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December 1, 2021Stephen Laifer -
The words “jazz” and “viola” aren’t two things you often hear in the same sentence. But busy working musicians need to find ways to keep things fresh, which can frequently lead them down some unconventional paths.
Violist Leslie DeShazor of Local 5 (Detroit, MI) has enthusiastically embraced a wide variety of these paths, keeping her music-making vital through constant diversification—which, in her case, includes jazz, world music, and a host of other things not typically associated with a classically-trained violist. “That, and I never sit still,” DeShazor adds.
A Michigan native from just outside Detroit, DeShazor surprisingly didn’t grow up in an especially musical family. “My mom sang in church and was the singer people called for local talent shows and weddings, but that’s about it,” she recalls. DeShazor landed in music in the 6th grade with her discovery of the viola.
“That’s fairly late by classical string player standards,” she says. “But I was really into it almost immediately, and as a result I was fast-tracked into ensembles.” She says her rapid progress didn’t seem odd at the time because she had discovered the joys of doing something she loved. “I was very driven. After just a year, I moved to private lessons.”
From there, opportunities opened up: summer festivals, camps, and competitions. DeShazor also played in church and at community events, something she learned from her mother’s example as a singer who performed locally in church and for talent shows and weddings. After high school came studies at the University of Michigan. “I stopped formal studies after that, but I’m always learning,” she says.
A big part of DeShazor’s constant education was the discovery that the life of a symphony orchestra musician wasn’t really for her. “I have great respect for it, but after spending some time in a viola section, I found I wasn’t into the idea of spending all my musical energy doing that and only that. I knew that I needed more creative freedom and a greater deciding role in the kind of music I played.”
In retrospect, DeShazor says she sees that there was nothing stopping her from doing both orchestral playing and other types of music—but through younger eyes, she saw it as more of a committed choice. So, she used that as a springboard to start learning other styles.
“I play almost any style of music, and if I don’t know it, I will learn it. The irony, of course, is that now I understand I had always been doing that,” she says with a laugh. “I was always experimenting. I grew up teaching myself tunes on the piano and playing the viola by ear, copying things I heard on TV or the radio.” In high school, she also played with a community college jazz band. This led to a eureka moment. “My private teacher told me about a violist who knew how to improvise, so I sought him out.”
After college, DeShazor was forced to take time off because of an injury. Returning from that became the crux of a musical shift for her. “I started focusing on my improvisation, working with jazz musicians in the area.” Those experiences were all across the board in terms of style: she played traditional African music with a musician from Senegal, did some dancing, dabbled in choreography, and found herself seeking out music that was off the beaten path. “It all opened my eyes to different pathways in music. Even now, I try to keep a foot in all of these different worlds. I’m always weaving between them, which helps me to stay on my toes.”
She obviously does this with great success, having performed and recorded with international and Grammy-winning music stars, including Local 5 member Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, and Aretha Franklin, as well as gospel artists. Along with several other Local 5 musicians, DeShazor is also a member of Musique Noir, a Detroit-based female-led string and percussion ensemble.
That isn’t to say that she has abandoned “legit” music. DeShazor has performed as a soloist with the Toledo Symphony, and as a freelancer has played with Sphinx Symphony Orchestra, Michigan Opera Theatre Orchestra, and Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO), among many other prominent Michigan ensembles. Switching between styles, she says, can be tricky, “especially when figuring out how and what to practice, aside from scales every single day. But I see so many similarities in genres that we traditionally like to divide.”
Regardless of what she’s immersed in, DeShazor says, the objective is always the same: “When I see opportunities that might help me grow, I take them, even if it’s something I don’t necessarily want to do at the time. Later on, I can call on these tools. No knowledge is ever wasted.”
The past year of isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic, ironically, became one of those opportunities. “I was forced to stay inside and get creative,” she says. “I explored more of my own original music.” She also continued to embrace teaching, something that is vitally important to her. “Teaching is one of those things I ran from when I was younger, but it’s something I’m natural at,” she says.
DeShazor teaches with several programs for the DSO including their Overture Program. “Pre-COVID, we started nearly 60 young violinists through Overture,” she says. “I would also teach their siblings, so we kept it in the family.” DeShazor conducts one of the DSO’s youth orchestras, and maintains a private studio.
Being a Black teacher of a traditionally classical instrument can come with other responsibilities. “Young Black musicians have often been conditioned to believe that classical music is better than other music,” she feels. “It can seem elitist. But the truth is, even with orchestra auditions being blind, so much of what we attain is through connections and resources. I believe it’s not just how my students play; it’s also how they present themselves and how they are perceived. That’s something I didn’t understand as well as I should have when I was younger.”
The reality, she adds, is that most students aren’t going to get orchestra jobs—and for those who don’t want to do classical music, it’s vital to network, develop, and use whatever resources are available.
For all her students, whether or not they’re on an orchestral track, DeShazor believes it’s crucial to ask if the music they make is something they want versus something they’ve been told to do. “We are fighting our nature when we’re forced to play something one way. I go back to my own personal experience. I tell them to step outside of their box. Change their warm-ups to whatever sound they’re feeling, maybe play scales with a backing track with harmony and a groove. I also suggest doing things out of their comfort zone to force them to be less rigid—move more when they play, or even dance. Or take an acting class.”
Above all, she advocates expressing their desires to their teacher. “Too many students don’t speak up. I know I myself can be overly self-critical. I play music because I love it, but I also love to play for people. If my students enjoy it, then, goal achieved. We get too hung up on how we sound, and what our peers think. They need to learn to give themselves grace.”
Of equal importance, DeShazor says, is getting her students to learn to appreciate the music that has come from their own culture. “There is a tendency to make music like we make math. But math can also be creative.” She adds that most people don’t play music because they want to be musicians. They play for their own creative outlet, or because they like some songs they know. “Any music can make you smarter, and there is no one single way to do anything.”
DeShazor’s freelance activities recently earned her an MPower Grant from the Sphinx Organization. “I have been teaching with them for 12 years, and also played in the Sphinx Symphony Orchestra, and this grant is helping me to make my own music,” she says. “My aim is to do a recording project and establish myself more as a front person on the viola. This will be the first time I’m in a leadership position where I’m in charge of all the components.”
The recording project also lets DeShazor continue to explore her musical diversity, with tracks on the electric five-string and acoustic violin, as well as viola. When pressed for an idea of the album’s style, DeShazor says it’s mostly jazz, but qualifies that response. “I like to stay away from labels,” she cautions. “I can say that it’s definitely not traditional, but more groove-oriented, with an accessible vibe.” DeShazor says it would have been a lot more challenging to accomplish what she has without the backing of the union. “I believe the most important part of union membership is the united front and the protection it offers musicians across North America,” she says. “The music business, and particularly the freelance world, can be very difficult to navigate. But it has been made easier by AFM members who have worked to advocate for our fair treatment.”
An acknowledged musical adventurer in Local 5, DeShazor is on a nonstop journey of self-discovery along her various chosen musical paths. Her ongoing musical exploration continues to bring its own recognition: she was named one of 30 Professional Movers and Shakers in the Performing Arts by Musical America in 2019.