Ahead of the Curve: An Interview with Patrice Rushen
Jazz composer and R&B artist Patrice Rushen talks about how she fought for control of her music and her career in the late 1970s at Elektra -- and produced an extraordinary run of jazz-R&B-disco hybrid albums that the industry wasn't quite ready for.
Remind Me: The Classic Elektra Recordings 1978-1984
19 July 2019
During a four-album run at Elektra in the late 1970s and early 1980s, jazz composer Patrice Rushen had unparalleled autonomy to write, arrange and record smart, complicated dance music that incorporated elements of classic R&B, disco, and jazz into the songs and was performed by large ensembles of L.A.'s leading session musicians. But her label's second-guessing guaranteed that her songs were never promoted. Now, 40 years later, K7! is giving those records a second airing. "I hope for the same thing now that I hoped for then," says Rushen, "for the music to have an impact on people. It needs to cut through the noise in such a way that it resonates with another person's truth."
A Piano Prodigy From the Start
Unlike many R&B and disco stars, Patrice Rushen was never primarily a singer, but rather a piano player, composer, and arranger, who built her career on formidable instrumental skills. She became fascinated with music early on, listening at home to her parents' jazz, soul, funk and R&B records and attending a special school focused on early child development through music. She began studying classical piano as a young child.
Rushen attended Alain Leroy Locke Senior High School in South Los Angeles, an all-black school opened just after the Watts riots to provide young African-Americans with a safe place to learn. "It was a really turbulent time as far as race relations," Rushen remembers. "There was a desire to keep things on track, to find things for the young people to do that would be meaningful and useful. And part of that concept in the high school was to use a certain level of pride in our people to help us understand that we were part of a continuum. The music that we learned, obviously was the kind of music that you learned in high school bands and orchestras, but also we had a jazz band, and that band focused on the music that was the American art form of jazz.
"We learned a lot of history and social skills through learning about those jazz musicians," she continued. "So, in addition to liking the music and having heard it my whole life, now I had a certain kind of understanding about why it was revered and where it was coming from. And it was difficult to play. It had a lot of difficult musical concepts that challenged all of us to be our best selves and for many of us, gave us a vocabulary that allowed us to address the possibility of doing music professionally."
As a young jazz pianist, Rushen found inspiration in a handful of female players, including Mary Lou Williams and Hazel Scott, as well as artists known primarily for their singing voices, but who also played the piano well. "Sarah Vaughan was a great pianist. And so was Carmen McRae," she muses, but like herself, these artists were outliers. "In terms of having female role models to point to, no I didn't have very many," she admits.
In 1972, Rushen entered and won a solo competition at the Monterrey Jazz Festival, jumpstarting her career as a professional jazz musician. She signed with Prestige/Fantasy label soon after and recorded three solo jazz albums over the next five years. She was in demand as a session artist, too, working for artists including Jean-Luc Ponty, Prince, and Minnie Riperton. In 1978, however, with her contract up, she took her career in an entirely different direction.
"By the time my contract was over at Fantasy, Elektra was starting a new area of their company that would focus on music that had certain aspects of the jazz tradition, from the standpoint of improv and things like that, that was a little more instrumentally based, instrumentally dense, but had commercial sensibilities," she explains. "I was signed because I think they felt that I would be a good fit for that concept. On my last Fantasy album, I had written a couple of songs, I sang one and sang another one. I think they figured that this might be a direction that worked with their plans for this part of their label."
At the time, disco artists like Donna Summer were recording with lush orchestral arrangements, and Elektra was intrigued by Rushen's skills in writing and arranging for large ensembles. They left her pretty much alone, Rushen says, giving her almost total control over the music she made. "So, it was cool. I enjoyed it. I had a lot of artistic freedom," she remembers. "The budgets were such that I could explore some of the arranging and orchestrating that I wanted to do with strings and horns and things like that. The focus, though, was dance music."
Rushen enlisted top-flight session musicians including the bass player Freddie Washington, saxophonist Gerald Albright, and drummer "Ndugu" Chancler for her albums, drawing, in many cases, from a group of musicians she'd played with on other artists' albums. A good proportion of them worked on film and television soundtracks, she explains, developing skills to play any style, any time.
