When I was little, I only listened to classical music, it was all I liked

- in INTERVIEWS

Bassist Carmen Rothwell has been a beneficiary of their experience, and paid her dues on the Seattle jazz scene while still a student at the University of Washington, studying under mercurial trumpeter, Cuong Vu. Her performance and recording experience includes projects with Vu, trailblazing guitarist Bill Frisell, trumpeter Dave Douglas, and pianist/composer Wayne Horvitz. In 2014, she was named “Emerging Artist of the Year,” by Earshot Jazz. Rothwell is equally adept in applying extended techniques on her instrument, whether playing straight ahead jazz, or traversing the avant-garde, along the way developing an original and innovative approach recognizably her own. I had the good fortune of catching up with her during a recent visit to Seattle.

JBN.S: Like many Seattle jazz musicians before you, you have moved to New York, and immersed yourself in the scene there. Your path is a little different than most, as you stayed in Seattle after high school to study at the University of Washington, as opposed to schools in New York. What was it about the program there that inspired that decision?

CR: When I entered college, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a musician, I was pretty hesitant about it. I wasn’t planning on going to school for music necessarily. But when I auditioned for UW, and started to connect with Cuong Vu, I decided to major in music. I still thought I might do something else as well, but I didn’t know what that was. Over the course of time there, I realized this is what I wanted to do, what I needed to do. Cuong was a huge part of that change in my head, that this is something I can do, this is something I’m good at, it was something I kind of can’t not do.

JBN.S: Stylistically, where were you at coming out of Garfield? Was what Cuong Vu was doing eye opening for you, or were you already familiar?

CR: I had been curious about many different styles and genres since high school, but I really didn’t know a lot. That program was mostly rooted in swing, and Clarence Acox is a wonderful teacher. Some of my friends, my peers at Garfield had other interests as well, so through them, I was interested in other directions. When I auditioned for UW, and then started to check out concerts that Cuong was doing more, as I was deciding to go to UW, I found it exciting. Quartet. I remember going to a concert at The Chapel, and seeing what turned into Leaps of Faith (Origin, 2011), the album. I had never seriously checked out anything like that before, but I found it really compelling, and I was excited to be around those people.

JBN.S: Can you identify a turning point that made you realize you were going to become a professional musician? Was there a defining moment when the floodgates started to open, or was it more of a gradual thing?

CR: It was over the course of college. My sophomore year I started being in contact with Cuong more in my classes, and that made a huge difference. All of his classes that he taught were just so eye opening. He just made it possible for me to open up my idea of what music even is, and how and where improvisation can exist in music, how I can relate to all these different concepts, jazz or whatever. Jazz is such a broad thing, we can define it for ourselves. There’s a tradition of course. A lot of people have this perception of Cuong, that he’s not into swing, because they see him as this avant-garde guy. But he can really play that music.

JBN.S:: I’ve seen him perform, for example, Duke Ellington‘s “Harlem,” with the Seattle Symphony. He can play within the more traditional forms, and play them extremely well.

CR: He has that perspective, and also knows it’s important, and ultimately, for me, it’s more meaningful to not be so concerned with following a set of rules.

JBN.S: Essentially, that’s what attracts us to jazz.

CR: This has happened, throughout the history of the music. I felt like I learned that from him. Through recordings he would play in classes, jazz and non-jazz, getting down to what makes these pieces of music work, what is universal, and how you can take these pieces and put them together. It made it exciting for me, instead of thinking that if I’m going to be a jazz musician, I have to know this very specific language in and out, and I have to learn to play these really fast pieces, bebop.

JBN.S: But you had that foundational knowledge from Clarence Acox.

CR: Yes, and I continued to learn that, but instead of being guided by some big idea of this is what I’m supposed to do in order to be a jazz musician, I was more guided by, “I really like listening to this recording, so I’m going to learn from it, because I feel drawn to it.” And then letting myself to be drawn to jazz, or classical music, or pop music, or whatever else, equally.

JBN.S: Otherwise, it’s like putting the music under glass, like a museum piece. The same thing happens in classical music, where many people view anything from the last hundred years as non music, ignoring brilliant work from the twentieth and twenty first centuries. People have this perception of what something is, and in the end, miss the point of what it is. How would you describe your musical upbringing?

