Gender doesn’t have anything to do with my compositions. Well, not that I know of. My music comes from how I see my life, how I see other people, nature, my experiences, things that I see and think about. You could be either male or female to do it that way. So, I don’t have much to say about it.
As far as I know, I’ve never lost a gig for being a female. I was always encouraged and I never felt slighted or anything negative. Never. I’ve had some people come up and say, “Man, can you play? Are you good?”—you know, just messing with me. And I’ll just say to them, “Well, I’ve been playing a long time. I should be by now.”
I was encouraged to compose in the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) by members who were in there before me. I was not one of the charter members, but I had moved to Chicago in ’63 and joined in ’65 or ’66, right after it was organized. I was playing in a trio in a club with the drummer Ajaramu ñ he brought me into the AACM—and I started hearing other things. Ajaramu would always say to play what you hear.
There was so much going on in the AACM—a beehive of activity—and you got information. It was very, very stimulating. I had not been outgoing musically, but I was encouraged by Muhal Richard Abrams to play the music that they had and then I realized that I could write from watching what others were doing.
I saw the musicians making their own—I won’t say styles, because it wasn’t styles—but they were creating, opening up new territories of writing. You don’t have to follow a formula of eight or sixteen bars, or have a piano, bass, and drums. You could do all sorts of things. Everybody had a different way of writing music: [Anthony] Braxton, [Wadada] Leo Smith, Roscoe [Mitchell], Muhal, and Kalaparusha [Maurice McIntyre]. They were also drawing and painting. And I thought, “Oh, music can be made all sorts of ways.” I realized I could do that, too, that I could write and that what I wrote would work. It was open to any kind of creativity that you could think of. That made the music grow.
That’s what was so great about the AACM. It created new methods. That’s about the best way I can describe it. But we created that organization in order to have a place to play, to express ourselves. Also we had a program for underprivileged children, you know, free music lessons. Some of us were dying musically in Chicago because the places were closing down, so we created our own space. Otherwise, we would have had nowhere to work or play.
Being female did not make a difference. There were other female members in there from time to time. A couple of piano players, dancers, singers. There weren’t a whole lot of us, but we were interested. I can’t say why there weren’t more females. Nobody was turned down if they were creative and they wanted to belong. You know, in a lot of these musical organizations, there are often more men than women. It’s just happened that way. There are other women in there now. You know, I’m still a member. It’s still going on.
My compositions come from the creative spirit, my ancestors, the angels, and other spiritual beings. Sometimes I don’t know what I’m going to do. It’s very difficult when you have to sit down and just write something. For instance, I have an eight-voice choir. (Originally, it was sixteen, but it’s eight for touring.) I was getting ready to brush my teeth and three little motifs came to me. I had a lyric coloratura soloist and one of them was a melody that came for her with a snare drum accompaniment in a military style. In another song I was writing, I had wanted to use all the names of the creator: God, Hosanna, Jehovah. I had already started writing that particular song, but things came to me that were very, very simple and effective. So, I let go of the one that I had started writing, the one I had been just making myself write, and went with the feeling that came. Another time, I was sleeping and a whole song came to me. I got up and wrote it down. It’s called “Blessings.”
I believe that there are other beings around us like our spiritual guides. Sometimes when you’re trying to create, you get stuck and you think I don’t know how I’m going to do it. They’ll help you.