Off the Charts: Big Band Circa 2006

Sherisse Rogers in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
October 12, 2006 — 6:45 pm

Philadelphia-born Sherisse Rogers fronts a big band based in New York City called Project Rising whose debut CD, Sleight of Hand, was independently released in 2004. A two-time winner of the ASCAP Foundation’s Young Jazz Composer Competition as well as winner of the BMI’s 6th Annual Charlie Parker Jazz Composition Prize, Sherisse began her fascination with composing and arranging large ensembles as a college undergrad, playing bass in the big band at California State University in Northridge. Growing up listening to funk and R&B, Rogers now creates music which seamlessly blends those elements plus Brazilian inflections and hip-hop beats into the vocabulary of big band jazz. And, in conversation, she’s just as likely to namedrop composers like John Corigliano and Béla Bartók as she is Duke Ellington, Maria Schneider, or Stevie Wonder.

—FJO

Sherisse Rogers
Sherisse Rogers

Frank J. Oteri: It’s the year 2006, and most people outside of our wonderful hermetically sealed musical world think of big band as Glenn Miller or Duke Ellington, the Swing Era of the 1940s. So how does a young person like you approach this music?

Sherisse Rogers: The big band doesn’t have to be like Duke Ellington, although that music was great. As music keeps changing and evolves, people of my generation and in the generations above and below have been influenced by so many things. We have hip-hop and different types of world music; we can add concert music to it or rock, even electronica. Some people just treat the big band as a larger rock band; you can do a lot of things with it.

FJO: What makes you do this?

SR: I ask myself that question a lot. I have a passion for this type of music, and I really want to make it work, but sometimes I think it would be easier if I had a ten-piece band or an octet. I would like to take my band on the road, and it’s a lot easier to pay for eight people than eighteen or twenty.

FJO: What got you interested in big band?

SR: I’m a bass player, too, and I was actually playing in the big band at California State University in Northridge, where I got my bachelor’s. And the teacher [also] had an arranging class so I ended up taking the class. And since I was in the band he said, “Why don’t you try to write something for the band?” He ended up recording three of my first tunes; he really liked them and told me, “You’ve got a knack for this.” So that spring-boarded me into writing full-time.

FJO: Had you composed music before that?

SR: Not really. I’d written a couple of little things for combos I’d played in. I took a composition class for non-composition majors, which was more concert music stuff. So I’d written little piano things and duets, but I’d never taken it seriously.

FJO: What was the music in your home growing up and how has it informed your own music?

SR: Actually, I grew up with R&B and funk, Stevie Wonder, and stuff like that. My parents like jazz, but they’re more into contemporary smooth jazz like George Benson. My parents liked a little bit of rock, but not too much. It was mostly an R&B household. The stuff I got from growing up listening to Stevie Wonder and R&B was a sense of groove. My music has a funkish element to it. The groove part of it is what I took from Stevie Wonder, and the harmonic sense, too. And I’m really into Brazilian music. Growing up with R&B, my ear gravitates towards that type of sound.

FJO: Do you feel that you are playing for a jazz audience or an audience that’s more attuned to R&B, funk, etc.?

SR: I’d like to think there’s a little bit for everybody. In the gigs I’ve done, I’ll have a tune that’s based on a Brazilian thing, and then an R&B kind of thing. And then I’ll have one or two tunes that do swing. And I have a girl that sings named Charenee with a really beautiful voice who’ll come up and sing a jazz swing number. It’ll be a standard that I took and added my own little flavor to, but it’ll still swing. So if there are one or two people who are more into that style, at least they can walk away and go: “This kid does the swing thing O.K., too.” I think that’s cool. But then I’ll have a number that’ll go into a hip-hop thing, or Brazilian, or have a classical beginning. At least I hope when someone comes to my gig, they’ll have one or two songs that they like.

FJO: You mentioned hip-hop; have you ever worked with rappers?

SR: I’ve never worked with a live emcee or anyone rapping. It’s more like a groove. I’ll hear a groove that sounds more like it would have been created on a drum machine, so I’ll ask my drummer to mess around with hip-hop-type grooves.

FJO: Would you want to work with a rapper?

SR: I’m not opposed to the idea but I haven’t really been looking into it. I like some hip-hop, but I don’t like all hip-hop. The hip-hop I like, I like because of the beats, the funkiness of the drum groove, and the rhythm of the person speaking, not necessarily what’s coming out of their mouth. I never listen to lyrics. And if it’s a song that has really bad lyrics, talking about things that I don’t like, I don’t really listen to that stuff.

