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Looking for the common thread

Jazz bassist Mimi Jones’ visit to MSU is three stories in one

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Seated like a Cyclopean cube of lime Jell-O in the exurban sprawl north of East Lansing, the headquarters of the MSU Federal Credit Union will never be mistaken for the Village Vanguard, Birdland or the Three Deuces.

But jazz bassist Mimi Jones was stunned by the cozy vibe there Monday.

“I wish I could take this with me,” said the New Yorker. “Thank you for this amazing energy.”

The house was packed with some 500 members of the Credit Union and students to hear Jones and the MSU Professors of Jazz kick off a weeklong residency.

This week, students are getting to know Jones and absorb and rehearse her music. Together, they’ll barnstorm by bus to schools in Mason, Comstock Park, Kalamazoo, Midland and Detroit for concerts and workshops.

They’ll cap off the week with a joint performance at MSU’s Demonstration Hall Friday.

Jones is the latest in a remarkable sixyear string of guest artists who spend a week with MSU jazz studies students. The series was seeded by a $1 million gift from the credit union.

The residencies follow a familiar pattern by now, but the music changes with each new visitor and the cumulative power of the program grows more evident with each year.

That makes Jones’ visit worth at least three stories. The first is of an artist with her own unique take on jazz. The second is of the six-year residency series and its power to change lives. The third is the crest of a wave of women taking their rightful place in a music long dominated by men, part of a deep correction now happening in the culture at large.

A million monsters

Midway through Monday’s set, the horn players walked off the stage, leaving Jones and the rhythm section to drift into a haunting version of Wayne Shorter’s “Fall.” Jones sang a fragile, wordless vocal line, doubled by Randy Napoleon’s gentle guitar, grounding the reverie with earthy eruptions from her bass.

Jones doesn’t limit herself. She might sing a confessional ballad, rub the music into a velvety funk, toy with odd time signatures, swing like it’s 1960 or fracture a tune into avant-garde shards.

“There are four or five people alive who can do what she does,” jazz studies director Rodney Whitaker said.

“She writes creative things, odd meters. She has a grasp of a lot of different styles — funk, Latin, swing.”

Jones doesn’t trace the creative impulse to her own ego.

“I feel that there’s a source that has nothing to do with me,” she said. “Historically, a lot of the music I play comes from Africa. Once you are in touch with the beat, the groove, hip-hop, tap dance, Caribbean music, swing — it can all fit on top of each other, although the accents or the instrumentation might change.”

Like many jazz artists in the 21st century, she has an inner iPod that shuffles across boundaries at will.

“It makes me feel the same if I listen to Charlie Parker or Jimi Hendrix or an opera song, field hollers and Negro spirituals. There’s a common thread and I always look for that.”

Her eclectic spirit was nurtured by the music playing in her house as she grew up.

“Sundays was cleaning the house to Al Green with the windows open,” she said. “Saturday night was Frank Sinatra and country music — Willie Nelson. Friday nights, it was Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Nancy Wilson, Gene Ammons.”

She soaked it all in, but she preferred Run-DMC as a teen. Michael Jackson also fascinated her. Early on, she declared to her father that she wanted to be Jackson’s guitar player.

Her dad insisted she learn classical guitar first. She did well and tried a lot of other things along the way — drums, vibraphone, voice and dance, all of which left traces in her music. A high school band director asked her to learn bass to fill a vacant seat in the orchestra.

“I started reading bass lines out of the school music book and I had a knack for it,” she said. She earned a full scholarship to the Manhattan School of Music.

“Then my life got serious,” she said.

“That’s when you’re deep in it — no sleep, dragging my bass around the city, playing the street.”

She jumped into the world of performing so fast that she missed her graduation ceremony from the Manhattan School to go on her first road trip, a two-month tour of Japan with veteran drummer Dennis Charles.

As her jazz life took root, Jones’ childhood yearning to have her “name in lights” with Michael Jackson morphed into something much deeper.

“Jazz is different,” she said. “It’s a humbling thing. You get there and you realize there are a million monsters more proficient than you, and there’s just so much to learn. Look at Barry Harris,” she said, referring to the legendary Detroit composer-bandleader. “He’s 93 and he’s still touring.”

Jones has issued three CDs on her own record label and keeps pushing her music in new directions, grounded by a humanist impulse.

“I’m always in a different scenario,” she said. “I’ll be in Bogota one day and the Bronx the next, then Ireland in the same week. You realize that people are people. We have families we love and want to protect. We all want health insurance.”

Conglomeration of positivity

Once upon a time, Rodney Whitaker would bring in a guest artist here and there, as the budget permitted, often shifting funds from other important projects. The Credit Union residencies have brought a steady stream of 20 top jazz musicians to MSU since they started six years ago.

“This has been beyond our imagination,” Whitaker said.

“It’s changed our program because we’re bringing in a fresh perspective, constantly. It’s changed the way we all do education, repertoire, everything.”

Among the dozens of students in the wings of the conference room Monday, listening to Jones and the professors, was Zach McKinney, a fifth-year senior in jazz drum.

McKinney has been on several tours with MSU’s jazz artists in residence, from Detroit’s Carr Center to Lansing area schools to Ludington and Cheboygan.

“This one is going to be sweet,” McKinney said. “She’s a phenomenal composer and musician and really puts it out there for women, and that’s a very positive thing.”

Touring with guest artists has lifted the ensembles to new heights.

“They have way more touring experience and performance opportunities than we ever had,” Whitaker said.

To saxophone Professor Diego Rivera, who often leads the orchestra, the weeks go by in a flash. There is only time for one rehearsal before the tours begin.

