Tag Archives: female musician

Patrice Rushen: Keyboardist Inspired by Teaching

Patrice RushenPianist Patrice Rushen is the ultimate role model for young female musicians. Among her achievements, she was the first female music director for the Grammy Awards (2004-2006), first woman to serve as head composer/musical director of the Emmy Awards, as well as the first female music director of the NAACP Image Awards, PEople’s Choice Awards, and HBO’s Comic Relief.

She’s composed musical scores for Emmy-nominated television shows and movies, plus the feature films Men in Black, Waiting to Exhale, Without You I’m Nothing, and Hollywood Shuffle. She released a total of 14 solo albums that earned her multiple Grammy nominations. Her music is frequently sampled.

The Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA) member is considered one of the world’s top jazz pianists and continues to perform and compose, while also teaching at two of the country’s most prestigious music schools: Thornton School of Music at University of Southern California (USC) and Berklee College of Music. Education has always been a priority for Rushen who recognizes the vital role it played in her life. She says her teachers, including high school music teacher Reggie Andrews, shaped her future in a big way.

“I think I always wanted to become a musician, I just didn’t know the pathway,” says Rushen. She began playing piano at age five, but says when she picked up the flute in middle school, it was life changing. “Being in the middle of all the sound in the orchestra and band, you are conscious of your entrances and exits and the whole production, in the context of a team; that informed me in a different way.”

Rushen says the all-black Los Angeles public school that she attended was ahead of its time. “The high school experiences opened the door for me to see what was possible. We were playing high school orchestra and jazz repertoire, but we were also playing jazz as America’s classical music. That sort of opened up the vocabulary for other forms of contemporary music.”

Students at the high school didn’t just learn about music in a classroom. Field trips included visits to local jazz clubs. “On a Friday night we’d sit in the back,” she says. “Everything sounded really good and the exploration was profound. I heard some of the most amazing jazz musicians in their environment—Cannonball Adderly, Freddie Hubbard, and [Local 802 (New York City) member] Herbie Hancock’s sextet.”

Patrice RushenSome of the musicians were even coerced to come out to the school,” she recalls. “This was before jazz was institutionalized, particularly at the high school level. We had a lot of information firsthand. Bandleader Gerald Wilson, who lived in Los Angeles, would send us stuff to play; it was way over our heads, but the idea was for us to see the possibilities. That music pushed us.”

“The idea of being able to play music—all different kinds of music—and watch people react to it was supported by the entire school. It was an incentive to keep your grades up,” she says.

Aside from the music, Rushen’s high school gave her the fundamentals to succeed. “There was very clear consciousness towards a positive identity and the faculty supported that in the way they gave us information. They kept us busy all the time and everything was connected. If you were lucky enough to find your passion, you could learn a lot.”

“Preparation was a big deal,” she continues. “There’s luck, but luck is being prepared for the opportunity. That’s what Reggie used to tell us.”

Rushen’s first such opportunity came in her senior year when her combo won a chance to perform at the Monterey Jazz Festival. Her talents were noted by Fantasy Records, which offered the 17-year-old a recording contract on the Prestige label.

“I wasn’t really interested in a record deal; it wasn’t even on my radar at all,” says Rushen who was getting ready to enter college. “I was going to school, but I did need money.”

Rushen immediately joined the AFM. “I was very happy to join the union; it was like a milestone,” she says. “You have protection by belonging to a larger organization. It supports what we do with rules and regulations.”

Rushen’s very first album with Prestige, Prelusion, had her playing with established artists like Kenneth Nash, Joe Henderson, Hadley Caliman, Hubert Laws of Local 802, George Bohanon and Oscar Brashear of Local 47, plus contemporaries Ndugu Chancler of Local 47 and Tony Dumas.

“I began playing with a lot of different people, especially when the record came out. I would play with a lot of studio musicians who would play the clubs when they weren’t working,” she says. That’s where she met and befriended people like Local 47 members Lee Ritenour, Harvey Mason, and Abe Laboriel.

Patrice RushenThough there were offers for her to tour, she was firmly focused on college. Film composing was her goal, but her parents insisted  she major in music education. “At the time, USC had no jazz, and certainly no contemporary or popular music major,” she explains. She says the broad curriculum of the music education program served her well later on.