FJO: You said a big band can be like an expanded rock band. Is that how you think of it, or do you treat it more like an orchestra?

SR: A little bit of both; it depends on what mood I’m in. If I’m feeling like I want to be pretty and sentimental, I have four woodwinds that can play flutes, oboe, and clarinets. And I can use mutes and all sorts of color combinations that can create orchestral sounds. If I want to be loud and obnoxious, I’ve got an electric guitar player, and a full, loud brass section, plus a rhythm section with drums. I like the diversity that you can get with eighteen musicians.

FJO: So at this point when you create music, are you hearing the orchestration as you write it?

SR: These days, as I’ve gotten further along, I do hear the colors first. Not every piece, but if I’m hearing a ballad in my head I won’t really hear the melody. I’m not one of those people that can dictate all the melodies in my head and just write them down. But I’ll hear the sound of a flute and oboe together with a muted trumpet and then I’ll have to find some music to fit that. But it’s the color first that comes to me.

FJO: I see you’ve got the Samuel Adler orchestration book on your shelf; he doesn’t really talk about jazz, so that’s obviously there for other reasons.

SR: When I was at Manhattan School of Music, halfway through my time, I realized I really wanted to be a concert music composer, so I started studying scores and wrote a couple of little orchestral pieces and basically tried to teach myself a little of that world. I have some chamber and orchestral pieces to show for it, but it’s more something I just wanted to do. I really like that sound and that palette and what a lot of the great concert composers have done with it.

For the classical pieces I’ve done, even just watching someone conduct them in a rehearsal, it was a little bit nerve-wracking. You’re still learning that medium, and then you realize that these musicians are trained differently, so it’s not going to sound exactly like how you heard it in your head. For me, being trained more as a jazz and R&B rhythm section player, my time tends to manifest itself outwardly. I tap my foot. I think they’re trained a different way as far as tempo goes. Not that their time is bad; I think they’re just used to things done differently.

FJO: So when your big band plays, are they playing what you’ve heard in your head when you wrote the music for them?

SR: Yeah, but it’s because it’s the medium that I’m more practiced in. With classical music, I’m still fishing my way through it and learning a bit more about it. I can produce in a big band chart something closer to what I hear in my head.

FJO: So how do you work? I see that you keep manuscript paper on your piano.

SR: Grooves and things like that I can work out in my head because it’s rhythm. But as far as melodic dictation, I sit down at the piano. I’m not a great pianist, but I play pretty good “composer’s piano.” And I work things out as slowly as I have to. I write down little sketches here, then I write directly into Finale; you can edit it a lot better there.

FJO: How much of your scores are locked in before you start working with the band and how much stays open?

SR: Most of it is open. I’ll come to the band with a finished chart. But one section I might try with a certain combination of mutes, or I’ll say, “Can you try this on clarinet instead of soprano?” I might have a few different orchestrational versions I’ll want to try out. Or even form-wise, I might realize that I want to stick in a bar here or a bar there. I don’t come to them with something that’s rigid. If I hear something else, I’ll change it for the next time.

FJO: When you’re creating this music, are you only thinking of the timbres or are you also thinking of specific people you work with?

SR: There are people who I feel are permanent fixtures in the band, which is just about everybody. Like my lead alto player, Erica, has a really warm tone, and so I’ll think the next song I write I really want to feature her. People in my band have unique tones in the way they play their instruments.

FJO: How fixed has the personnel been in your band?

SR: We’ve done three gigs toward the end of last year, and all those guys were pretty much the same guys that recorded the CD with me a year before. These are all people that I knew from Manhattan School of Music. They played on my recital there, which was half big band, half small group. I’ve had the same core group. There have been some changes when people can’t make gigs, but I definitely have people that I call first who I think of as my guys. They’re there because they like the music, and we’re good friends.

FJO: Part of why big band ceased being so prevalent is it eventually ceased to be economically viable; it was just too expensive. How do you make this happen?

SR: It’s hard. I can pay them ten or twenty bucks when we do a gig, but that’s about it. Sometimes it ends up being a little extra money out of my pocket. So it’s not economically the best thing to do. And if I have a singer or two on top of that, that’s twenty people that I have to pay. And, you know, big band gigs are going to be getting money from the cover. Sometimes I can get a lot of people out, but sometimes it’s New York City and you can’t get people to come out. But I still need to pay my guys something for their hard work. Sometimes some of the guys won’t take money if I try to give it to them for a cab ride home because they say, “We really like your music, and we really love you.” It’s like a family.