CR: When I was little, I only listened to classical music, it was all I liked.

JBN.S: Did you have a bass mentor then?

CR: I started playing bass in sixth grade. I started with the cello in fourth grade. I chose cello because my older brother had played the cello, and switched to bass, around that timeline for him. I really looked up to him, so I thought I wanted to play the cello when it came time to choose an instrument. When I got to middle school, I was very timid, I was so scared at the thought of auditioning for orchestra. I didn’t want to audition on cello, I thought it would be better to just pick up a new instrument, so I could start at square one. By the next year I started doing jazz band, and continued in orchestra.

JBN.S: Who did you study with in high school?

CR: In high school I studied with Doug Miller. I started with him the summer before high school, he was an amazing teacher. I learned so much from him.

JBN.S: Did you have a bass mentor at the UW, when you were studying in that program?

CR: Yes, Luke Bergman was the bass guy there, and he is an amazing teacher, and also very different. I thought he was exactly what I needed at that time as well. I learned so many fundamentals and jazz specific things from Doug. Also things about being a supportive musician, what your bass role is, using your ears, so many things about what it is to be a bassist.

When I got to the UW, and started studying with Luke, things started opening up. I came in with this idea that I was going to be a jazz major, I have to work on my jazz vocabulary, and do that thing. I would ask him those questions and he would give me ways to work on that, like transcribing Coltrane, and we would do that. But then he also totally blew open my world with other things which were more like universal musical things, and also more non-genre specific bass things.

I remember one year, each quarter, he would give me a playlist from a different genre. One quarter it was really old blues music, that didn’t have a bass in it, just a guitar and singing. He would say each week, “Pick one of these, and come up with your own bass part, something that really fits and contributes in some way.” That was a very, very good exercise for me. We did that with a few other genres. I also later took lessons with Cuong Vu, and with Ted Poor.

JBN.S: Talk about the experience of being a musician in New York City, and the projects you are currently involved in.

CR: I’ve done a lot of thinking about what I want to be doing there. Moving there is such a big adjustment in pretty much every way, not knowing many people, trying to meet tons of people, trying to find the people I actually connect with, the people I like to play with, what scene I want to be involved in. One thing that has been helpful for me to remember is that my time in Seattle, late college, and a couple of years after college, I was really happy here with what I was doing musically, because I was in a lot of long term projects that I felt really good about. Tyrant Lizard, The Sky is a Suitcase, a handful of others. Some of those are still continuing. Knowing that, and having a consistent group of people to really work on stuff with, that’s really fulfilling to me, that’s what I’m looking for in New York. I have found some of those people. I have a couple of projects that feel really great, the thing about that is, it’s kind of slow, relationships over time, building those things and really just finding more of the right people who I really want to invest this time with.

JBN.S: Are you finding musicians who are mostly from outside of New York like yourself, or are they native New Yorkers?

CR: Some of them are from Seattle, which is really funny. Some from New York, some from other places. One thing about moving there post college is, I don’t have a built in community there, that’s definitely a challenge.

JBN.S: That might be good, though.

CR: Yes, I’m glad I’m not in school there, because it gives me the opportunity to actually pick who I’m going to be around, and who I’m going to pursue playing with. I feel like I’m at a point where when I meet someone I really feel connected to, I can know that, I can choose that.

JBN.S: More of a musical choice, than one based on friendship?

CR: It’s both, I think they go hand in hand, but when you’re in school, you end up associating with the people you see all the time. That’s cool, and that’s the experience I had at the UW, why I feel so connected to my peers from that time. It’s definitely hard to develop new relationships, new friendships, without that built in community. You just have to make yourself go out and do it, and that’s definitely a challenge for me, but it’s a good one, a positive one.

JBN.S: You did a great job of balancing your experience as a young musician in Seattle. You were a part of the storied program at Garfield HIgh School, and a student at the UW, but you always were out on the scene playing in both the straight ahead jazz community, and the Improvised Music Project that grew out of the program at the UW. Dues paid at a young age! How has this benefited your experience in New York?

