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March 1, 2023IM -
Earlier this year, a new nonprofit called the League of Women Bassplayers (LOW B) held its first conference aimed at exploring community and addressing the needs of women bass players around the world. LOW B’s founder and president, Jacqueline Pickett of Local 148-462 (Atlanta, GA), says the organization is designed to explore community and address the needs of women bass players around the world.
“LOW B is actually my second nonprofit,” says Pickett, who originally hails from Somerset, Pennsylvania, a small farming community southeast of Pittsburgh. “My first nonprofit was TORCH Academy, which stands for Together Orchestras Revitalize Community Harmony.” TORCH’s core mission was to bring together 100 children from Atlanta’s wealthiest and poorest communities to discover what they had in common. “Parents brought their children to lessons, and all involved discovered a sense of community.”
Pickett is no stranger to building and fostering communities. LOW B, she says, follows along the same lines. “We are committed as an organization to creating and promoting bassists who are competent technicians, intelligent leaders, and articulate activists.” The new organization aims to accomplish its mission through fellowships, performances, publications, scholarships, and special events that place women—including nonbinary people who identify with the female bassist experience—at the center of its perspective. It also brings in a strong union element, an ingredient that has been crucial to Pickett throughout her long career.
Pickett’s sense of community springs from being raised in a supportive rural town that sounds like it could be something out of a TV show. “Our town had so much reverence for music,” she recalls. “Nearly everyone in Somerset played an instrument of some kind. Many people played Dixieland, and we had community choirs. There was jazz, gospel, you name it. And I was always encouraged. My mom loved to sing, and my sister played the flute.”
She adds that the atmosphere of musical community remained an inspiration throughout her life—in fact, she says LOW B was actually modeled after her hometown. “Music was something so strong and positive in the community I grew up in. LOW B came about in June 2019 because I thought, if I could find a way to bottle that, it would be of enormous benefit.”
Pickett herself came to the bass early on. “Basically, my school ran out of violins,” she laughs. I spied a bass hiding behind a big political map. I thought it was a big cello. But I played the A string, and I was hooked by the sound.” Asked if she ever got any guff for being a girl bass player, Pickett laughs again. “I was always a tall, big person in school. Not only did that make the bass a great fit, but it also meant I never got picked on.”
The decision to do music for a living came shortly thereafter. “I attended orchestra festivals and got to play with students from other schools,” she says. “That was it for me. Plus, it was either music or become a scientist.”
Following a Bachelor of Music degree from West Virginia University, Pickett received her master’s degree from the Yale School of Music and became the first person to receive a Doctor of Musical Arts Degree in Double Bass Performance from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is a found-ing member of the Sphinx Orchestra and former principal bass of the Gateways Music Festival. Currently, she serves as principal bass in both the Columbus (GA) Symphony and the LaGrange Symphony Orchestra. She has also performed and recorded with the Nashville Chamber Orchestra and has given solo double bass lecture-recitals in Johannesburg, South Africa, as well as at universities across the US.
In tandem with her early introduction to the bass came an early acquaintance with the AFM. “Music was just what people did in my town. We were also a big union town, so joining the AFM was a given,” she says. Pickett has been an AFM member since 1979, when Local 41 (Johnstown, PA) sponsored her for the Congress of Strings Program held then at the University of Cincinnati.
“I met other young AFM members who remain friends and fellow professional musicians to this day. We have all learned just how important it is to have a collective voice when negotiating our own working conditions.” She adds that through the union she also learned about career factors like punctuality, preparedness, etiquette, and politeness. “Most importantly, I came to understand that while it was crucial to be part of an organization that would look out for my rights, I also had to be involved and take an active part in it.”
Accordingly, Pickett had no hesitation in joining members of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra on the picket line in the early 2000’s. Following this, the Atlanta local asked her to fill in for an executive board member who had to relocate and could not fulfill his term. “I was careful to practice what I preached: support your union the best way you can, because the union is what you make it to be.”
