Tag Archives: jazz

The Essence of Bebop

The Essence of Bebop is the new series by New York saxophonist Jim Snidero, a member of Local 802 (New York City). The Essence of Bebop reveals the heart and soul of this groundbreaking jazz style and is the first real “manual” for mastering bebop. The 10 studies are inspired by master musicians, offering a unique basis for study and analysis. Historical insights as well as recommended listening and reading are included.

The Essence of Bebop, by Jim Snidero, Advance Music, https://de.schott-music.com/advance-music

Akua Dixon

Composing the flavor of her cultural heritage

Jazz cellist and composer Akua Dixon has been playing music professionally for nearly 50 years, with world-class musicians at venues around the globe. One thing she has learned—and one thing she believes—is that you are what you hear. “The music I compose is a product of all my elements. It has elements of jazz, but it also has elements of just being raised in America,” she says. “Jazz has so many subgenres that I say to myself, ‘What really is jazz?’ … Even though I studied European classical music, when I compose, the flavor of my cultural heritage comes out in my compositions.”

But that cultural flavor did not blossom right away. It took years of playing professionally before she realized she was missing an important ingredient.

Dixon, a member of Local 802 (New York City) since 1977, was raised in a musical house—her parents loved music, her mother played piano, her sister played violin. She was nurtured on jazz and the gospel music of her church. She started playing cello in fourth grade, and by junior high school she was in the borough orchestra and the city-wide string orchestra and was already playing freelance gigs.

Akua and her older sister Gayle (also a member of Local 802 until she passed away in 2008) formed a string quartet and played restaurants, weddings, and church gigs. By age 18, Akua was playing in the pit at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, earning money for college at the Manhattan School of Music. She remembers playing 23 shows in one week—and backing an array of music icons such as Barry White, Dionne Warwick, and James Brown. “That was just fantastic. James used to rent the theater and book his own stuff; lines were around the block because he had hit after hit after hit,” Dixon recalls. “Getting to play with James Brown, I had to play to match his phrasing … and he’s very demanding. He was very gentle and very nice … but he still wanted it poppin’.”

While studying classical music at the Manhattan School, Dixon was freelancing constantly throughout New York City and the surrounding area, playing Latin, blues, and jazz. So her musical education occurred between the poles of classical instruction in the classroom and practical training in clubs and theater pits. The Manhattan School did not offer any courses in jazz at that time, she says, so her learning in that genre was self-taught until she met jazz master Yusef Lateef, started talking to him and reading his book on blues. She then took jazz lessons with Reggie Workman at The New Muse in Brooklyn and studied with renowned cellist Benar Heifetz.

Photo Credit: Chuck Stewart

As a professional, Dixon freelanced a lot, worked often with her sister in string quartets, worked in Broadway pits, and toured with the Max Roach Double Quartet, among a long list of gigs. “We were usually the only African-Americans [in the ensemble], and in a lot of cases on these jobs, it wasn’t easy. But my father said when I went to school and I felt I wasn’t being treated properly for those same reasons, he said, ‘You’re only going there for the education.’ And I just kept plodding through; you have to do what you have to do just to learn,” she says. “And when I got these jobs, that’s what I had to do: did the job and kept moving on.”

Luckily for Dixon, she is not only a cellist, but also a composer, arranger, copyist, and vocalist, so she was never dependent on just one person or just one job, she says. “I wound up always being on a musical trail that gave me music not only as a passion but also as a vocation that, at the same time, gave me the ability to live and support myself.”

Dixon ultimately found a home in the Symphony of the New World, one of the first racially integrated orchestras in the US, and it was there that she found the missing ingredient to her ultimate composing flavor. While performing in a concert with Duke Ellington, Dixon realized she knew less about the music of her own culture than of European music. “I decided I wanted to balance that,” she says. “I started immersing myself in jazz and spirituals and became determined to learn the secrets of improvising.”

Since then, Dixon has not only blazed a path of success as both a classical and jazz cellist, but also as a composer, conductor, and educator. She has played, written for, and collaborated with numerous jazz greats; formed the groundbreaking ensemble Quartette Indigo; notated and conducted a ballet; and composed an opera. One of the highlights of her career occurred during this time, when she fulfilled her childhood dream of working with Aretha Franklin.

“It was at the Nassau Coliseum. The string section was only familiar with European classical music. My sister and I were the only two that knew the improvisational aspect of African-American music. There’re inflections in the rhythm of the music and freedoms that she couldn’t have, couldn’t do, because of the limitations of the knowledge of the string section—this is my opinion. So, I had a passion. I said to myself, ‘Boy, I would do anything to work with Aretha Franklin. I would even write the parts for free and pick the string players.’ And that dream did get to come true.”