“A music director has to be able to see the big picture and understand the components that will make it happen. You need to know the goal of the presentation and then break it down into what it is going to take to make it happen—casting the correct people and empowering them through your direction.”

“It helps if you are able to work well under pressure and don’t sweat the small stuff,” she adds. “Respect is a given. When people feel like you care about them, they care about you, and want to help you. You also need awareness of a lot of different styles and the resources to pull the essence out of those styles.”

Rushen’s first big job was composing for Robert Townsend’s first movie, Hollywood Shuffle. “He didn’t know who any of the composers were. He went around to different agencies and my name was at the bottom of the list, in pencil,” she laughs. “He knew me because of my records. He said, ‘I want her,’ and the agents were probably horrified!”

“From that movie, I got five HBO comedy specials [as music director],” she says, adding that the role of music director served as a showcase for the skillset she had developed. Word got out, and that led to more work.

While being a woman never kept her from pursuing her ambitions, she’s sure there were jobs along the way that she didn’t get because of gender bias. Then, there were a few people who made the leap that she was a man. “I’ve had some surprised looks because my name doesn’t necessarily give it away,” says Rushen. “There’s the female thing, and then there’s the African American thing that sometimes comes as a surprise.”

Among other challenges, she points to the balancing act that women often struggle with. She advises young women to go for it. “Be strong in your resolve to be as good as you possibly can be. Then, don’t be afraid to let your priorities shift as your life changes and allow yourself the possibility of a family life. Understand that now, more than ever, a career in music involves lots of different layers and different related skills. If you build on that set of skills, you will always find something to do that’s musical. You don’t have to sacrifice any of it.”

As her own career has evolved, she has taken on more teaching roles, but she doesn’t see it as a huge shift from performing. “I don’t really see those things as mutually exclusive,” she says. “When you perform, you are teaching. There is always somebody out in the crowd whose approach could be modified or changed on the basis of a performance they hear.”

Patrice Rushen“I think teaching is important,” she says. “I’m fortunate to have had great teachers. They were all really open to the communication of music and using the piano as a kind of media, teaching great technique to give you the ability to play anything.”

Rushen is currently chair of Popular Music at Thornton, plus Ambassador for Artistry in Education at Berklee. “All of my different experiences have impacted my methodology and I can call on that as a teacher,” she says. “I’m teaching a music style that I lived—popular music—that’s informed by a certain tradition. It’s exciting for me to find a pedagogy that teaches and celebrates that.”

For Rushen, teaching is as much inspiration as it is instruction. “When you teach you are learning at the same time. I think artists are perpetual students, you know? You are always soaking it up. The inspiration and understanding of what it takes to make art takes you out of yourself. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to communicate on that level.”

Rushen is also involved with youth programs, including USC and Berklee outreach programs, a jazz mentorship program in Los Angeles area high schools, and work with the Young Musicians Choral Orchestra in the Bay Area. “This is an amazing organization that takes at-risk youth and puts them in an environment where they can thrive as musicians,” she says.

During the school year, Rushen’s focus is mostly on her students. Summer allows her to travel and take on other projects. This summer she’ll play some gigs as Patrice Rushen & Friends with Local 47 members Eric Marienthal (sax), Paul Jackson, Jr. (guitar), Reggie Hamilton (bass), and Ndugu Chancler (drums).

“We have some dates sprinkled throughout the summer, which is kind of cool because it allows everybody to do their own thing,” she says.

Jane Little Traces the Steps of Her 70-Year Career

Growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, Jane Little was drawn to music from the time she was a small child, and did everything she could to seek out musical opportunities. “I so wanted to play the piano,” she says in her Southern drawl. “But my family struggled during the Depression and we had no piano. I would go to the neighbors’ house to use theirs. I would try to pick out tunes and taught myself to play a little bit.”

Little tuned in to the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts every Saturday afternoon, joined the glee club in junior high, and decided that she would become an opera singer. “I was delusional at that time!” she laughs. There was no doubt, though, that music was her passion. Atlanta didn’t yet have its own symphony, but when an orchestra toured to the city, Little was eager to attend. “It was the first time I heard a symphony orchestra perform live,” she recalls. “And I was just carried away.”