CR: Absolutely. I feel if I hadn’t had the experience of playing with mentors of mine here, I don’t think I would have ever felt like I should even go to New York, or have any confidence about it. It was extremely important. So now being in New York, when I have the opportunity to play with somebody much more experienced than me, who I look up to a lot, I don’t get scared about it. I can show up and I can do the thing. And if they like how it feels, I can take that for what it is. That’s been a huge thing of growth for me. Do you know David Murray, the saxophonist?

JBN.S: Who else was on the gig?

CRKahil El’Zabar, the percussionist. That’s one of those kinds of relationships, I’ve only really played with him a handful of times, but just being in the same room as him, you can hear so much history in his sound, and getting to interact with that really feels like something I want to continue to do. I’ve been playing with Andrew D’Angelo a bit, and that feels really amazing. These kinds of relationships are starting to form me in New York as well, and it feels great. I’ve been there just under a year.

JBN.S: There are many prominent Seattle jazz musicians that have moved to New York for extended periods of time. Thomas Marriott, Matt Jorgensen, and Mark Taylor come to mind. Each came back to contribute to the thriving scene here, with a broader perspective on life and music. Where do you see your journey headed?

CR: I don’t think I’ll have any idea of what I want to do next until at least five years in, especially for me with the kinds of things that I want to be doing. There has to be time to develop friendships, relationships with the other musicians, and find those people, and really give it a chance to become something that feels really good. It takes time. In my mind, I imagine being there for more than five or ten years. I don’t think I would consider leaving for at least five years in.

JBN.S: Going forward, do you envision projects as a leader?

CR: So far, I haven’t felt an inclination to have a band that I’m specifically leading and writing for, the projects that I felt the most invested in, in the past, have felt more like collective things. Maybe someone is doing most of the composing, but there’s a lot of workshopping, and a lot of feeling like I’m contributing a lot. One in particular where that feels like the vibe is a trio I’m playing in called Scree, with guitarist Ryan Beckley, and drummer Jason Burger. That’s a fairly recent thing, we’re hoping to record in the next couple months. For that group, Ryan writes most of the music, but it’s a lot of playing together and figuring out the vibe, composing in the rehearsals.

JBN.S: Has the trio been playing gigs?

CR: A few, a handful, yeah, but I feel really good about the music, it’s one of my favorite things I’m involved in. The groups in Seattle, Tyrant Lizard, and The Sky is a Suitcase are continuing on, Suitcase just recorded an album a few weeks ago. That band is Ray Larsen, Levi GillisMike Gebharton drums, kind of a free jazz thing. In this session Mike did a lot of the composing, but it was more like a collective thing, and in Lizard, Ray Larsen does a lot of the composing, but again, a lot of it is worked out in rehearsals.

JBN.S: Jazz instrumentalists are predominantly male, and the overwhelming majority of women in jazz are vocalists. In the classical music world, blind auditions not only balanced gender inequity, it exposed the very fact that it was so prevalent and widespread. As a woman bassist, you are living and working in this environment on a daily basis. How do you see this issue, and how can we resolve gender bias in jazz?

CR: I was just down at the Stanford jazz workshop, I was teaching there for two weeks, and there were a lot of women faculty members. They have a new initiative where they want to have a fifty/fifty faculty. I learned of that intention last year when I was also there, and I remember feeling weird about it at first. It was like, am I just here because I’m female, or am I here because I’m actually legitimate enough to be teaching here? So that felt kind of weird. That’s a feeling I know a lot of women instrumentalists feel, especially when they’re being hired to teach, or even for certain gigs. There’s this fear of being tokenized, and for me that goes hand in hand with the question, “Am I actually good?” That’s a feeling I’ve had since middle school.

JBN.S: Then there is the flip side of that, at Stanford, or here with me wanting to feature fifty percent women artists in this interview series. We want to support gender equity. There are so many great women instrumentalists out there that very few know about.