Dixon wrote the string arrangement for the 1998 song “A Rose is Still a Rose,” played on the recording, and performed it live with Aretha on The Late Show with David Letterman and in several other venues. “So as a kid, dreaming of playing with her, and then actually getting the opportunity to play with her, it was major for me,” she says. “And when I talk about string sections like this, if I hadn’t had the opportunity to study at the Apollo, and learn that music, and have to play it that many times in a row week in and out, I wouldn’t have gotten to know it as well as I do; it’s a different situation than playing in a European classical ensemble.”

Dixon has also dedicated years of her life to music education. She has worked as a Musical Ambassador to New York City for Carnegie Hall Education and performing for their Neighborhood Concert Series as well as Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Jazz in the Schools tours. She also developed the Hip Hop Blues Project and composed an original work for string students in New York and New Jersey to perform each year. Dixon says she loves teaching music, especially in inner-city schools, where the children of color get to see a successful musician who actually looks like them. “They don’t see themselves in orchestras and in other industry areas today as much as they should. It’s exciting for them to see somebody that looks like me and accomplish what I’m accomplishing,” she says.

But these accomplishments did not come easy. Being a woman, and Black, and playing something as unusual as jazz cello held a lot of challenges for Dixon. “The liberties people take against women in this business are a trip,” she says wryly. “I’ve been paid less because I’m a woman, been asked to play for no salary, had my name left off the program—many times—and had my name left off the recordings I did. And it wasn’t even thought about.”

“But I had a good lesson from [jazz singer] Betty Carter: Don’t take no crap,” Dixon adds with a laugh. “She didn’t say that, but we all know she didn’t take any.”

One of the most common questions Dixon receives from her female students, she says, is how to be a successful working mom. Dixon was working steady gigs on Broadway when she started a family. She decided to take a break from full-time music and focus on raising her kids—and also do more writing and creating, which got “bottled up” by playing the same music night after night on Broadway. “If you truly want children, it’s an experience unlike any other and, to me, was worth what some would call
professional sacrifices,” she says. “As a working mother, you will have to make serious choices about your time. You will not have any time to waste. Focus on your ultimate goal and what you need to do to accomplish that for your children and your career.”

Things have changed a lot for female and Black musicians since she came up in the 1960s and 70s, and Dixon gives a lot of credit for that to her union, which she joined when she worked at the Apollo Theater. One of the most important protections from the AFM is in pay scales, she says. “I’m glad [the Apollo] was a union gig because I always got paid, there was a security there, whereas a lot of times when you do clubs you might not get paid. Even if you’ve worked for some record companies and did recordings, I learned early on that after the record is recorded, if they don’t pay you, they don’t have to pay you. So I became very insistent on being paid up front.”

“Working in a union environment lets me know I’m worthy of a certain treatment and salary for my wares,” she continues. “There’s no reason I should work for free. I went to college; I paid tuition; and the people I work with have the same credentials. And we don’t work for that. But some people don’t think musicians should get an equal wage because there are a lot of people who do it for fun and do it for free.”

Since COVID hit, Dixon has, like everyone else, significantly reduced her performing hours, doing only occasional recording. But that does not mean she has been idle. She has been playing more piano (the first instrument she learned) and also started playing the tamboura—an Indian drone instrument that she has owned for a while but not played. “It’s very meditational and calming, and I think I needed that,” she says. She also spent a good part of every day in writing, whether it is notation, writing commissioned string quartet parts, or doing the final notations on her opera, The Opera of Marie Laveau, which she finished composing about two years ago.

Dixon says that after nearly 50 years in the union, looking back she sees how much she has depended on the AFM throughout her career. “I’ve seen a lot of progress since the 1970s when the change started,” she says. “You had a group of people band together to form the Symphony of the New World, which had a lot of African-American players in it and as part of the foundation of the orchestra’s board. To go through the legal system to try to change the hiring practices at places like the New York Philharmonic, and having an organization like Local 802 to march with you and be with you was a wonderful thing.”

She says that recent events and changing beliefs have made it a good time to revisit these changes in the music industry. “I think that’s where the world is in general right now, trying to make a more balanced place where all of us can live and work together.”

The LA Sessions at Capitol Studios

The Steve Spiegl Big Band

The latest album by The Steve Spiegl Big Band celebrates the band’s 50th year in existence as a staple of the LA rehearsal band scene. It was recorded by the some of the top LA studio musicians and jazz soloists.

Recorded over three days at Capitol Studios, The LA Sessions at Capitol Studios is the fourth album on Sorcerer Records by Spiegl’s big band. Besides original compositions by Spiegl, of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA), there are big band jazz treatments of music by Giacomo Puccini, Giuseppe Verdi, G.F. Handel, and Richard Wagner set in the jazz idiom.