Assistant Principal Bass Jane Little was a 1945 charter member of the original Atlanta Youth Symphony Orchestra, the forerunner of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Little will begin her 71st season with the ASO this fall.

Facing the Bass

Little continued to sing and planned to join the high school glee club when she entered her freshman year. But the orchestra director had different plans once she saw the results of Little’s music aptitude test, which every incoming student was required to take.

“I was called to the music room, and the orchestra director asked what instrument I played,” remembers Little, who answered that she didn’t play an instrument, but liked to sing. The director was shocked and explained that Little had scored tremendously high on the test. “I was 14 at the time, which is a little late to start an instrument, but she asked how I would like to be an orchestra musician. I said that I would like it more than anything!”

The orchestra was in short supply of bass players. At five feet and three inches, and weighing less than 100 pounds, Little seemed an unlikely match for the massive instrument, but she wanted to try. She struggled at first to hear the lowest pitches and could barely press down the thick E string—not to mention, even just carrying the bass around was no easy task.

“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is going to be a challenge!’” she says. “But I was back for the next lesson, and the next, and the next.” After just a couple months of private lessons, Little was ready to join the orchestra—and not only did she join, but she was quickly appointed principal bass.

The next year, the Atlanta Youth Symphony Orchestra was formed under the direction of Henry Sopkin, a well-known youth orchestra conductor in Chicago. Little became a member of the symphony, which performed its first concert on February 4, 1945. In retrospect, that was the beginning of her 70-plus-year career with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO); within three years, Sopkin transformed the youth symphony into the orchestra now known as the ASO.

Eventually, Little met someone who happened to be able to give her a hand carrying her bass. Warren, who would become her husband, joined the orchestra’s flute section in 1948. The two had first met at the University of Georgia, but Little was engaged to a naval officer at the time. She returned to ASO after spending a summer in Chicago studying with a great bass teacher from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and Warren noticed that Little was no longer wearing her engagement ring; she had broken her engagement in order to stay in Atlanta and continue playing with the orchestra. Warren asked her out right away. Their first date was a performance by the legendary violinist David Oistrakh.

“I must say that when I met Warren, I was very impressed that he played a small instrument, so he could carry my bass around!” jokes Little. The couple made music together in the ASO until Warren’s retirement in 1992.

Acing the Audition

Henry Sopkin led ASO for 21 years, increasing the budget, adding concerts, and introducing education initiatives. When he stepped down in 1966, it was announced that Robert Shaw—an exceptional choral conductor who had been working with George Szell in Cleveland—would become the next ASO music director. Little knew that even more changes would be ahead for the orchestra. She was excited, but nervous.

Shaw asked to hear every member of the orchestra play individually. Little had two weeks’ notice about the audition, and she didn’t waste a minute getting to work; she knew how crucial this could be. “I told my family that Christmas would have to be on hold that year,” she says. “I was practicing seven or eight hours a day, going through all the literature, doing everything I could.”

When she walked into the audition, Little felt immediately at ease with Shaw. She aced her audition: “I never played better in my life!” she exclaims. “When I got my contract, I was overwhelmed. Robert Shaw had appointed me co-principal of the bass section.” Little was later named assistant principal bass, and now holds emeritus status for that position.

Under Shaw’s watch, the ASO continued to build its reputation. Little can list off an impressive roster of guest soloists and conductors she has performed with—Nathan Milstein, Isaac Stern, Benny Goodman, Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, and many more.

One of her favorite memories is of a sold-out concert with pianist Arthur Rubinstein, who was playing the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto. “He plays the first big chords of the concerto, and all of a sudden, the piano starts rolling toward the end of the stage,” she recalls. “The people in the first rows were scattering. Everyone was just in horror!” Thankfully, the piano caught in the footlights, which kept it from crashing off the stage, and Rubenstein took it all in stride. Once the piano had been secured, the show went on.

The show went on for Little, too, as ASO became a full-time orchestra and gained international renown. She played under Yoel Levi, who became music director in 1988 and “brought the orchestra to new heights,” Little says. He was followed by Robert Spano of Local 148-462 (Atlanta, GA), who took over in 2000. “Through two major lockouts in the last four years, Spano has remained a friend and supporter to the musicians,” she says. “He was determined to maintain the orchestra’s status as a major symphony.”

