In the music world that I travel in, composition and improvisation are completely entwined and most often I have fielded questions about how a feminine perspective might effect my sound as a jazz soloist. It’s new to me to think about what gender factors might be at work in my composition without a relationship to my playing as well.
Jazz players are so rooted in the definition of a personal sound that it is almost impossible to imagine the music without the personality. I am a spontaneous composer and a compositional improviser. Female jazz saxophone role models were not present in my music background but female vocalists certainly were (Billie Holiday, Abbey Lincoln, Ella Fitzgerald, Betty Carter, Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, etc). There’s no question in my mind that early listening to these women’s voices shaped the expressive quality in my voice as a saxophonist and that that experience resonates differently with me than with male players.
With the exception of one female music composition teacher in high school, all my composition mentors were men. In the absence of immediate role models I gravitated toward drawing inspiration for compositions from women that I admired in other disciplines (sports, dance, politics, etc). I’ve written pieces about top fuel racecar driver Shirley Muldowney and Olympic ice dancer Jane Torvill.
I became a composer because it was as natural as breathing to me from the start but also because as far as I could see then the male-dominated jazz world didn’t embrace women instrumentalists as collaborators. I could work if I became a band leader/ composer with my own musical vision so I started performing original music from the very beginning of my career. And then it wasn’t long before I realized that it was necessary to start my own record label (Outline Records) to document and distribute the music as well. That’s about the time that I arrived in New York City.
In looking back at myself during those years I don’t think I was entirely aware of the social pressures that contributed to the decisions that I was making for myself. I had a passion to be an improvising musician and figured that I had to be just as creative about how I improvised my career. The end result of that early commitment to independent thought was the development of a body of original music that has guided my thinking up until today. Out-of-the-box thinking led to commissions for the NASA Art Program, the National Air and Space Museum‘s Einstein Planetarium, the Houston Astrodome, the American Composers Orchestra, the Pilobolus Dance Company, the Houston Texas Museum of Fine Art‘s Jackson Pollock collection, and others. I realize now that those projects and my present creative life are an unmistakable result of who I am as a woman navigating the music world.