Spiegl’s prior albums have also featured big band jazz arrangements of music from Bach, Brahms, Elgar, and Scriabin; this CD continues his unique writing for large jazz ensemble played by some of LA’s best musicians.

Charlie Parker: The Complete Scores

In honor of Charlie Parker’s 2020 centennial, and in conjunction with his estate, Hal Leonard has published Charlie Parker: The Complete Scores boxed set. The collection features a hardcover book with 40 note-for-note transcriptions for all the instruments that played on each iconic track. Published to coincide with the centennial of Parker’s birth on August 29, 1920, the Hal Leonard editorial crew worked closely with Parker’s estate to ensure the highest quality transcriptions and production.

Charlie Parker: The Complete Scores, Hal Leonard, www.halleonard.com.

Larry Goldings

Pianist and Composer Larry Goldings Brings the Jazz Era to Life on Screen

Grammy-nominated pianist and composer Larry Goldings has had an amazing and stylistically eclectic career—from 20 years recording and touring with James Taylor, to numerous artistic collaborations that straddle the realms of jazz and pop, to scoring music for television and motion pictures. But Goldings’ recent project, scoring the Netflix series, Self-Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker, has been not only the biggest project he’s ever done, but also one of the most meaningful.

Goldings, of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA), started playing the piano by ear at age 10. By 12, he says, “my ear was interested in harmony,” and he discovered jazz, which he calls his “first love.” He went to college at the New School in New York City, which had just started a new jazz program. “I very quickly found some good luck and starting working around town as a sideman,” he says. He joined Local 802 (New York City) not only because he found it essential in order to work, but because the older, more experienced musicians he was playing with told him it would be smart for his future. “It quickly became apparent to me how necessary and beneficial it was for me to join,” he says. “Our union is a support system that musicians need, especially now when we are all just trying to figure out what our futures will look like. Our rights need to be protected. It’s still a chaotic time in terms of how we make a living: How do we get fair compensation? How are our rights protected? How as musicians do we tackle our needs for health care, security, and all that? I don’t think there’s ever been a more challenging time.”

Throughout the 1990s, Goldings played New York City and toured the world with an impressive and eclectic array of artists. His musical inspirations draw from a lifetime of absorbing jazz, pop, funk, R&B, electronic, and classical music, and he has done numerous long-term collaborations that straddle the realms of jazz and pop with such artists as Maceo Parker (Local 47), John Scofield (Local 802), Steve Gadd (Local 802), Pat Metheny (Local 34-627 – Kansas City, MO), John Mayer (Local 47), and others. In 2000, Goldings received a call from James Taylor’s producer, asking him to play on Taylor’s (a member of Local 802) new record and join him on the road.
“That was the beginning of my stint with James Taylor, and it’s still ongoing—or would be if not for the pandemic,” Goldings says. “As a pianist, there’s a lot for me to do with James; he’s a unique and brilliant person. I grew up listening to him, so it’s kind of a great dream come true, and I couldn’t think of a more interesting, humble person to work for, particularly someone who’s as iconic as he is.”

All of these professional experiences led to others for Goldings: songwriting, co-writing, forming his own trio, and recording. He moved to LA in 2001 (where he became a member of Local 47) with the idea to break into Hollywood, see if he enjoyed it, and, hopefully, to be home more and take a break from being on the road. He has since worked on numerous movie and television soundtracks (including with Local 47 member Clint Eastwood and his film Space Cowboys), and underscoring stories for NPR’s “This American Life.” But Goldings discovered he was actually doing about the same amount of roadwork, because, after all, “it’s hard to turn down James Taylor,” he says with a laugh.

All of these experiences led to one of the biggest projects in Goldings’ career: scoring the Netflix series, Self-Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker. The series, which first aired on March 20, chronicles the incredible story of Madam C.J. Walker, who built a haircare empire for African-Americans that made her America’s first female self-made millionaire.

“I really loved the experience of Self-Made, partly because it took place in the early 1900s and allowed me to use my jazz knowledge to approach it,” he says. However, he wanted to make sure he got the history of the period correct and the sound authentic, so he hired two musicians with whom he had not previously worked who were knowledgeable about the music of the time period: brass player Dan Weinstein and drummer Jay Bellerose, both of Local 47.

