Correction to JazzTimes June Feature

First, I'd like to say that I'm honored to be featured in the June issue of JazzTimes Magazine, which also happens to be the annual Saxophone Issue. It was great to have a thought-provoking conversation about my work with the fine writer Aidan Levy. But I do want to respectfully clarify a couple of points and address a couple of misquotes for the record.

It's always a conundrum whether to talk about the issue of gender in the jazz world. In some ways, I'm damned if I do, damned if I don't. The article addresses my past group Shatter the Glass and identifies it as a "feminist jazz collective" used as a "political tool". The title was certainly intended to have a double meaning - music that could be intense enough to shatter glass and also pave the way for more female instrumentalists. The group (made up of both men and women performing my compositions) was intended to offer a role model for female instrumentalists, and an example of diversity. With a fiscal sponsorship from Fractured Atlas, we acted as a nonprofit and provided some mentoring to women. But the focus was on the music. And if being in a mixed gender group with a mission of expanding the demographics of the music signals politics in this day and age, that's a shame.

Mr. Levy and I did talk of the all-female bands that were prevalent during World War II, but I’d never heard of Thelma White and her all-girl band until I saw them mentioned in the article. I do think the International Sweethearts of Rhythm are a great example of the talented women players who have always existed in the history of the music  - and they also happened to be one of the first examples of a racially integrated touring band.

Which brings me to this misquote: Manning says, "such groups tend to perpetuate a dualistic, separate-but-equal model that can undermine women in jazz at the institutional level". I want to clarify that while I DO often speak of the term "women in jazz" being dualistic by its very nature, I would NOT use the term "separate-but-equal". That term comes from our terrible history of racial segregation, and I feel it is not appropriate to use in a discussion of gender.

In reality, there's no such thing as Women in Jazz. There's the music, and the people who play it.  In all fairness, Mr. Levy had some hesitation when he asked me about gender in our conversation, and I agreed to talk about it because my previous band was trying to address that (decidedly not pink) elephant in the room. I simply want to be clear about where I'm coming from and it would be lovely to just set all those elephants free.

I will say that I am very pleased that the article was presented in the Saxophone Issue, and not the annual Women in Jazz issue. Because I play saxophone. And that's what matters.

Saxophonist and Bat

The last time I released an album I quit music right at this point in the game. Good - even great - reviews are rolling in for the new one. Bringing just enough validation to create demand for more while illuminating the contrast between making music and making a living. Sleep has been short, interrupted. It has been bleak. It has been dangerous. And then last night saxophonist met bat. Shortly after I closed my eyes, the rustle of a tiny mammal somewhere in my apartment became clear. The shadow of tiny wings crossed my windows. I turned on the light. The bat zoomed a few feet over my head. As it contemplated a way back into the night it rested awhile by hanging upside down above my pillow. With three wary local police officers, a broom, and a wastebasket the bat became free again. Rabies shots were administered to offset tiny stealthy bat teeth that can do damage without evidence, while one sleeps. I searched for meaning. Bat totems? Dispelling illusion, bringing clarity in dreams? No, the creature just wanted to come in from the cold. But when I practiced long tones in my dimly lit studio this evening, I had it. Bat and saxophonist together – creating sound in the dark, listening to see the way out. 

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Remembering Yusef Lateef

This past week we lost a great and humble person with the passing of Dr. Yusef Lateef at age 93. Much has been written about his music - and there doesn't seem to be quite the right words out there to adequately describe what a remarkable composer, saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist he was. But as someone fortunate enough to be a student of Dr. Lateef, to me what truly made him a great man was the fact that the beauty of his music matched his beauty as a person. The music and the man were one and the same, and it is something that we should all aspire to.

Several stories stand out in my mind from the time I studied with him. When a musical colleague in the department had a child, Dr. Lateef reached out with a practical, thoughtful gift – JCPenney towels – something which any parent can never have too much of. As a teaching assistant for African American Music 101, I observed him speak to a room full of perhaps 200 students, most of whom had no idea who he was and who often left in the middle of class. The department never seemed to be able to provide him with a needed microphone, yet he continued to deliver eloquent lectures, playing records for the class, including his own, and telling the stories of the music he lived and breathed, like the time he made hot chocolate for John Coltrane. In private instruction, he was always gentle in his critiques, and trusted his students to seek the knowledge they needed at that particular time. His presence commanded respect and inspired those around him.

It took me some time to process, but one particular lesson that Dr. Lateef taught me changed my whole direction and approach to music. Like many young students of “jazz”, I’d brought him a recording of three standards including Body and Soul. I was focused on replicating the tradition and eager for acknowledgement. Without disparaging the playing, he spoke philosophically about the music. Instead of taking a tradition from decades ago and trying to find myself in it, I needed to find my own voice – even if my audience might be small. I began to realize that true respect for the great music that came before us lies in the path to finding authenticity of expression.