Earlier in her career, piecing together a living was a bit more unpredictable. “Back then, when the orchestra was still part-time, you would go and beat the bushes for work,” she says. For 15 years, Little played with Theater of the Stars, where she was the only woman in the band. She taught private bass lessons and even saw one of her students grow up to join the ASO.

She’s played for opera companies, and remembers times when she was the only bass player in the pit, and had her instrument amped. She also played with the Savannah Philharmonic Orchestra, often making the four-hour drive with a group of fellow ASO musicians late at night after an ASO concert or rehearsal, in order to be ready for a rehearsal in Savannah the next morning. “You did what you had to do,” she states matter-of-factly.

Chasing the Record

Little, who belongs to Local 148-462, is grateful to the AFM, as well as the International Conference of Symphony Orchestra Musicians (ICSOM), formed in 1962, for improving working conditions for orchestra musicians. She has witnessed the positive changes to audition procedures, tenure, and the musicians’ ability to weather strikes and lockouts.

Little has done her share of walking the picket lines and remembers her husband’s determination to negotiate fair contracts—even if it meant late-night phone calls and meetings—when he served as president of the local. “It’s great protection to be a member of the AFM—the union is your friend!” she says. “It brings greater stability to our careers.”

Little has now completed her 70th season with ASO, setting the record as the orchestral musician with the longest-running career, despite enduring several injuries and challenges over the years. At a certain point, she explains, she knew that she had to keep playing because she was so close to that goal. “To be absolutely sure [that I break the record], I’m going to play into my 71st season,” she says, adding that she might consider retirement at some point during the season.

Of course, more important than any record is the unique dedication that she shows for her instrument and for symphonic music. Even over a seven-decade career, she continues to give her all at every concert, never resting on her laurels. She was recently preparing for an ASO concert that included Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony and noted that it was one of the first pieces she played with her high school orchestra. “It’s still difficult!” she says, a testament to the fact that she always reaches to grow in her artistry.

“Suppose I had been absent the day that we took that music test?” Little wonders. “I probably wouldn’t have this career. I must say I’ve had a charmed life.”

loretta lynn cover image

Loretta Lynn: Music Keeps Her Young

Loretta LynnLoretta Lynn’s career has inspired musicians for 50 years, and her personal story of persistence and success paved the way for many strong female country singers who followed in her footsteps, living out their country music dreams. A completely self-taught singer songwriter and guitarist, Lynn wrote her first song, “I’m a Honky Tonk Woman,” on a $17 guitar that her husband, Oliver Doolittle “Doo” Lynn, purchased as an anniversary present.

“The neck soon warped and I couldn’t keep it in tune, but that’s how I learned to play,” she says. The then-24-year-old mother launched her career while caring for four children and cooking and cleaning for 36 ranch hands in Washington State. She was shy, but Doo saw her talent. When he landed her a gig in a local bar they both hoped for an easier life.

“I didn’t know I was talented. Everybody in Butcher Hollow sang, it seemed like,” says Loretta of the Kentucky coal mine town where she grew up.

Lynn’s upbringing as the second of eight children born to a union coal miner can partially be credited for her frank and open outlook, and willingness to address causes she cares about. She recalls John L. Lewis as the leader of the United Mine Workers who brought much needed help to people like her father. “Anybody who worked in the coal mines at that time had to be in the union,” she recalls.

Lynn has been a union musician her whole career. She initially joined the AFM when she worked her first gigs in Washington, and she’s now been a member of Local 257 (Nashville, TN) for 53 years. “The musicians union helps the artists,” she says. “Where would we be if not for their help?”

Back in early 1960, when Lynn made her first recordings on Zero Records, radio stations were still small, local operations. Loretta and Doo drove station to station with copies of her record in the trunk of their Pontiac, imploring the DJs to play it.

“We would drive to a radio station and I would go in with my record. Some of them would say they couldn’t play it, or they wouldn’t play it, and some of them played it while I was there,” she recalls. “I just sat there until they played it. I imagine they thought to themselves, ‘This girl is going to stay here all night if we don’t play her record.’”