“The next challenge was: What’s going to be the sound of the film?” Goldings says. “I felt the project needed reminders of the era but not a straightforward jazz score. That wouldn’t have served it deeply enough for all the different emotional places that this series goes.” Ultimately, he says, there were two “hybrid” musical sounds he was trying to inject into the show, using either jazz instrumentation or jazz harmonies and melding those with the licensed music from modern artists the producers were also using in the show. Goldings’ score ultimately infused the drama with shades of ragtime and early jazz, in combination with modern, back-beat oriented cues, in which early jazz meets hip-hop. “It ended up pretty much the way I was imagining it, some kind of hybrid sound,” he says.

While Self-Made came out months before the Black Lives Matter movement and accompanying protests occurred, Netflix has put the series in the “Black Lives Matter” category on the site. “It’s a story a lot of people didn’t know about, including myself,” Goldings says. “It’s an incredible story, and it’s self-explanatory how important it is. I am so thrilled I was able to be involved in something so meaningful.”

Jazz Brushes for the Modern Drummer: An Essential Guide to the Art of Keeping Time

In this book, Grammy Award-winning jazz drummer, composer, educator, and producer Ulysses Owens Jr. explains the history of the development of the brushes in jazz along with exercises and illustrations for better performance. Includes: play-along tracks and demos, instructional videos, bonus interviews, and a comprehensive list of recordings of jazz brush players.

by Ulysses Owens Jr., Hal Leonard, www.halleonard.com.

Herlin Riley cover

Herlin Riley: Groove & Necessary Conversations

Wynton Marsalis once introduced his friend and jazz orchestra drummer Herlin Riley to an audience as, “A master of the New Orleans drum cadence, tambourine, washboard, cowbell, and many other things that can be hit and grooved upon.” 

Herlin Riley outdoors New Orleans
Photo: James Whighams

And that is certainly a fitting description. Because to Riley—who has been playing drums since he was three years old and has been a professional musician and a member of Local 174-496 (New Orleans, LA) for 45 years—playing with confidence and with intensity is all a part of being creative.

“Almost everything can be a percussion instrument; if it has a sound and has a timbre when struck, you can create music with it,” he says. “I often play a local club called Snug Harbor, and there’s a four-inch pipe that has resonance in the corner of the stage where the drums setup. I always play the pipe in my performances, and my audiences have come expecting me to hit it in my shows. I’ve been known to hit music stands, mic stands, and any other object that has a sound and is in range of my drumsticks.”

“The essence of improvisation is being creative and uninhibited,” Riley continues. “It’s the same creative and uninhibited expressions I see when I watch people of color dancing to samba, salsa, rhumba, or a Second Line groove on the streets of New Orleans. The integrity of the art form of jazz revolves around being creative, freedom of expression, and utilizing whatever objects or sounds that are available to aid in the creative process. That’s the true essence of jazz music.”

And, man, has he made some jazz music through the years.

Riley is best known as a member of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, led by Wynton Marsalis, of Local 802 (New York City) and of Marsalis’ small groups. But Riley’s story is much more than that.

He grew up in New Orleans inside a musical family. His grandfather, Frank Lastie, played drums with Louis Armstrong. Frank had three sons who were also musicians (and AFM members): Melvin (trumpet), David (saxophone), and Walter (drums), who played in a combo as well as individually with musicians such as Fats Domino, Little Richard, and King Curtis. Riley was raised mostly by his grandparents, and his uncles typically rehearsed in their house. “Whenever they rehearsed, they would roll my crib into the room and I would check out the music as an infant,” Riley says. “So that was my beginnings.” 

As he grew up imbibing the music-filled air of New Orleans in general, Riley’s grandfather would show him different drumbeats, using butter knives on the kitchen table, and challenge Riley to repeat the patterns. At age 12, Riley began playing and studying trumpet—after his Uncle Melvin sent him one from New York City—and played that all through high school. He went back to the drums in college. 

Were you in the Fairview?

During the early 1970s, Riley joined the Fairview Baptist Church Marching Band, which was a youth brass band run by Danny Barker, a guitarist who played with the likes of Cab Calloway and Billie Holliday. Riley credits that experience as one of the seminal moments in his musical life because it exposed him so directly to New Orleans music and culture. It was also the first time he ever met his future bandmate Wynton Marsalis.

“Wynton and I used to argue about that,” Riley says with a laugh. “He said, ‘Man, were you in the Fairview?’ And I said, ‘Yes, were you in the Fairview?’ And I said, ‘Man I never saw you there,’ and he said, ‘Man I never saw you there either.’ Ironically, someone came up with a picture of Wynton and myself playing in the trumpet section together. I must’ve been about 12 or so and Wynton was about eight or nine.”

It was actually while he was in the Fairview marching band, at age 16, that Riley joined the AFM. “My uncles encouraged me to join,” he says. “I was playing in the Fairview and playing little gigs around town, and my uncles said it would be good for me.” While Riley does not remember exactly why they said it would be a good thing to join, he does remember how quickly he learned it would be beneficial. 