CR: So here’s the thing, at Stanford this year, Naomi Siegel was there, and she did some talks and workshops on social justice in jazz. During the faculty one, a lot of interesting stuff came up. At the end of it I brought up the question of the internal self talk that has to do with affirmative action type things, and the feeling of wondering if I’m here because of the group that I belong to, being female, or am I here because I actually deserve to be. Pianist Carmen Staaf, who is from Seattle, a wonderful pianist, had a great response to that which is nice for me to think about. She said we may have this question of belonging here because of this group we belong to, but we can also realize the men who are here, and who are everywhere, are there because of the group they belong to, just as much as we might be, because of the upbringing, and everything that goes into becoming the person that you are. People are hired for various things based on so many aspects of who they may or may not be. Just recognizing that maybe I’m partially here because I’m a woman instrumentalist, doesn’t mean that I deserve to be here any less than a man who is here because he’s also an instrumentalist.

JBN.S: It is possible to recognize the importance of gender equity, and also when someone is a good musician. You’re not going to compromise the reputation of your program at Stanford by bringing in unqualified people based on gender. As a writer, interviews are a lot of work, and while I am committed to gender equity in my work, I’m not going to waste my time with a musician if they’re not important to the music. What’s important is that the music moves forward, but if it is going to be an art form of true human expression, it has to include everybody.

CR: It has to include many perspectives, which comes down to in many ways, the type of people you hire, the people you include. Part of it is also trusting that the people who are in charge of hiring you, or interviewing you, featuring you, can see your level of musicianship.

In terms of a solution to the issue, I basically feel like it goes hand in hand with everything. Until people can see other people as being able to do the same things, as capable as another person if we put in the effort and the time. Because it’s so intertwined with social interaction, the way people treat each other in general, everyday in every situation. Of course there’s the issue of how women are portrayed in media, values we have as a society about what makes a woman’s worth. That spills over into everything, including this music we play.

JBN.S: I saw a young girl on the way here today heading to JazzEd with a trombone. That made me feel good, as so often instruments are assigned with a degree of gender bias.

CR: That’s being intertwined with, “Oh this girl needs to be strong enough to lift her instrument, therefore she shouldn’t be playing this heavy instrument.” That’s totally crazy, but that’s an assumption people have about girls or women, that they’re less strong than their male counterparts. That’s a societal thing.

A lot of it comes down to the kids who come up in these programs, and who are their role models, if they can see themselves as actually being able to do this. I heard from Stanford that some of the girl students there, told the counselors they were so happy there were so many women on faculty, they were so giddy about this. I think it definitely helps for girls to see people who look like them there.

JBN.S: What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

CR: I feel best when I’m improvising and it feels intuitive. I don’t like to feel like I’m thinking too hard. When I do have to think too hard, it doesn’t feel like I’m communicating, whereas if I’m in some sort of flow state, and things happen intuitively, I’m reacting to other people in a way where there’s some sort of intuitive logic to it. It comes from the experience I have and the things I’ve learned, but it’s not a conscious thought, it’s more of an instinct in some way, as well as a broader, overarching sense of direction. That’s when I feel best. I like it when it feels intuitive, but i think the intuition is based on experience, and the things that you’ve learned.

JBN.S: A number of bassists have told me their inspiration comes from drummers. Notably, several of the projects you are involved in are without a drummer, such as Tyrant Lizard. Would you say that in a certain way you try to translate their language into your own instrument? Without a drummer, is rhythm and timing a more collective, conversational concern?

CR: I feel like in every situation, everybody is responsible for the time, not just the drummer and bassist. In Tyrant Lizard music, if it’s a piece that has a decided tempo, then yes, I have to be clear about where the time is in order for it to feel comfortable. At the same time, Gregg (Belisle-Chi), and Ray (Larsen) are contributing to the sense of time as well. To me in freer things, there’s still a sense of time, it’s maybe more elastic, larger points of arrival instead of beat by beat. Maybe it follows more the phrasing of the melody, instead of how many beats there are per bar. There’s a lot of feeling the momentum of a phrase, matching that with each other. In order to do that, you have to be able to hear the melody and the harmony, where the momentum is, where it needs to land. I love playing with those guys because it feels like we have this intuitive sense of time with each other, whether it’s in stricter time, or more a rubato feel.

JBN.S: I’ve seen Ray Larsen playing older swing music with Birch Pereira and the Gin Joints recently, and I was amazed. He connects with the whole tradition.

CR: I feel like it’s the same thing. They might seem really different, like a straight edged thing, where you’re playing this vocabulary, and it’s strict time with a swing feel, you’re still phrasing, you’re still hearing melodies, and deciding how things are going to land. In more rubato music, it’s the same thing, you just have more leeway.

