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Q&A with jazz musician/UC Berkeley professor Myra Melford

By October 23, 2019 No Comments
Myra Melford, jazz pianist-composer and UC Berkeley professor of music, is co-curating Cal Performances’ upcoming slate of jazz artists. (Photos by Bryan Murray)

When it comes to attracting inventive jazz musicians to Berkeley stages, Cal Performances has turned to its own in-house expert.

That person is Myra Melford, a renowned jazz pianist-composer and UC Berkeley professor of music for the past 14 years. Melford is co-curating Cal Performances’ upcoming slate of jazz artists, and the first night of programming is scheduled Oct. 27, at Hertz Hall on campus.

The artists that night will include the David Virelles Trio, as well as a collaboration by flautist Nicole Mitchell and scholar Josh Kun on “Spider Web” — a spoken word performance that explores race and politics in Southern California. For tickets, go online at CalPerformances.org.

“These diverse musicians are at the leading edge of jazz and improvisational music in the world today,” Melford said. “(They’re) innovative performers across generations who are blending composition and improvisation in exciting, original ways.”

Local News Matters recently chatted by phone with Melford, who discussed her passion for improvisation, as well as what she looks for when curating musical performances. A Q&A based on that interview appears below. It has been edited for space and clarity.

Q: When did you first get interested in music?

A: Very young. I started playing the piano on my own when I was about 3. I couldn’t wait to take piano lessons, and finally convinced my parents to get them when I was 5. I knew at a young age that music was my passion. I wanted at first to be a conductor. I pursued classical piano lessons until I was a high school freshman. Then I got interested in other things in high school. But when I got to Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, I saw a concert at a local café. Performing there were (jazz violinist) Leroy Jenkins, (pianist and composer) Amina Claudine Myers, and others, and this light bulb went off in my head. I had no idea what they were doing, but suddenly I realized I needed to find and create my own music and create my own improvised music. I was a sophomore in college then and I’ve been doing it ever since.

Q: What other things and people influenced your musical growth?

A: I grew up in a Chicago suburb — Glencoe, Illinois. The house I grew up in was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. It was a beautiful aesthetic space that affected me musically. Wright believed that a building grows out of the site and environment in which it’s built.

He tried to erase the boundaries of space in and out of a building, to open up the angles and lines and extend it into the environment.

When I moved to New York and studied composition with Henry Threadgill (a renowned jazz musician and composer who won a Pulitzer Prize for music in 2016), I found that Threadgill’s approach to composing dovetailed with Wright’s architecture. His style encouraged exploring the organic evolution of composing and blurring the lines of pre-composed structure and what could happen in improvisation.

Q: Why is improvisation such a key component of your musical journey?

A: I think it goes back to that moment in college, when I realized that making music for my own voice and with improvisers was what I wanted to do. When I played piano as a little girl, there was a huge joy in doing that. I was just making up music on my own. I reconnected with that joy I felt as a child.

I’m passionate about improv. I’m constantly encountering the unknown and the unforeseen and having to find my own way.

I’m the same way when I visit a new city. My favorite thing is to just go walking and discover the place. I take an undetermined route, that’s the best way for me. To have an immediate connection to the place where I am.

It’s the same for me with music, putting myself in an unknown situation and then learn to play. I’m often terrified of it, too. But that doesn’t stop me. Somehow with the curiosity and whatever drive I have to do it, I can overcome the fear.

One of my mentors was Cecil Taylor (pianist, poet, and pioneer of free jazz). He told me a few years ago that he’d never gotten over the fear of playing live in front of an audience. And he was in his 80s at the time. I think a lot of improvisers and musicians that I resonate with or admire, they go for what is the most scary (for themselves as artists).

Q: What are the similarities, if any, to playing music and teaching college students?

A: I think whenever you’re in a group of people, and whether you’re playing music or talking or listening to others talk or play, the key for me is listening. So, it’s very much the same kind of thing.

In class, I don’t know what questions students will ask or what issues might come up, but I focus on listening and being open-minded and open-hearted and trusting that I’ll respond in ways that are appropriate and helpful. My instincts are things that I can trust in either playing or teaching, that’s a similarity between the two.

Q: In your professional bio, you list many wide-ranging people and things as your inspiration. How much has your intellectual curiosity fueled your musicianship?

A: I think it’s what kept me always searching for the next thing, whether it’s writing for non-improvisers, classically trained musicians, or putting together a multidisciplinary piece. I love to read, go to museums, engage in other art forms. It’s been a huge and rich source of inspiration for my work. It’s still feels challenging.