In the early and mid 1970s, when he was playing in New Orleans, the AFM was strong and club owners had to pay wages based on the union pay scale. But when Louisiana became a right-to-work state in 1976, many club owners started paying less, and even pitting musicians against each other in order to get jobs. “A lot of club owners were undermining musicians because the union had been diminished by the law that was passed,” Riley says. “To me, that was an important lesson: I learned that it was very strong to have the union in your corner. It gave me a basis on how to negotiate and how to be paid properly for the amount of work that you are doing, and how the union functions as one voice.”

Riley said this lesson also extended to recording work, whether for albums, movies, or television. “If you’re in our union, you know a base price that you should be paid and what you’re worth,” he says. “I think that’s vital to know, and that’s why I encourage musicians to join—because you should be paid what you’re worth.”

Years in the Ranks

Herlin Riley posed

Local 174-496 President Deacon John Moore lauds Riley’s continuous membership since joining the AFM at the age of 16 “under the tutelage and mentorship of a talented family of luminary musicians and music business pros, who instilled the values of unionism that he has carried with him throughout his illustrious career.” Moore calls Riley “a world-class master drummer and percussionist, comfortable and excelling in all genres of jazz,” and a musician “with a technique paramount in the artistic expression of the many facets of the roots music—gospel, blues, Latin and rhythm & blues—that tell the story of his unique heritage, having been raised in the palm of the hand of the very best people in the land where jazz began.”

Herlin Riley Tools of the Trade

Riley started playing professionally right out of high school in 1975—his first gig was in a burlesque club, playing behind the dancers and the novelty acts. He went on to play as a member of pianist and Local 802 member Ahmad Jamal’s group, and has played and recorded across the US and the world with musicians such as the late Ellis Marsalis, George Benson (Local 802), Harry Connick, Jr., (Local 802), and Wycliffe Gordon (Local 802), to name only a few. In 1988, Riley became a member of the Wynton Marsalis Quintet, and joined the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra in 1992. Riley played a large part in developing the drum parts for Wynton Marsalis’s Pulitzer Prize-winning album, Blood on the Fields, and went on to lead his own bands.

“My experience with Wynton in a big band was so unique, so important to my life because I got to play so many different styles of music playing with him,” Riley says. “I really had to hone my skills as a reader, to read and learn music quickly, so my skills became sharper.” Wynton Marsalis also pushed Riley to begin to teach drums, because the orchestra would teach kids about playing music in every city they stopped. 

“I told Wynton, I don’t know how to teach because I didn’t learn in a formal way. He said, ‘Well, you play drums don’t you?’ I said yes. He said, ‘Well, tell ’em something. Just figure out what you’re doing and tell ’em something.’ So that pushed me to really think about what I was doing and get it to my students so they could understand what I was doing. And to this day I don’t teach from a book; I teach from a practical kind of setting to show them what they need to know, not just necessarily what’s in the book.”

The two main lessons he tries to teach every student are to 1) play with intensity and to 2) play with balance and control. By intensity, Riley does not mean volume, but rather playing with confidence, and a certain integrity and commitment, he says. “Learn the history and as many styles of playing the drum set as you can, so that you allow yourself to become like water (musically) and adapt to any musical environment you’re asked to perform in. It’s important to have solid understanding of the role of the drums, bass, and rhythm section as a whole. I would say all music starts with rhythm, no matter the instrument, but in order to groove, the rhythm has to be played with an intensity. … To be able to really develop a groove, that confidence is the belief in yourself, the belief in the rhythm that you’re playing.”

Lessons in Life

To have that confidence and belief in yourself also extends to life generally. As a Black man in the south, Riley has dealt with his share of racism, he says, and watching the cultural awareness coming out due to the Black Lives Matter movement has been encouraging. Doing gigs back in the ’70s, he would often be the only Black person in the club. He remembers one particular club where the owner—who was also a musician—would get drunk and tell jokes that always had a black person as the butt of the joke. 

Riley, supported by his bandmates, asked the owner to stop, to which the owner would apologize and say he would, but the next night he would start drinking and telling jokes again. “So, long story short, I quit because of my pride and integrity as a Black man. This musician was very successful and affluent and probably had the highest paying gig in New Orleans for a sideman. But I just couldn’t continue under the owner’s mindset, which was ingrained in his consciousness from his childhood,” Riley says.