Pickett says most of Local 148-462’s leadership were surprised to find that she had actually been a member of the local since 1989. “As a board member, I identified an immediate need to increase membership. I worked with fellow board members to make our platform more inviting. For example, the local now presents an Educator of the Year Award. It’s hoped that this recognition will encourage teachers to be more proactive to recruit prospective members among their students.”
Picket says she is still excited to introduce colleagues to the benefits of being a member of AFM—but these days she prefers to help bring about change from behind the scenes, rather than as a board member. “Regardless of our position, we can make the union a better place for all of us, just as we are always striving to be better musicians.”
For Pickett, the union is another facet of community. This approach has also found a place in her teaching. Pickett is currently on the music faculty of Spelman College in Atlanta and is a visiting artist at the Pontifical Javeriana University in Bogota, Colombia.
“Teaching helps me remain competent on my instrument,” she says. “Done right, it’s also like a fine wine, honed over many years. I get the satisfaction of the validation of my convictions.” She likes that sentence so much that she repeats it for emphasis. “Over my years of teaching every level and age group, from 2 to senior citizen, I feel privileged to have crossed with so many different and varied lives. Teachers were an indelible part of the isolated rural community where I grew up. Every chance I get, I do something to recognize and include them.”
The AFM remains an indispensable part of her educational mission. “Wherever I teach, I continue quietly letting people know about the union,” she says.
All facets of education figured prominently in the first-ever LOW B conference, which had as its theme: Artist as entrepreneur: our purpose, our challenges, our possibilities. Conference attendees explored the authentic experience of what it means to be an artist in today’s society, and how to flourish and prosper in the current artistic environment.
Presentations included bass performances, recitals, clinics, and conversations with luthiers and bowmakers. Seminars covered a wide range of topics including baroque bass, presented by Local 9-535 (Boston, MA) member Heather Miller Lardin, principal bass of the Handel and Haydn Society. Other seminars explored electric bass and upright bass in jazz and world music, and several sessions explored health issues including pain management.
Of course, the AFM featured in LOW B’s first conference as, in Pickett’s words, “part of the offerings of opportunity” on the menu for attendees. Accordingly, longtime San Diego symphony and opera bassist Margaret (Peggy) Johnston of Local 325 (San Diego, CA) presented a seminar in tandem with Local 325 President Lorie Kirkell on the benefits of joining the musician’s union.
Partnerships with the AFM and other organizations are a cornerstone of LOW B’s mission. Partnerships are part of being a community, Pickett points out—and she stresses again how LOW B has at its heart, the idea of community. “The League of Women Bass Players is about gathering together so we don’t feel so isolated,” Pickett explains. But first, she concedes they had to find each other and form that community—thus, the conference.
The inaugural conference bore out that goal of inclusion. “We had women from all over the world, but men also participated. For example, the principal bass from the [Royal] Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam gave a seminar, interviewing a bass player from the Yehudi Menuhin School in the UK. They talked about some raw issues, dealing with sensitive subjects.” She says everyone in attendance was willing to give input and receive input from someone else’s viewpoint.
Asked about the future direction of the organization she founded, Pickett concedes that she can’t give a definitive answer. “I’m not sure where it will lead, because LOW B is a collective vision. It’s about supporting each other in being the best musicians we can be, in whatever form that will take. We stand for community, excellence in our craft, and the importance of passing that on. We even cover motivation to practice, and what it means to master something. That translates to other spheres, like writing or public speaking.”
Pickett stresses participation—including the importance of joining the AFM—to new and prospective members. She also sees technology as an increasingly useful tool. “Conferencing platforms like Zoom provide a wonderful method to reach people from all over because it’s important that people see us.”
All of this adds up to opportunity, the golden mean for an entrepreneur. “When you apply yourself and do your best, you will discover that opportunity,” she concludes. “It’s like an opportunity muscle. You will get knocked down in life. An entrepreneur is about getting back up. And we are all entrepreneurs.”