The idea of having one’s own voice is often discussed. But what strikes me now, with Dr. Lateef’s passing, is that in order to have one’s own voice you really have to know yourself. It isn’t just choosing a series of sounds and textures and piecing them together. It comes from being willing to look deeply at our flaws, sit with the sometimes terrifying range of emotions that we experience as human beings, and practice compassion toward others and toward ourselves. It’s a lifelong process to commit to over and over again.

It is no easy task to do so in a world where the business of music eviscerates the ego and often pits fellow artists against each other. To wake each day and keep writing and playing when we are often not recognized or compensated for our work requires the kind of bravery that at its heart recognizes that we aren’t just doing this for ourselves.

 Every now and then in the music building, I would see Dr. Lateef walk to the soda machine for a Sprite. I remember that he also liked Jolly Ranchers. These little things made me realize that despite his incredible talent and achievements, he was a fellow human being – and one that maybe had a bit of a sweet tooth.

It’s too easy to put people who have touched us deeply with their beauty into a place where their legacy seems unattainable and in doing so dismiss an opportunity to take a close look inward. Perhaps the most important way we can honor Brother Yusef is to strive to attain the same depth and beauty of spirit as people as we strive for in our music.  

Saxophone and Picnic Basket - October Fellowship at the MacDowell Colony

 It's been a little while now since I've returned from the MacDowell Colony.  For the first time in my life, I had a studio to call my own and no obligations except to just do what I do as a saxophonist and composer for a couple of weeks in the New Hampshire autumn. And what a studio it was! I'm immensely grateful for the experience and honored to be a part of such a storied artist colony. A beautiful old Steinway, a rocking chair, a fireplace, and an electric tea kettle. Three meals a day provided by a wonderful kitchen who found interesting combinations of foods to accommodate me as a longtime vegan. Lunch, delivered to my studio and left behind the screen door on my porch.

After breakfast with the other Fellows, -  composers, writers, sculptors, painters and performance artists - I headed a mile through the woods to my studio to burn incense and make Oolong tea. Mornings began with saxophone practice, bringing long tones to the stillness of the woods as I got warmed up, and later in the morning I migrated to the piano to write.

By the time my picnic basket arrived, I was usually playing some new idea on the horn or huddled over the Steinway, playing a phrase of a work over and over until the melody led me further into the composition. Among many other things that naturally arise when you have a whole day in front of you to compose, I learned that composing could mean rocking under a blanket in my rocking chair with a cup of tea, or arranging rocks in my front yard in an inspiring way as music gently rose to the front of my mind in a form I could get on the page. A barn owl, drawing me out to its tree in the late afternoon one day, led me to an unexpected melody the next as I played in front of the window where I had first spotted it, and pondered if it would come back.

Adding to the peaceful woods - at times frightening in the total darkness of night - where I saw a bear, coyote, porcupine, yellow spotted salamander and various other creatures, was the atmosphere of the studio itself, where Aaron Copland had stayed in 1956 and presumably played the very same old Steinway. My writing at MacDowell was focused on material for an upcoming record for Posi-Tone featuring alto saxophone, Eyvind Kang on viola, Jonathan Goldberger on guitar, Rene Hart on bass and Jerome Jennings on drums. Not able to ignore the presence of Copland, the first work I wrote, "Copland on Cornelia Street", draws inspiration from the wide and bright intervals Copland used and that lend his work a distinctly American character. The title comes from thinking of the composer headed down the stairs to NYC's Cornelia Street Cafe, perhaps with a hat pulled low, enthralled with the sounds of jazz and avant garde new music developing outside the concert hall.

 In the evenings after dinner, my colleagues would present their work to each other in the form of open studios, readings, film, audio and slideshows. With all the different disciplines at MacDowell, what linked us was a mutual fascination with the creative process. After each presentation, fellows would ask challenging questions about the work, and many of us found that the next day in our own studios, seeing ideas from a different perspective helped our own work form in a new and exciting way. They felt like family, and inspired and bolstered in a interdisciplinary academic way that I hadn't felt in a long time.

 While leaving MacDowell was one of the harder goodbyes I've ever had, one thing is clear:  Despite the distractions and necessary difficulties of everyday living, I have a new awareness of myself as a saxophonist and composer. Quite simply, this is what I do. I recommit myself to a life of continuous striving and learning, and as I brew tea in my new electric kettle at my practice studio here in the real world, I vow to keep an eye out for the owls and salamanders that take the creative process away from so much self scrutiny, and instead show it as a natural reflection of the world around us.