JBN.S: Do you hear other people comparing you to other bassists? What do people say to you?

CR: Sometimes people say Charlie Haden. The annoying thing people say is Esperanza Spalding, when I feel like I have almost nothing in common with her musically. It’s so annoying when people say that because it is so clear they do not care how I sound, they just see me as female.

JBN.S: Paul Chambers?

CR: I’ve heard that too. At this gig that I did with David Murray recently, there was this guy who came up to me and talked to me for a long time about all the people that he heard in my playing, which was really interesting. He said he heard a lot of Jimmy Garrison in there. It felt great to hear him say that, because I’ve transcribed Jimmy Garrison, and specifically wanted a certain part of his playing in my playing. It was cool that came across.

AAJ: Seattle is a big city with a small town sense of community. Having grown up in New York, and living in and around Seattle for decades now, I can say for certain the lifestyle is very different, to say the least. Aside from the music, talk about the difference in terms of everyday life.

CR: It takes longer, and takes more effort to do just about anything. People are more direct generally, if they have an issue with you, or something to say, which is cool, I like it. There’s a difference between being straight forward, and being unkind. There’s also a difference between being kind and dishonest.

It’s easier to talk to strangers in New York than here. Much easier to start a conversation. I felt this in the first couple months. Not knowing many people, I decided in the first few months that I was going to go out every night, go to multiple shows, and I went alone to almost all of them. I would meet people and think they could maybe be friends a little. I’m an introvert for sure, so it’s hard for me to put myself out there. Part of it is if you’re a musician going out to shows, a part of that scene, people are trying to connect. Most of the people have come from somewhere else, with the intention of connecting with people, with meeting people, trying to expand their world somehow. People are kind of throwing out their energy, if you want to do that too, it’s ready most of the time.

JBN.S: There is a serious issue concerning compensation for musicians from streaming services. Many artists are recording independently, and on small labels, not offering their work to them. Others have given up on making a profit from recording altogether, relying solely on gigs for income. Of course, streaming services are in direct competition with CD and download sales, and are offering a lot of music for $11 a month. How does an artist get compensated for their work in this current state of affairs, and what needs to be done to justly compensate musicians going forward.

CR: I don’t like streaming, I don’t have Spotify, in terms of my listening habits, it doesn’t make sense for me to use a streaming service. I don’t put music on in the background. If I’m going to listen to something, I listen to something specifically. I’m not even sure why they have those things in particular. I don’t totally, personally understand the appeal. I don’t really want to put music up on those services. I like Bandcamp, it would be cool if people would go there and buy music. It hasn’t really been my personal responsibility to make that decision yet, it’s been more of a collective thing, we don’t expect to make a profit.

JBN.S: It used to be that you made a record to make a profit, and toured to support it. Now it seems to be reversed, and you have to get paid well for gigs, or play an awful lot.

CR: It really feels like you have to make money by gigging, or working a day job to make the things you want to make, until maybe down the line it becomes profitable. It’s kind of a grind to just be able to do your thing.

I think it’s sad that the current reality seems to be that we can’t just do what we want and have it compensate easily.

JBN.S: Still, major corporations are making huge money from these same recordings that musicians are being paid pennies for, or not at all.

CR: It’s definitely wrong, it’s just part of the system we’re a part of, capitalism.

JBN.S: Well, modern capitalism.

CR: Capitalism as we know it here. Maybe that’s something else we have to work on as a society. This, the sexism thing, are all part of the manifestation of larger systems we’re a part of.

JBN.S: Changes that need to be made in the hearts and minds of people.

CR: Also having increasing appreciation of all art forms, and placing value on those things. So many art programs in schools are getting cut because they’re deemed not being as valuable as something say, that prepares them for a job, that will make them money and put them into the system. Being exposed to the arts, and seeing them as being valuable from an early age, these are the things that feed your humanness. We need to recognize that as valuable. Once we have people who see it as valuable, maybe they’re more willing to listen to an album more deeply, rather than putting it on as background on Spotify, white noise basically. A lot of it has to do with how we see music in our lives and how it enriches us.

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