“It quickly gets to the point where I’m a spectator,” Rivera said. “The guest artist takes the reins and they get the experience of actually being in their band. I announce a couple of tunes, remember everybody’s name and get out of the way.”

The workshops at middle and high schools have given jazz students a zeal for education and outreach along with performance.

“Going to Cheboygan and playing the opera house, seeing the whole community come out for that concert — it really pushed the kids to play,” Whitaker said.

The tours take an interesting twist when the ensembles and guest artists stop in Detroit, often at the Carr Performing Arts Center, where Whitaker is jazz artistic director.

In a striking cultural reversal, the Detroit concerts often mark the first time MSU’s white students have played jazz for African-American audiences.

“In jazz education, you rarely interface with black students or black folks, black audiences,” Whitaker said. “The acceptance has changed the perspective of a lot of our students.”

McKinney described the bus trips in euphoric terms.

“When you get on the road you begin to forget which place is where and with who and it becomes this big conglomeration of positivity," he said. "You try to make every night great and it just gets better and better.”

One-on-one time with the world’s greatest jazz artists has been priceless for Jordyn Davis, a jazz studies senior.

“A lot of these people are my heroes,” she said.

“Being able to sit down and have a conversation with someone you’ve admired from afar for a very long time, you realize, ‘I can be great and do all these things in the future too and still be a normal person.’” Other moments turned out as stressful as one might expect when students encounter great artists.

As part of a 2018 residency, visiting bassist Ron Carter agreed to do two master classes, one for a classical student and one for a jazz student.

“I was the victim on the jazz side,” MSU senior Stanley Ruvinov said. “He made me play one scale for 40 minutes, until it was absolutely perfect. You can’t move on until it’s right.”

While doing so, Ruvinov had to shut out the stress of being scrutinized, point blank, by the most recorded bassist in history, a member of Miles Davis’ second great quintet and an iconic American musician.

“I was tuning my instrument and taking too long,” Ruvinov recalled. “He was like, ‘I’m just standing here waiting for you.’” He folded his arms and loomed, a la Carter. “I was like, ‘Come on, just give me a second.’ No pressure there. It was beautiful.”

At such moments, everyday learning curves veer into differential calculus. Ruvinov spoke faster and faster, as if he had seen the burning bush and was seared by the sight.

“Hearing him play, he has a really soft touch, but he’s so explosive at the same time, because he’s so articulate and particular with his note choice,” Ruvinov said. “Every note is just a bwing, bwing, bwing, bwing.”

Deep correction

Listening to Mimi Jones Monday felt like more than a bright moment.

It felt like part of a deep correction. Although there are no women on the MSU jazz faculty, Jones is one of several women to serve as jazz guest artists at MSU in the past two years, along with saxophonist Melissa Aldana, pianist Helen Sung and saxophonist Anat Cohen.

If communication, the desire to he heard, is a battle — and it often is — it’s finally dawning on a lot of people that jazz has been fighting with one hand tied behind its back.

Although women have excelled, largely unheralded, in jazz for a century, a fresh wave of voices are bringing new stories, moods, colors and approaches to the music, from bassist-singer Esperanza Spalding to drummer Teri Lynne Carrington to guitarist Mary Halvorson to trumpeter Jaime Branch and Jones’ former bandleader, saxophonist Tia Fuller.

Some, like Chicago flutist Nicole Mitchell and legendary Detroit pianist Geri Allen, who died in 2017, earned their place in the canon years ago, but history is still catching up with them.

Mimi Jones has noted a sea change in the culture since she studied jazz 20 years ago.

“Women were always out there, but now there’s more of a platform for them to be heard,” Jones said. “They’re doing it and the world’s becoming more educated.”

Whitaker said he’s made it “number one priority” to recruit a woman on the jazz faculty at MSU. He’s also revising a course in jazz history to better reflect the contributions of female artists.

“We have to change the way history is told,” he said. “If you don’t see yourself in it, it’s difficult.”

The mid-20th-century composer-pianist Mary Lou Williams, a musical force comparable in originality and brilliance to Duke Ellington, is a major example.

“Take the bebop era alone — it may not have developed without Mary Lou Williams tutoring Dizzy and Monk and Bird,” Whitaker said. “They all spent time hanging and learning from her.”

But the deficit goes beyond education. It’s an uphill fight for anyone to make a living as a jazz musician, but women face an often hostile and dismissive culture. Vibraphonist Sasha Berliner detailed her long, varied and relentless experience with sexism in jazz in a melancholy 2017 blog entry responding to now-infamous sexist comments made by jazz pianist Robert Glasper.

“Women are finally claiming voicedness in a genre and industry that has rejected and demeaned them time and time again, and that is something to be visibly celebrated,” Berliner wrote.

Mimi Jones can relate to many of the experiences Berliner described.

“It’s still male dominated,” Jones said. “A lot of times women are not the first ones people call. People assume you’re carrying your boyfriend’s bass. I get that too. It’s still happening.”

As the artistic director for jazz at Detroit’s Carr Performing Arts Center, Whitaker has worked with top jazz stars like Teri Lynne Carrington and DeeDee Bridgewater. He has four female students in his bass studio.

“They’re schooling me,” Whitaker said. “They’re like, ‘Look, you’ve got to talk to everybody you know and help to make this change.’ It’s a civil rights issue.”

Listening to Mimi Jones Monday, Jordyn Davis thought about the week ahead, and the life ahead of her. Like Jones, Davis plays bass, composes and sings, and isn’t all that interested in limitations.

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