Patrice Rushen gets ready for her Blue Note debut at sound check
From March 20-25, 2007, The Blue Note featured legendary bassist Stanley Clarke with drummer Lenny White and pianist/vocalist Patrice Rushen. Patrice Rushen is a unique figure in jazz and the music world at large. She came to the forefront of the R&B world with hits like "Forget Me Nots" and served as the Musical Director of Janet Jackson's tour "janet". She is an accomplished orchestral composer and arranger, film scorer, director, and pianist. The Blue Note Blogger had a chance to sit down with Rushen to discuss her experiences in music:
Your achievements in music include "firsts" in so many areas: You were the first woman in 43 years to serve as head composer/musical director the EMMY AWARDS, the first woman to serve as musical director for the NAACP IMAGE AWARDS broadcast, the first and only woman to serve as musical director/composer for the PEOPLE'S CHOICE AWARDS, HBO's COMIC RELIEF and the THE MIDNIGHT HOUR and so many more. So, is this your first time playing the Blue Note?
I’ve played the Blue Note in Tokyo, I’ve played the one in Milan, and that’s it. This is my FIRST time in the Blue Note York. It’s been great. I like it a lot, the staff is great and the people are nice. It maintains the same vibe as the other ones in other parts of the world.
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This week at the Blue Note you're a jazz pianist, but you've been so many things throughout your career. Where did it all begin?
When I first started, I was actually seen as a jazz pianist. And then, on a solo project I sang one song. I always liked R&B and pop music. It wasn’t foreign to me and I was always buying records of pop artists. After singing on that one tune on the third record for Prestige, the next company that I worked with wanted more stuff like that. They saw a wider audience.
The next company, as in the switch from Prestige to Elektra?
So can you talk about that switch? Did you ever feel like the major labels were trying to mold you into something specific?
I wasn’t exactly trying to be molded, but I did get the feeling that things were being handled in a way that would yield more popular success. I didn’t have a problem with that though, because for one thing, I had artistic freedom within those parameters. This kind of thing would be completely unheard of today, where I can do the music I wanted to do, writing all the arrangements for strings and horns, conducting…you know I was singing, and certainly playing too. The context I was in was more of a R and B /Pop format, but the art in that for me still existed because the aesthetic didn’t require me to change my point of view on how I put together music. It was just a different type of mindset as far as the music went, but the creative aspect for me was just as fulfilling. It just emphasized something different. I never stopped playing at the time; I just wasn’t able to do it as much as I did on those jazz records for Prestige.
So you started taking piano lessons at U.S.C at only 3 years old. So many people who start young burn out by the time they reach young adulthood. What kind of atmosphere did you grow up in so that by the time you were able to choose what you wanted to do in life, you chose music?
Well I went through the usual love/hate relationship that most kids go through with the thing they like the most and do the best, but rebel against because their friends don’t do that. But my parents always wanted my sister and I to be happy. That was the first priority – and to do our best in whatever it was that we did. At one point, when I didn’t really understand or appreciate the piano lessons I was given, instead of allowing me to quit, my parents got…well, you know piano is a solitary instrument, and by this time I was in my teens, and when you’re a teenager you want to be just like your friends. Most of my friends who happened to be musicians were playing orchestral instruments, carrying cases full of clarinets, flutes, and other instruments. I didn’t have a case, and I couldn’t play in the band or the orchestra because I played piano. So I decided to play flute, and that was how my head began to be directed towards maintaining what I had in music while emphasizing something different. That orchestral experience really opened me up for what I ultimately wanted to do the most, which was to be a composer.
Writing for an orchestra is such a different discipline than writing a pop song or a tune for a jazz quintet. Did you have any formal training in orchestral writing and arranging?
I had some training. I always liked it, and by the time I was in high school I started messing around with the idea of learning arranging and orchestration through the experience that I had in high school as a writer for the band. In marching band, we hated the stock arrangements, and we wanted to play James Brown and Stevie Wonder. So I started experimenting with that, and did some jazz arrangements for the jazz band, and when the bug bit me I started really trying to study it. It wasn’t until college that I had any training, where I got together with a master orchestrator who was writing for films. In that particular discipline. you might have to make a big band arrangement, followed by a symphonic score or a pop tune. This guy was a master orchestrator and after working with him for a few months, I got a command of the different sounds and different kinds of orchestral ensembles. It was fun – I really enjoyed it, and I kept at it and kept at it with his guidance. And then, like I said, when I was doing these pop records, it was glorious, because I was able to write my own arrangements. The experiences from my past taught me an awful lot that I continue to use today and as time went on I learned more and more.
Can you talk to about your relationship with Quincy Jones? In some ways, you seem like his protégé, in that he started playing jazz trumpet like you did piano, and both of you chose to explore the music world rather than to settle with one thing. Both of you always did your own thing and followed your heart.
