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Home » Member Profiles » Lesa Terry: Music Builds Many and Varied Bridges

Lesa Terry: Music Builds Many and Varied Bridges


Lesa Terry of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA) was still in school when Leonard Bernstein came to her sister’s house. “It was my first time playing at the Hollywood Bowl,” she recalls. It was with a training orchestra through the Los Angeles Philharmonic. “Bernstein was conducting. And let me tell you, that was an experience

After the performance, Terry threw a party for some of her fellow musicians at her sister’s house—and Bernstein showed up. “He talked with everyone, dove into the pool, played the piano, and just joined in with the same kind of enthusiasm he would give at a high-profile party.” When it came time for him to leave, Bernstein stopped to say goodbye to the Terry sisters’ mother. “He thanked her for who I was. It was a dream come true for my mom,” says Terry.

Having Bernstein come to your after-party would leave a big impression on anyone. But what sticks in Terry’s mind the most was what he played at the keyboard. “It was a bit of everything,” she says. “Classical stuff and jazz, together. There was no separation. It was all just music, and it brought all of us together as well.”

Those connections between genres, all music as one music, has become a fixture of Terry’s life and career in music, and a common thread with everything she does.

Classical Training

Music came naturally and easily to Terry, who grew up in a Pasadena, California, household surrounded by it, with three sisters who also played instruments. Terry’s father played tuba on riverboats up and down the Mississippi, while her mother played violin and piano, and she started all four girls on piano at the same time. “It was her dream to have daughters who all played, so that we could form a piano trio,” she laughs. “Mom had a violin in the closet, so that choice was easy for me. We have been inseparable ever since.”

Jazz might at first seem like an uncommon career path for a violinist. Terry indeed learned the Tchaikovsky violin concerto like most kids her age, but she was fascinated by a distant member of the family: legendary jazz trumpet player Clark Terry. “I met him when I was around 21,” she remembers. “The music he played drew me in the more I was around him, and I decided to take an improv class. I’m sure I wasn’t very good, because jumping into jazz from classical music is not always a smooth transition. We are trained to read and play what’s on the page. Jazz is more about letting go of formality.”

Terry doggedly kept at it. Her first big break came when she was invited in the mid-1980s to join the Max Roach Double Quartet in New York City. The opportunity came after she had played in both the Atlanta and Nashville symphony orchestras and was working in recording studios and Broadway theater pit orchestras.

“The Double Quartet was made up of a string quartet, including my sister on cello, alongside Max’s regular jazz quartet: drums, trumpet, tenor sax, and bass.” Terry toured with the Double Quartet for over 10 years, and then joined the Uptown String Quartet, which began life as part of the Double Quartet before becoming its own entity, gaining prominence after its first recording, Max Roach Presents the Uptown String Quartet. Terry toured and recorded two albums with Uptown, and the group received a Grammy nomination for Maxine Roach’s composition “Extensions,” which put the quartet on the national landscape.

Over to Jazz

These successes encouraged Terry to continue her study of jazz. She went back to school for master’s and doctorate degrees. “My master’s degree at Cal State LA was in Afro-Latin music, which opened my mind up to a broader idea of what the violin could do, and its strong global significance. Doctoral work at UCLA deepened my interest in the African fiddle, particularly its rhythmic nature.” Her studies also took her to Indonesia, Equatorial Guinea, Jamaica, Spain, and Scotland. She soon began teaching jazz history and composing her own jazz-based concert music.

Terry explains that the role of the African fiddle is very different from the fiddle’s role within European classical music. But she says, the terms “European classical” and “African” both need clarification. “I don’t relegate one type of music to the distinction of being classical. Also, there are different types of music across Africa. I’m speaking specifically of West Africa, i.e., Ghana or Senegal. In these countries, the fiddle doesn’t typically play tunes like in classical music or improvised solos like we find in Western jazz. Here it’s more of a rhythmic instrument, a timekeeper.” African culture, she adds, brought that tradition to the American South.

Rhythmic roots in string playing have carried over to genres like Cuban music or salsa, Terry continues. “Here, their main function is holding down the groove. That’s a unique and powerful experience, especially when you’ve come from the more melodic character of string playing. I grew up reading music, interpreting phrases, and playing in tune. In other places, those concepts are less important. Keeping time is paramount.”