He sees the Black Lives Matter movement as shining a light on these injustices against Blacks that have been ongoing for decades—and it’s because everyone has a cell phone and these actions and events can be photographed and recorded in real time. Riley understands this better than most, in fact, because his nephew, also a musician, was killed by police in 2004. “They said they thought he had a gun. He had a trombone in his car, and they riddled his car with bullets because they thought he had a gun,” Riley says. “So often injustices have happened to people of color and the police, DA, judges, and the white establishments have been able to justify their unfair practices with a flat-out lie.”

Racism is an uncomfortable subject and conversation, Riley says, but it’s a necessary conversation that is needed in order to make changes. “Everybody deserves to be treated fairly and to be treated like they would like to be treated. The golden rule always applies: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It’s a great way to live: with respect for other people.”


Herlin Riley’s Last Performance with Ellis

Herlin Riley and Ellis Marsalis

Riley tells the story of a concert he played with his group The New Orleans Groove Masters, comprising himself, Shannon Powell, and Jason Marsalis, of Local 174-496. They played on March 3, 2020 at the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music in New Orleans. 

“Mr. [Ellis] Marsalis was in the audience along with his friend, Ms. Germaine Bazzle, who’s a singer. Ellis said, ‘Man, I want to sit in.’ Whenever Ellis Marsalis wanted to sit in with any band that I was a part of I was always honored, and the answer was always, ‘Yes, of course!’ He always invited younger musicians who were developing to sit in with him on his bandstands, including me. He played three songs with us that night: His original ‘Tell Me,’ featuring his son Jason on vibes and me on drums; he played ‘Miss Otis Regrets’ as a duo with Germaine Bazzle, his longtime friend; and ‘Tootie Ma,’ the last tune of the night. We had a great time and the audience was dancing in the aisles.

“Ellis Marsalis passed away on April 1st from the coronavirus. In hindsight, that March 3 performance was a special moment at the close of his life and career. He played with his longtime friend, his youngest son, and in the venue that bears his name and was built in his honor.”

Dave Brubeck: A Life in Time

Music journalist Philip Clark provides a thoughtful, thorough, and long-overdue biography of jazz legend Dave Brubeck—an extraordinary man whose influence continues to inform and inspire musicians today. This book tells one of the last untold stories of jazz, unearthing the secret history of “Take Five” and many previously unknown aspects of Brubeck’s early career. Each chapter explores a different theme or aspect of Brubeck’s life and music, illuminating the core of his artistry and genius.

by Philip Clark, Da Capo Press, www.dacapopress.com

all singing

All Singing: The Elise Witt Songbook

all singing

Swiss-born, Atlanta-based singer, composer, educator Elise Witt, a member of Local 1000 (non-geographic), has released a book of 58 original songs arranged for solo and community singing. From folk ballads and jazz vocalizes to rounds and singalongs, Elise’s music spans many styles and continents, and includes her Polyrhythmic Multi-lingual Musical Collages. Available in print and digital.

by Elise Witt, www.EliseWitt.com.

Sayer cover of IM

Cynthia Sayer

She asked for a drum set. She got a banjo. The rest is jazz history.

As a child, Cynthia Sayer got bribed by her parents with a banjo—and ended up finding her musical niche.

Sayer found her first musical love in the piano, which she started playing at age six. She also learned and played viola in elementary and middle school, taught herself to play guitar chords and played orchestral drums. Then one day, still in middle school, Sayer saw a jazz band perform and decided she wanted a drum set. Her parents, however—who raised four children and fostered music appreciation and participation—drew the line at drums in their house.

“I came home from school one day and it was sitting on my bed. I hardly knew what it was: There was no roots music in my world—“Hee Haw” on TV was about my only idea. I knew it was a bribe, but I thought, ‘OK I’ll play it.’” says Sayer, a member of Local 802 (New York City). “So why a banjo? Because they saw an ad from someone offering to teach banjo. It was a female player named Patty Fischer who moved to our town offering lessons.”

This was the beginning of Sayer’s jazz banjo career that is now world-renowned, award-winning, spans every type of performance (live and session; albums, movies, TV; solo, orchestral, and ensemble), and has contributed to posterity through teaching and advocacy. It is a career that has succeeded in the face of gender bias, a general misunderstanding and disrespect for her chosen musical instrument in jazz, and the common musician’s battle to be respected, relevant, and, ultimately, paid to play.

“Patty was the coolest grownup I had ever met—I had never met a woman in the arts before,” Sayer says of her first banjo teacher. “I was totally knocked out by this; she became very important to me.” While today it may sound strange or anachronistic, when Sayer started learning and ultimately playing music professionally, there were not many women in her field— and even fewer in her genre. “I spent 15 years touring internationally before I worked with another female player,” she says. “I would walk into a room with my banjo—and being a woman—and people would be like, ‘What on Earth?’ I was a walking double whammy, which caused a lot of challenges. That’s not the case so much now. It’s been years since I’ve heard, ‘Which guy in the band is your boyfriend/husband?’ or ‘You play great for a girl.’”