FJO: But if someone in your band gets a gig that pays serious money somewhere else, that’s where they’ll be.

SR: And they let me know. There’s been a couple of times when someone said, “I’ve got to take this gig; it’s three hundred bucks.” How could I be mad at them? They’ve come to my rehearsals for free. They’ve done the gigs that they can do. But we’ve all got to eat, and we’ve all got to pay rent. We all live here. And some of them are married and have families. I totally understand that. If they can’t make it, I call someone else. It’s not that big a deal.

FJO: Do you keep a personal Yellow Pages for players?

SR: I have my own version of that, but it’s not that long a list. Generally there are maybe two or three people. If my person can’t make it, hopefully by the time I’ve hit the third person someone might be off that night and can do the gig.

FJO: How many rehearsals would you typically have before a gig?

SR: I guess generally three. It depends. If I were to do a gig right now, since we haven’t done a gig in a few months, I would probably have a couple pretty long ones. If I had a couple of gigs in a row and there was no new material, I could get away with one. If I have four new songs, then I’d need four rehearsals. It just depends on what my material is. If I have new material, then I’ll need to rehearse more.

FJO: Have you ever had last-minute replacements show up to gigs who hadn’t rehearsed with you at all?

SR: That’s never happened. We’ve had people who if I had three rehearsals they could only make one or two, and they send subs the other times. But if those are my normal guys, then I know they know the music anyway, so I’m not too worried. My guys are good, and they’ll work on it at home if they have to.

FJO: So when you play a gig is all the music yours?

SR: It’s either music that I’ve composed or music that I’ve arranged. I have a few standards that I’ve done, but if I do a jazz standard I try to make it my own.

FJO: Is this a role you’d ever want to share with other people in the band?

SR: If someone in the band wanted to write something, I guess I wouldn’t be opposed to it. My piano player actually wrote this song and he’s been asking me to make an arrangement of it, so I would do that. If someone in the band has something they’ve written and says, “Sherisse, can we play this in the band?” Then I would do an arrangement of it. I think that would be pretty cool.

FJO: What kind of exposure have you had with your music so far?

SR: I’ve been pretty fortunate. I’ve gotten a couple of awards that have forced me to be in the public eye and in some jazz festivals. And I got to be at IAJE [the annual conference of the International Association of Jazz Educators] a couple of times and stand in front of people. I’ve done some big band gigs with my band in town, so I’ve gotten a little bit of exposure that way. This is definitely my first interview: it’s the first time I’ve had to answer questions.

FJO: So, if you could chart your musical future right now, where would you like all this stuff to go?

SR: Ideally, I’d like to be able to have my big band, but make it more of an ad-hoc instrumentation, maybe incorporate an oboe or a bassoon or a cello. Maybe it would still be eighteen people or fifteen, but it wouldn’t be four trumpets, four trombones. I’d like to use the vocals more as part of the ensemble. Or maybe incorporate someone that plays laptop or who does electronic-type things.

FJO: You’ve made one CD so far which is completely self-produced and self-released.

SR: I’m very fortunate. My parents were very supportive. They basically asked me what I needed to do to get to the next point in my career, and I said, “Release a CD.” I called all my friends. We started rehearsing more. We did the recording, and it took a month to get the CD. Then I had something to shop around. The main point of this was to have something to send out either to labels or just to clubs. And it’s been really great. I go to IAJE or even Chamber Music America [conferences], and I have a CD I can give to someone so they’ll know who I am and what I sound like.

FJO: So in your experience what’s the difference in having that versus saying to someone, “Check out my music on my website”?

SR: People aren’t going to remember that. If I meet someone at IAJE and tell them to check out my website, first of all, they’re not going to know how to spell my name. Even if I gave them a business card, I just think if you give someone a CD, even if they stuff it in their bags with thirty other CDs, and it takes them two months to get to it, they have something as opposed to having to remember to go to your website. You’re just making it a bit easier for them to find you.

FJO: But you have a website, too.