That’s exactly right. He asked me what I wanted to do, and I told him that I wanted to write. He said to me, ‘You’ve got to diversify. I know you can't really appreciate what I’m telling you right now, but you will.’ And now, I do appreciate it so much, because in being able to do a lot of different things, I never really felt like it’s gotten old. There’s always something to discover and there’s always new challenges and things for me to do. If one thing has kind of had it for a while, particularly now, since I have my family, and a mortgage, (laughter) things like that. There are other things I can emphasize that can keep me involved in music, keep me fresh, and still express myself.
You’ve been at the top of many musical genres, especially the R&B/Pop world. You were the musical director for Janet Jackson’s tour and you’ve worked with so many incredible pop artists. Based on those experiences in the pop world, where do you see a future for jazz, and do you ever think it will regain the popularity in once had in the 30’s and 40’s?
Well I think jazz has always had the identity problem of being a music that the masses feel like they can’t get into, only because they haven’t been exposed to it and allowed to understand it. Now, with jazz being institutionalized, I think there is a little bit more of an understanding of what it’s about. It’s not such a closed, clandestine type of music anymore. Jazz has always needed the kind of boost from the general public. It’s important. It’s a part of America’s history, and it’s a legacy that should continue. This is the classical music of America, the music that was invented and started here, and should be perpetuated here. In other parts of the world it’s been viewed very highly, and they can’t understand why we just toss it to the side and kick it to the curb like it’s not of any importance, and yet, jazz music has influenced all the other kinds of music. As musical director of the Grammy’s for 3 years in a row, I was able to work with all these different musicians and artists in different areas. At the end of the day, when you start talking to them about what they do as artists, you start to find that most artists listen to different types of music, not just from the particular area that they are in. You would be surprised – they may not play jazz, but they really adore the fact that this music represents people that are tackling the most difficult, impressive and creative music that exists. It feeds their soul to know that what they do is what keeps the music alive. It’s a living art. It’s always evolving, changing, and is a reflection of the times. I think that it continues to suffer from a lack of the most obvious kinds of support. Therefore, it doesn’t appear that it is as important as other kinds of music. But I think that as long as there are people who protect the integrity of the music and bring the tradition – and when I say tradition, I don’t mean it has to be old or sound old – the tradition is to learn the craft, the instrument, and learn the language, and then to expand upon that language and eventually leave something behind. As long as that continues, the music will live.
Did you see Ornette Coleman at the Grammy’s this year?
Yeah. It’s about time. I hope that the Grammy’s in particular will begin to reflect more of what the music industry is about and what the music industry has to offer. Over the years, and understandably so, money, ratings, and membership to the academy become factors that gradually enforce what is on that show. Yet, the public looks at the show as a mirror of what the industry is really made up of, and that they’re representing, showing you, and giving awards to the best of the best. When certain aspects of music are minimized, or left out, or thrown into the mix, it has a way of not registering its importance to the public. What I hope will continue to happen is that it won’t just be a situation where an elder statesman of the music gets up and gets an award and doesn’t have the opportunity to perform.
It would have been amazing if he played – such an experience for him to play on a national stage for the general public.
The most important thing is that we as a public need to be reminded. We have stuff bombarding us all the time. Occasionally, I think it’s important that we are reminded of the level of musicianship and excellence that exists, and then we can put categories in music. Little steps forward, and hopefully it will start to happen.
So what’s next for you? What’s on tap right now, and what do you see for yourself in the future?
That’s a difficult question, because I’ve been involved in a lot of different areas in the music and in the music business. I like recording, but I haven’t recorded under my own name in a very long time. Maybe I’ll put out a CD or a solo project of some sort, I don’t’ know what quite yet. I will continue to write orchestral music and learn about symphonic music and experiment with bringing a contemporary sensibility that reflects my experiences as an African-American to the stage. I’m trying to grow as a player and pianist all the time. I’m a never-ending student. But I’m not sure what’s next – I’m at a point in my life where I’ve had a tremendous amount of wonderful, creatively rich experiences, and I’ve been set in many important cornerstone kind of environments that have really shaped who I am and the possibilities for what I can impart. I’m still just rolling with it, trying to figure out what’s next.
Are you ever going to release any of your orchestral work to the general public? I’m sure we’ve all heard your stuff without even knowing it on TV.
(Laughter) Well I’m certainly trying to figure out ways to get it out there. I have some options, and there are so many areas I can explore. I do want to try and exploit these different things, because it says a lot to people when they can say “so and so who did this movie is playing tonight at the Blue Note…” ect. I think it says a lot about the kind of rich musical environment that exists in this world, about a certain type of excellence, and the multi-tasking and diversity that is part of what we are and who we’re about. There are lots of people that are specialists, but there are also people who do a lot of things, and do them well. So, we’ll see!