Sayer began her music career as so many musicians do—by not intending to be a professional musician. She attended Ithaca College in New York State, where she majored in English and drama and planned to attend law school. When she was not studying, she was freelancing with her banjo to make money. Instead of going to law school, Sayer went on tour with the USO right out of college, playing in Germany and Iceland, and afterward coming back to the States and settling in New York City. She became a successful freelancer pretty quickly because she found a need for banjo players. “I consider myself to have learned apprenticeship style: I learned by doing with some amazing players,” she says. “I remember being so naïve in my 20s, thinking musicians were so nice and helpful. Later I understood they stuck with me because they wanted me to improve,” she laughs, “and they saw that I wanted to learn and I was serious about it.”

While Sayer can and does play every genre of music on her banjo—classical, tango, country, bluegrass, for examples—she is primarily a jazz player. She discovered jazz—and jazz banjo—through Elmer Snowden’s 1960 album, Harlem Banjo! “I was absolutely dumbfounded,” she says. “When I heard that album, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. That was the end of it for me with all other kinds of playing. I wanted to play true, serious, driving jazz.” One of the first things Sayer did after that realization was transcribe all of Snowden’s jazz solos.

When people think of banjos, they typically think of the five-string version that is used primarily for bluegrass music and often played by fingerpicking. Sayer plays a four-string banjo and uses a plectrum. The differences between the two types of banjos is like the difference between a trumpet and trombone, she says. The attack is different, the mechanics of playing are different, even the sound is different. But one way they are the same is that banjos have a long history of being overlooked or misunderstood, Sayer says.

“Banjo is the original fretted instrument of jazz, yet the jazz world has such trouble including it,” she says. “The banjo is an extraordinarily powerful instrument with an earthy, interesting sound. I love its drive and the power behind the drive that it has to offer,” she says. “This combination of honest, earthy roots, kind of the twang part of it, can be applied in so many wonderful ways, but I think people just understandably think of it in the way they know best. So I make the point to play all kinds of music … just to try to show the versatility of it in my programs.”

And Sayer certainly has versatility with her chosen instrument. She first rose to international prominence as a founding member of Woody Allen’s New Orleans Jazz Band, in which she played piano and banjo and did vocals. She simultaneously explored her wider musical interests playing with such legendary jazz, popular, and roots music artists (and AFM members) as Bucky Pizzarelli, Dick Hyman, Les Paul, Marvin Hamlisch, and Wynton Marsalis. Her extensive career includes playing banjo, ukulele, and piano on feature film and TV soundtracks—including several Woody Allen films, the classic movie Sophie’s Choice, and the Sesame Street soundtrack— and doing TV commercials and radio jingles. She has busked in the streets, performed for two U.S. presidents (once at the White House), played with orchestras and at the Met for the American Ballet Theatre, and even had a gig with the New York Yankees promotional band, for which she was featured in a Trivial Pursuit question (see sidebar).

Sayer has made nine albums, received numerous awards and accolades, and written a book titled You’re IN the Band. In 2006 she was inducted into the National Four-String Banjo Hall of Fame, which is part of the American Banjo Museum.

Despite this stellar resume, being a female musician has been a major factor throughout her career. While she rarely receives the backhanded compliments or flippant comments about being a girl player that she did decades ago, she still sees that women in the music industry have a long way to go for equality. “I have a feeling of disappointment that I see so few women like me—middle aged, working instrumentalists—out there. But I am so happy and grateful to see young women who are coming up now, and their activism,” Sayer says.

Similarly, she finds the cultural stigma of the banjo is also finally being shed. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, the banjo typically was seen as the instrument of low-income classes of people, both black and white, that was used for casual recreation at home or in minstrel shows—not for “serious” musical endeavors. Sayer says players such as Bela Fleck (member of Local 257 in Nashville) and others have helped change the perception of the banjo and undo the musical stereotypes that have followed the instrument for over a century, while movements for Black players to reclaim the banjo and embrace its African roots started in the 1990s. “It’s uncanny how the banjo has a long history of reflecting our society, and even now, in keeping with our powerful #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, it continues to reflect our social evolution in diversity,” Sayer says. “The banjo is now recognized as the core of a whole part of America’s musical heritage that had been swept under the rug. … After all this time, it’s like the banjo—both 4-string and 5-string—is finally truly coming into its own.”