Many of us encounter signatures or habits in our voice; how do you push yourself beyond those habits, that’s another motivating factor. To recognize those, we have to embrace our habits because that’s, in a way, our song as musicians. I’ve been inspired by musicians who do that — John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman.

Q: What is the key to doing a good job at curating music while programming a night of music?

A: Several things. And it depends on the environment. But at UC Berkeley, having an opportunity to put improvisational music on the stage for Cal Performances was a huge opportunity to introduce Bay Area audiences to artists they might not encounter. (These are) artists who are amazing and who don’t have much of a platform yet in the Bay Area.

The other thing is to feature artists that bring some diversity. And it’s a chance to champion women musicians.

I usually don’t like to make a deal about that because I recognize them as musicians, first. But I feel we still have a problem, in terms of recognition of the talents and incredible accomplishments and mastery by so many women musicians who tend not to get the same recognition as that of their male counterparts. They need to be out there in equal numbers.

I think it’s changing. I feel there now are more women artists really committing to a lifelong career in jazz and improvisation; definitely more than when I started out. That’s encouraging but there’s still a huge disparity in numbers between men and women. There’s more work to be done on that.

Q: Your bio describes you as having a “desire to showcase the musical future.” What do you think will be the musical future or is that impossible to know?

A: Jazz is a music that has been constantly evolving since it started in the early 20th century. It has absorbed and been inspired by things outside of jazz. Those are the things that have propelled it forward, such as Charlie Parker’s interest in Stravinsky or Duke Ellington learning about music in Africa during his travels for the U.S. State Department.

There have been certain moments in jazz where there was real change in the music, one of the biggest moments came in the 1960s and 1970s — with John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and on and on — all of these artists were looking for new ideas, forms, and ways to present the music they came up with. Everybody was questioning the old ways and looking for new ways to present this music. This was a hugely powerful time when the music opened up and became very diverse. And we can trace artists today — who were influenced by those innovations in jazz — back to those artists 50 years ago.

And while I love all the music and respect all the eras, to me it’s important to recognize that it’s still evolving today. We’ve reached a point where there’s permanent diversity in jazz, and the fact that there’s always a leading edge and a generation or two or three pushing the music forward and incorporating all the elements.

It’s very important to the history of and to the future of the music that, while we love the music of the past, there’s this incredible music happening now that can enrich our lives. I want to make sure people hear that and can hear the excitement of how an art form grows and develops.

Q: How do the performers you’ve scheduled, such as the David Virelles Trio and Nicole Mitchell and Josh Kun, mesh with your goal of highlighting jazz’s diverse future?

A: These innovations by these icons of jazz in the late 1950s and 1960s influenced a generation of musicians who came together and formed a community in Chicago called the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. It’s known by its acronym AACM. The AACM artists — Threadgill, Jenkins, Taylor, Muhul Richard Abrams, and on and on — took off from those innovations and were really doing their own thing. These people were my main mentors. Nicole Mitchell is a third-generation member of AACM and its former chairwoman. They were artists who really embraced all of music. Any or all music was fair game to explore, be inspired by, and incorporate into your own.

Both Nicole Mitchell and David Virelles studied with Henry Threadgill. So, we have two direct connections to these very innovative musicians in Chicago in the 1960s. A lot of these guys moved to NYC, eventually. But they never lost their distinctive sound and sensibility that they cultivated in Chicago. Their music sounds like no other music in the world; it’s identifiable and exemplary of 1960s and 1970s music in Chicago.

Q: Do you have a preference or a vision for what the musical future will sound like?

A: I don’t think so. I can imagine the next big project and how I would like to expand it, in terms of my own expressive capability. For me that involves expanding contemporary sounds.

I’m always looking for new ways to express myself musically and to add to my expressive capability, and a part of that involves working with musicians from a different tradition and having the challenge of learning how to write for them that’s true to my own sensibility, as a player and improviser. But that’s that element of working with the unforeseen and unknown and being patient; that I’ll know the next note to play as long as I’m listening and present and in the moment. As long as I’m not resorting to my habits or what I’ve already done, but instead am pushing myself to learn new ways to express myself.

I came up in New York in 1984. I was still a student then and not playing professionally very much. In the city’s downtown music scene, there was a huge community of artists coming from different genres of music, jazz, punk, art rock, and all kinds of experiments in improvisation. And everybody was developing a personal language, their own vocabulary as an improviser but also learning how to compose for improvisers. That tradition continues today. All these great artists that came up then are now finding ways to blur the boundaries of all these different types of music and do it in their own voice. I think we’re in an incredible time.

And the artists we’re presenting on Oct. 27 are artists at the forefront of this music, to bring originality and have the courage to cross boundaries and not worry about how the establishment receives that.