by others (restaurant take/out or delivery). On local TV they featured a famous restaurant that was re-opening and the camera went inside the kitchen where a cook’s mask was below his nose and his helper had no mask on at all!!”

“I believe when we do return to performing there will be much more attention to cleanliness and sanitary precautions. I imagine this will be a much bigger part of our everyday lives (public spaces, equipment, instruments, etc. being regularly sanitized) for our overall peace of mind. I’m definitely not opposed to that especially living in New York City! Again, it’s hard to say at what point we’ll all feel comfortable but in this case I believe it is in everyone’s best interest to err on the side of caution.”

“Until a curative component (vaccine/treatment) is in place, I can only follow “best practices” protocols (hand washing, face masks, social distancing, avoidance of mass transit, etc.) to protect myself, my family, my band, and my audiences. Currently those best practices preclude the sort of audience interactions and environs that have been my normal source of performance engagement. The Catch 22 dilemma is that I am part of the “gig economy”. My living depends on active live social interaction and should a live performance offer come in I will have to give it serious consideration. While internet performances are still developing as an option. I don’t think they have matured into a reliable revenue stream for “gig workers”.

3. What will be your expectations of those who present your performances, in terms of safeguards, audience considerations, and overall attention to making sure artists’ needs are met in that regard?
“I would like those who present my performances to practice all the precautions listed in my answer to Question No.2. Unless we stay quarantined forever, I don’t know if it’s possible to 100% protect everyone from infection when society re-opens. I think the best we can do is implement the recommended safety guidelines, understand what we are dealing with, exercise common sense, and probably practice some some self-denial here and there (like not attending this or that when we might be infected, taking the time to get tested regularly, etc) in the name of the common good.

“I think I am just expecting for the venue to be aware of what is happening, be cautious and respectful of the situation.”

“Presenters would need to be responsible for making sure that everything is/has been done for maximum safety. The artists obviously would need to lower their financial wishes/expectations.”

“All I can say is to follow the science. As I mentioned, right now I am dying to play with people and perform… However, I have to consider the health of the people around me, and as I see how things begin to unfold, I will try to make the best decisions. I’d like to suggest that all of the tech people and everyone wear a mask, and clean everything, etc. But all of that seems like a huge challenge, and of course I can’t wear a mask while playing. Flying or going on public transportation is a whole other thing.”

“I would hope that, as much as possible, presenters minimize the amount of time artists spend in an enclosed space, limit or entirely avoid direct contact with audience members, particularly indoors and in large groups, and keep the stage, equipment, and greenroom or holding area sterile. I think one of the intermediate steps before audiences are present will be live-streaming performances in venues without audiences. We should all be considering how to safely facilitate this so that venues can continue generating revenue and artists can get back to performing in some capacity as soon as it is safe and possible to do so.”

“My main concern is that even with proper restrictions in place, will people feel safe enough to attend live shows? How far will the front row be from the stage? As far as safeguards, I will continue to use my own microphone. I can’t imagine all the work that venues would have to do to keep backline clean. I imagine that tech crews would have to wear masks and gloves. The dressing rooms – if we are even allowed to use them – would have to be thoroughly cleaned before we arrive at the venue. I would not want any visitors to come to the dressing rooms.”

“Most venues have someone near the dressing rooms so that people can’t get backstage. This will have to be made available in most places. Most venues announce that flash photography is not allowed. You could also add to that statement and say that social distancing is required.”

“Providing separate space for artists behind stage, diligent disinfection of spaces and instruments – possible temperature checking at entrance, providing live streaming options that can generate additional income to make up for smaller audiences and ticket sales.”

“Making sure social distance is adhered to in the audience and on stage. If it’s indoors [performance], please make sure there is ample ventilation/climate control. If food is provided, please make sure it’s from a reputable restaurant and all precations were made in the food preparation (I realize this will be difficult). Lastly, when at all possible I would drive to the venues and bypass public transportation.”

“Moving forward I would definitely be more vigilant about the sanitary precautions taken by the venues to ensure they are doing everything they can to prevent the spread of virus and germs. Again, I would feel better in waiting until we get to a point where social distancing is not mandatory because it would dramatically impact the quality of performance. While the health of the audience is of the utmost importance, we have to ask ourselves as artists, is it worth it if all the life has been sucked out of the environment? The experience of a live performance is such a delicate and sacred thing and the last thing I would want is for fans to not be able to fully engage in the moment. Like everyone else, I’m waiting both patiently and anxiously, hoping and praying we an get back to making music in front of crowds of people.”

“Presenters have additional challenges of safeguarding their contracted performers and their audiences. In addition to standard “best practices” (venue sanitization, safe distancing, safe amenities) the venue may have to consider the adequate safety of its air ventilation and conditioning systems. If “temperature checks” are instituted (as they have been in some instances overseas) to be a screening tool for production workers, the prospects of a band member, stage personnel or ticket holders being suddenly rejected has implications on the quality of a specific engagement.”

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