An NPR Indulgence

While my focus artistically is as a saxophonist and composer of music, I love words and was inspired by NPR's Three Minute Fiction to try my hand in the latest round at a short story. The only requirements, other than a maximum of 600 words, were that the story involve a US President, real or imagined. Here's my entry!

Listening in the East Wing

With work and worry wending their way through his mind on endless ant-like pilgrimages, sleep ought to have been coveted. But, smiling wryly at the reference to the jazz standard, what he really looked forward to these days was the “wee small hours”. Of course, in his pajamas he should be just as prepared for a knock on the door or a phone call that would pull him right back into it all. He even felt a bit guilty when he put on headphones and turned the volume up, inching the stereo dial to that point where his surroundings started to blur.

In just the first three notes from the horn he was whispering at the radio.

“Paul Gonsalves!” Of course it must be this sinewy saxophonist with Ellington’s band, with the eccentric, bold, and always swinging lines, that never ran out even after twenty choruses on a blues.  That solo at Newport in 1956, where the crowd slowly grew to a riotous shout – this had to be it. Boy, Gonsalves sure did have a signature sound – the holy grail of jazz Nat Hentoff was always talking about in his liners and columns. Unbuttoning his pajama cuffs and rolling up the sleeves, he did his best Sam Woodyard impression, taking care that his air drumming didn’t mar the antique desk.

Silence followed the number, and he waited for the slow and resonant tones of the show host to proclaim him a winner in his little game of name that tune. Instead came a low rumbling of piano, in tandem with a plaintive tenor sax melody. At once arresting and unsettling, he knew again from just this brief intro who it was.

Emitting a small sigh, he kept on listening. Coltrane’s eloquent commentary on the 1963 Church bombings in Birmingham thirty years ago brought him so easily to a place where hatred and sorrow became imbued with a terrible beauty. Somehow, the stark telling of the melody lifted him above the tragedy just enough to inspire forward motion. He knew how to cleverly use words to weave himself a comfortable cloak of obscurity, but he could never hide from music.

His mind grew shadowy with early memories of police and groups of men congregating - encircling and being encircled, pulling and pushing and falling and rising and falling and not rising. Shutting off the radio when the next tune’s warm brass and lively tempo jarred him, he set his head down upon the blotter.

When his wife gently shook him by the shoulders, he rose inelegantly and shuffled off to shower in a daze. There at the desk he’d been fervently looking through attics and instrument shops for the right horn. Old, with the metal softening and teal in places from being kept in a bit too damp a climate. And for a reed, fine bamboo cane he remembered sanding down as a youth to just the right thickness to produce a tone a little fuzzy around the edges, a reed that would taste of smoke after the gig and last but a day or two before he’d have to search all over again.

 As he got ready, he mentally ran scales, allowing the memory of the clacking sound his horn would make when he moved his fingers to give him a bit of rhythm. He imagined that perfect sound he’d always strived for, heard it, formed it, held onto it and took a breath as he stepped to the podium.

“Good Morning, Mr. President!”

He let the first few notes go.

Jewish Afrobeat + John Zorn? Yes!

In the month of September, I've been thrilled to begin performing with Zion80, a thrilling new project of guitarist and composer Jon Madof. They've been playing at The Stone for the last three months on Monday nights, and I joined the wild cast of characters on September 10th and 24th. And this Monday night, John Zorn himself joined us in the horn section! In his words, we provided the consonants and he provided the vowels. The room was standing room only, and the band was literally jumping. (I know I did some jumping up and down, that's for sure).

From the Zion80 event page on Facebook:

FINAL SHOW OF OUR 'NEW MUSIC OBSERVATORY' RESIDENCY AT THE STONE!

Featuring some of the most exciting musicians in New York City, Zion80 plays the music of Shlomo Carlebach with arrangements inspired by Fela Kuti. The band is directed by Jon Madof of Rashanim (Tzadik Records).

With Jon Madof (guitar), Frank London (trumpet), Sarah Manning (alto sax), Greg Wall (tenor sax), Zach Mayer (bari sax), Jessica Lurie (bari sax), Jonathan Goldberger (guitar), Yoshie Fruchter (guitar), Shanir Blumenkranz (bass), Brian Marsella (keyboard), Yuval Lion (drums), Aaron Alexander (drums), Mathias Künzli (percussion), Rich Stein (percussion), Marlon Sobol (percussion)

The photo above is from a photo/video shoot the band did featuring Marlon Sobol (percussionist in the foreground), who is a Toca Percussion Artist. The videos will be released soon!