In her own music, Terry often takes well-known works from European classical music and reinterprets them through a jazz context, while incorporating distinctly African elements of time. “I love to straddle the fence and move between the two,” she says. “And I still go back and forth. Why limit any aspect of what you do?” This flexibility, she says, has helped connect her and her 200-year-old violin with many different types of musicians.

Crossing Cultures

Straddling genres has also given Terry a deeper appreciation of her own culture, as a woman of color. “When I was learning the violin, there was something of my heritage that I was leaving behind,” she says. “Focusing on what was missing made me a much stronger player, and it made me a better teacher.”

In line with her approach to playing, Terry’s teaching voice comes from both traditions. She has been a lecturer at Santa Monica College since 2010. She has also done workshops on rhythmic responsibility, and several years of coaching with students at the Henry Mancini Institute. “They could read everything on the page, but there was little sense of how to connect with the rhythm,” she says. “I had a drummer come in and hold down the time, have them really feel it. I also had them take what was on the page and say something completely new, beyond the typical vernacular.”

By way of example, says Terry, look at walking in time to music. “There’s marching, which has a specific way of movement. It’s about conformity and regimentation. But what’s required for someone who walks with a swagger, maybe, or sashays? Those need confidence, nothing imposed on the walker. You can apply those same techniques to the music you make. Guaranteed, you will hit something you didn’t expect to hit.”

These methods come straight out of life experience. “They help students connect with themselves. As a violinist, I was always listening to my teacher or following the conductor. I was quiet, very different from how I am now. I hadn’t found my own voice. It opened my spirit and my sense of confidence. It’s a full circle moment for me, and one I can use to help students do the same.”

Crossing Bridges

In her classes, Terry sees many international students. “English often isn’t their first language, and there are obvious cultural differences. For example, I had a Japanese student, very quiet and unassuming. I assigned the class to create an original blues tune from personal experience. He was struggling.”

Terry began by asking him what he liked. “He said he loved nature, specifically trees. He drew a scrawny tree on the board. I asked him to grow that tree into a redwood, or a gigantic oak, big and sprawling, and describe what that tree meant to him. In class he drew a giant tree and recited his blues in English, completely memorized—and he made origami leaves, each one of them with a statement of truth and confidence on it. Talk about originality, and artistic expression. His journey brought me to tears.”

Another part of that journey is exploring how to break down the perceived barriers between musical genres. Terry believes this part is easier: “Just go and have the experience in the genre you don’t know anything about. Expose yourself, watch, listen, take it in. Any time we have an opportunity to expose ourselves to something we don’t know, we break down barriers. And that’s how we move forward.”

She also firmly believes that sometimes it’s important to be the one to stir the pot and bring people to something they don’t know. “My time with Max Roach was an eye-opener. Max was all about social justice. His music was a personal statement about what was going on in the US around race and inclusion. His music was strong, and in your face. I didn’t understand it at first, the sense of passion and rage, because I didn’t have the same experiences as Max, being on the receiving end of pushback as a Black jazz musician.”

Roach, she says, faced it head-on. “There was no voice for it, so he spoke it through his music. And I learned that I didn’t have to let go of European traditions to be a jazz musician. He told me, ‘Never diminish or eliminate any part of yourself in the attempt to be a jazz musician—just keep adding to it.’”

Union Strength

Terry joined the AFM when she was in her 20s. She spent some time on the Local 47 board in the early 2000s. “It was my first board appointment, so I was a little green,” she admits. “But it was an opportunity to have a voice in my own way, and to develop an ability to express myself with a strong conviction of what I believed in and how I could help.” The experience, she says, helped her in her continual evolution from being just a quiet listener.

Terry adds that it’s appropriate during Women’s History Month to look back to 2006 when she played the Hollywood Bowl with the Women’s Jazz Orchestra of Los Angeles, a 21-member string and rhythm band of which Terry was founder and music director. The group was an all-women’s jazz orchestra in the tradition of a 1940s big band, but with added elements of African and spiritual music. It later became the subject of an award-winning 2009 short documentary, Lesa Terry and the Women’s Jazz Orchestra.

“All of those women, dressed in white, playing with so much authority,” she remembers of the performance. “It was a powerful experience, and I was grateful to have this full-circle moment from the first time I played at the Hollywood Bowl many years ago with Leonard Bernstein.”