SR: A couple of random people emailed me saying they saw my CD on CDBaby and found my website from there. I didn’t seek them out. And I’m on MySpace; I had to join the revolution. That’s been cool because I’ve been trying to learn Portuguese to go to Brazil, and through MySpace I’ve been able to make pen pals and say, “Hey, if I come down there for a couple of weeks, I’d like to do some gigs with you; I really like your music.” I can write to someone in Finland and say, “Hey, I really like your CD; can you mail me one?” I think it’s made the international community a little bit closer; even people in different parts of this country, we can all connect and hear what everyone else is doing.

FJO: A lot of jazz musicians I’ve spoken to over the years have told me that there’s no money for this music in America, if you want to earn anything to play jazz, you’ve got to play in Europe.

SR: I’ve heard that, too, and I have thought about that. I’ve been sending out press kits, and I’ll see who bites. I had never pursued that before because I have eighteen people in my band, and even if I get over to a Portuguese jazz festival, I don’t know if I can take eighteen people. I have to scale it down. But from everyone I’ve heard, the international community appreciates it, and they definitely fund it better than we do here.

FJO: That’s weird because jazz was born here. What’s that about?

SR: I’m sure it’s some sort of cultural phenomenon we can talk for hours about. I think we don’t appreciate our own art forms. There’s something about jazz that if I were to talk to the random sixteen-year-old, they’d be like: “That’s corny; that’s old.” It really isn’t, and you can do a lot of things with it. But in our culture we don’t really appreciate things like that. It’s more of a culture where things are nicely packaged, and jazz and even concert music aren’t always so nicely packaged, especially experimental concert music. The same people that want to hear Beethoven aren’t the same people that want to hear something crazy with pots and pans. Maybe a European audience would. Or even if they don’t, they’d have the funding for it.

FJO: As a young person making this kind of music, you’re a spokesperson for it. What do you say to the young person who says it’s corny.

SR: I guess I would say it’s only corny if you allow yourself to be stuck in time. If you always equate jazz with something that was created thirty years ago, that’s what you’re gonna get. But there are people out there fusing it with maybe some stuff that you have in your record collection. Give it a chance because people are doing more things than the label lends itself to. You say jazz to people and they automatically think one thing, but right now it’s starting to break away from being just jazz. It could be electronica, it could be experimental, it could be hip-hop. You could have all that in the ensemble.

FJO: What does jazz mean to you?

SR: I guess it used to mean a very specific style, but I’m not very big on labels, and I wouldn’t call my big band jazz. It has jazz harmonies and things like that, but for the person who listens to Stan Kenton and thinks that’s [all] jazz [is], they’re not gonna think I’m jazz. I guess I don’t really feel like I need the label; you can call it whatever you like.

FJO: Then what is the ideal venue for your music?

SR: I don’t know if there’s an ideal venue for this music. In a city like this, we have jazz clubs and a lot of tourists come through. For people that really like jazz, they make it so expensive. It’s hard to go to the Blue Note to hear your favorite artist and not spend seventy bucks. I don’t want to alienate people. I want people to be able to look forward to coming to see my gig. Then again, if I said I’d like to have it in an art house, I might be taking away some of the legitimacy. All the jazz guys would go, “Oh, you don’t want to play in a club.” In the jazz community there tends to be certain hang-ups about what type of establishments you play in. The bottom line is I just want people to hear my music. If it’s the Village Vanguard—if I’m lucky enough to play there one day—it would be cool. If it’s a loft in Brooklyn that has paintings and coffee, and they’ll show my band, and I can pay my guys, then I’ll play there too.

FJO: I’ve heard your band perform live at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in Jazz at Lincoln Center, which is a strange hybrid place. It’s not really like being at the Vanguard or even Iridium; it’s a concert hall that’s been manufactured into a club.

SR: Jazz at Lincoln Center kind of blends it. They have those two actual concert halls, and they have the Dizzy’s Jazz Club, which is a restaurant, but it still has that vibe. It does feel like you’re in a concert hall in a sense; it’s a little more ritzy.

FJO: I’ve also heard your music at Merkin, which typically features classical music.

SR: I was part of the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop. They form this band that basically reads our music once every other month, and they put on a concert every year at Merkin Hall.

FJO: Could concert halls provide a viable venue for this music?

SR: I think so. If twice a year I could rent out a place, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with me trying to seek that out; I think it’s doable. But I don’t know if I could just go to Merkin Hall and say, “I have a big band; can I come and play here?”

FJO: Well, this is an instant commercial.

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