She views this positive forward movement as encouraging, and even sees an opportunity for greater advancement because of the current coronavirus pandemic. “It makes you think about what you appreciate because you’re stuck at home and feeling grateful for what you have. I was thinking this is a good time for musicians to look around and really see the talent that they may be overlooking in women and people of color—or in whatever bubble they happen to be in—whether it’s about culture or gender or sexual preference,” she says. “There’s so much great talent out there, and if you really notice and pay attention, you will appreciate it. … Then you would have to be more inclusive, because I think there is still a bias out there—whether it’s just from habit, conscious or unconscious—but whatever it is, we need more women in the music industry. I’m an example of the fact that you can do it, and I want other women to have the opportunity to do that too.”

Cynthia Sayer Recounts Times the AFM Had Her Back

Cynthia Sayer has been an AFM member for over 40 years. She originally joined as a college student in Ithaca, NY, in the 1970s. She transferred to Local 380 (Binghamton, NY) when the Ithaca local closed, and recently transferred her membership to Local 802.

“The AFM has been overtly helpful to me! I was not properly in the system for some soundtrack work I did early in my career—i.e. in pre-digital times—although I had signed union contracts for each. Two were successful feature films and one was a television series. I was foolishly naïve about royalties then, and thought, ‘Oh well, at least I was paid properly at the time, and enjoyed the experiences.’ I let it go and moved on.

“Years later, older and wiser, after accidentally discovering I was also on the cast album for one of the un-credited films, I was reminded of it all and called the Film Musicians Secondary Market Fund to see if anything could still be done. They explained what I needed, and then I called the union for help. The man I worked with there [at Local 802 (New York City)] was fantastic! He doggedly tracked down what was needed, aided by a couple items of proof I was luckily able to dig up for one of the films, and he succeeded in getting me into the system for all of my missing work. Thanks to the AFM, I finally received—and still get—those royalty payments.

“I reached out to this same wonderful man at the union a few years ago, after receiving a questionable letter from a film company for whom I had done some soundtrack work, and for which I had signed union contracts. Reading the legal jargon, it appeared to me that they were asking me to sign away my soundtrack rights! He confirmed that’s exactly what it was, advised me to not sign it, and expressed profound gratitude to have been informed about it so that they could be aware of and fight this kind of underhanded activity. I continue to receive my royalties for this work as well.

The 1968 union card for Elmer Snowden when he was a member of Local 274—the segregated chapter for Black musicians in Philadelphia. Members of this local included other jazz legends such as John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, and Nina Simone. Cynthia Sayer owns this card of her jazz hero after receiving it as a gift.

“As you can see, the union has made a real difference to me. They’ve demonstrated that I can count on them to have my back for contracted work.”

Q: Cynthia Sayer was hired to be the official banjo player of what Major League Baseball team?

This question was included in the game Trivial Pursuit (1998 edition). The answer? The New York Yankees.

Being part of a popular 1990s board game is something that Sayer is both proud of and gets a kick out of. “No matter how much I bury this information, that is a thing that people always ask me about,” she says with a laugh. Sayer is not even a baseball fan—it was just a gig she did playing in the Yankees’ promotional band for eight years during the 1980s and 1990s. She was part of the primary “A” band that would perform during games and special events, moving around the stadium, mostly behind home plate and for the more expensive seats. While games were going on the band would sit and watch, and during breaks they would play for the fans. “This was a sought-after gig for baseball fans,” she says. “And I think I was probably the only one in the band who was indifferent to baseball.”

Sayer got to meet the ballplayers, see various celebrities in the box seats, and experience some World Series games, but those are not the moments that stick in her memory. “I remember we had to wear these Yankee outfits that were about 20 sizes too big for me; they were like giant flannel pajamas,” she says. “We would get on television all the time and I would always try to pull my baseball cap over my face because I was embarrassed to be on television. And my poor mother, who despised sports, would sit there and watch the whole game waiting for those occasional moments.”

Sayer remembers the few times the band went up to the press box, which was “a completely different sonic experience” than being down in the stadium, she says. Up there, away from the crowds, it felt intimate, personal, and quiet; you could hear the crack of the bat when it connected with the ball, and just absorb a deeper connection to the actual sport, she says.

Another memorable moment was being fired by George Steinbrenner.

During one special event day, there were multiple promo bands playing outside the stadium as fans arrived. One of the bands (not the one Sayer was in) was playing at the spot where Steinbrenner would always arrive at the stadium. Unfortunately, the moment he arrived was the moment the band was on break. “He got out of his limo and saw the band wasn’t playing and was furious—and fired everybody.” Sayer says. “I thought it was kind of funny. … It was part of the adventure of the gig for me.”

TOOLS OF THE TRADE

Cynthia Sayer endorses:

‡  Ome Banjos

‡  GHS Strings

‡  Blue Chip Picks

‡   The Realist Banjo Pickups by David Gage