Loretta Lynn“The disc jockey would say, ‘I don’t think the program director will let me play this,’ and I would say, ‘Why don’t you try?’” recalls Lynn.

By the time the pair arrived in Nashville, “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl” was already a minor hit, eventually reaching number 14 on the country charts. She took the stage of the Grand Ole Opry for the first time in 1960 as a star-struck 28-year-old who knew very little about the music industry. Looking back, she says, “I’m glad I didn’t have sense enough to take no for an answer.”

After the Lynn family relocated to Nashville, she met the Wilburn Brothers, Teddy and Doyle, and became part of their show. Through the brothers, she was introduced to Decca Records and began cutting demos with producer Owen Bradley. She says Bradley helped her enormously, recalling how he  gently coached her about how to be a better performer and about the music business. “He told me things about other artists that he had recorded. We would talk and I would get the message,” she says.

Today, one of the most awarded performers in all of country music and a 52-year member of the Grand Ole Opry, Lynn was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame 1988 and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2008, and received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010. In 2003 the Kennedy Center Honored her for her lifetime contributions to the arts, and in 2013, in one of her proudest moments, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

At 83 years old, Lynn still performs regularly and continues to win awards. In the past year alone she was honored with a 2014 Americana Music Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriter (September 2014), the Tennessee Governor’s Arts Award (March 2015), and the Country Music Awards (CMA) Crystal Milestone (April 2015).

The country music pioneer was the first woman to get a gold record in 1970 and the first woman to be awarded CMA’s Entertainer of the year in 1973. Though she never set out to be a feminist, she was never afraid to tackle issues important to working-class women, both in interviews and in her music.

Songs like: “You Ain’t Woman Enough (to Take My Man)” (1966), “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’ (with Lovin’ on Your Mind)” (1967), “Fist City” (1968), and “The Pill” (1975) bravely pushed boundaries. Her 1966 song “Dear Uncle Sam” expressed the country’s frustration with the human cost of the Vietnam War, while the 1972 “Rated X” told the story of the stigma that divorced women in the country faced at the time.

During the early 1970s, Lynn began a collaboration with Conway Twitty that lasted almost 20 years and made the pair the most successful duo in the history of country music. Twitty became a close friend of both Loretta and Doo. “We had 12 albums together,” she says. “Conway Twitty was one of the nicest people I’ve ever known.”

Loretta Lynn“Doo loved Conway,” she adds, recalling how Doo actually gave the pair their biggest hit. “We’d been out on tour a couple weeks and we’d come home. We walked in and my husband was sitting at the desk. He didn’t usually come into the office. He says, ‘I’ve got a hit for you.’ And Conway says, ‘Oh, my god, he’s got a song for us?!’ It was called ‘Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man’ and it was a number one hit. We kind of listened to Doo from then on.” The pair remained close until Twitty passed away in 1993.

Lynn has released 54 studio albums, plus 15 compilation albums in her career. Her most recent album, Van Lear Rose (2004), was produced by then-28-year-old Jack White. White had been a long-time fan, ever since he saw the 1980 film of Lynn’s life, Coal Miner’s Daughter, as a child. He met Lynn when she was working in Detroit. When he suggested he would like to produce her next album she replied, “Why not?”

The album won critical acclaim, peaking at number two on Billboard’s country album chart. It was nominated for five Grammy Awards in 2005, winning two—Best Country Album and Best Country Collaboration with Vocals for its song “Portland, Oregon,” a duet Lynn sang with White.

Her property in Nashville, Hurricane Hills, has long been open to visitors who can tour her mansion and museum and stay in her on-site campgrounds. She regularly holds festivals, concerts, and other events on the property.

Lynn has a new album coming out in the next year. She says it will be a combination of new songs and old-time ones. “I’ve got some old songs that Mommy taught me when I was growing up and some new stuff that I wrote,” Lynn says.

Meanwhile, Lynn keeps busy touring and performing. She’s pleased with how her career has stood the test of time, a reward due in large part to her non-stop work ethic. She says she prefers to work only on the weekends these days. “We’ve been turning them away. I think that’s pretty exciting,” she says, agreeing that music is what keeps her young.