"Living in Los Angeles especially, my goal was to be a TV and film composer," she recalls. "So I was, very early on paying attention to, who are these people playing on these records and TV commercials and making all this music? They're not famous from the standpoint of being a household word and yet when you listen to different records, and I'm an avid record collector, you would see certain names over and over. They were known for their musicianship. They would get called a lot to be on all kinds of things. I wanted to be one of those people. So, I began to meet some of them at various sessions and then when I had my own sessions, I would call them. And ask them to play with me."
All Music Is Dance Music
Rushen's first Elektra album, Patrice, came out in 1978, and included lushly arranged, sophisticated cuts like "Music of the Earth" and "Let's Sing a Song of Love". Asked what she hears when she listens to that album now, Rushen says, "Every album for me is sort of a snapshot of things that I liked at that time and compositions and songwriting development. When I hear the songs from it, I hear what it took to get it that way." She adds, "Every song has a little memory of the session or the musicians that were there or which take it was, you know, or a funny story about something that happened. Those were good times. The preparation and the work I think really does show still. They stand up, those records."
Patrice did well, but Rushen's second Elektra album, Pizazz, broke out in 1979, with its single "Haven't You Heard", reaching #7 on the US R&B and #2 on US Dance charts. The song is classic disco, with jangling, scrambling funk guitars, a body-anchoring bass line and big swooping orchestra surges of strings. It's music clearly made for dancing, and Rushen cautions that doesn't mean people shouldn't take it seriously.
"All music in the contemporary idiom was initially was dance music, even jazz," she says. "This was about just doing stuff that felt good for people to listen to and want to hear over and over again but also to make them move." Rushen herself was a regular patron of discos at this time, and she even appeared on the television show Soul Train once, not as a guest artist but strictly as a dancing member of the audience. "I liked to dance," she said.
Rushen brought her own jazz-steeped, classically-trained sensibility to the music. "You know, it wasn't a novel idea to have strings on something," she explains. "What was novel was the way those strings were used on 'Haven't You Heard?' They didn't play lines like that.
"That was part of the jazz sensibility. The idea was to put that on top of something that felt good and make it seamless and organic," she continued. "And it worked out."
Rushen recorded Posh in 1980, scoring another hit in "Look Up", which peaked at #2 on the US Dance charts (and #13 on R&B). But it was with Straight from the Heart in 1982 that her jazz-pop-R&B aesthetic hit its zenith. The disc included "Forget Me Nots", Rushen's best-known song, which scored a #23 on the Hot 100 chart, as well as #2 on dance and #4 on R&B.
"Freddie Washington, who is the bass player on that album, lived with my family for a few months as he was getting on his feet and establishing some relationships in Southern California so that he could do more studio work," Rushen recalls. "So, we played together every day."
Like many great songs, "Forget Me Nots" started with a bass line. "One day, [Washington] was playing this bass line and I said, 'What's that?' He said, 'I don't know.' And so, I started putting chords to it, and we recorded it on our little four-track and really liked it and decided to continue to develop it."
Washington played it for Terry McFadden, who helped with the lyrics, and Rushen included it in a package of material for what would become Straight from the Heart. "Every time we would play that for anybody and say what do you think, 'Forget Me Nots' was one of the things that stood out. People were like, 'Yeah! I like that. That's something.' And then, we turned it in, and the record company hated it."
Elektra's reps went so far as to call the album unsalvageable and to tell Rushen that she should never produce her own material again. Rushen had run into resistance before. Elektra had never put much marketing muscle behind her previous albums, even though they produced hits. "So, they just told us that they were not going to do anything about this record that we feel very strongly about," says Rushen. "So, we said, now we're going to have to get involved."
"We put our resources together, our little money, and we bought three weeks of independent promotion, just to make sure it got to the radio level. And it took off," says Rushen.
Rushen says the label eventually apologized, but the experience left her with a bad feeling. "It's so easy it is for people to lose touch with the most fundamental aspect of what we do as musicians and artists, that it's our way of being able to communicate to people," she says. "When the structure and business and staffing of things, begins to dictate or affect what the primary outcome is supposed to be, that that disconnect can be devastating."
The Risks of Innovation
Rushen's experience at Elektra had had its good side, she says, in a very high degree of artistic freedom -- and the label never refused outright to release her records, just failed to promote them. "We never had a committee of people telling us what we could or could not do, in fact, but that was a double-edged sword. The drawback in that was that if it was ahead of the curve, if it was a little different, or if the record company had not experienced that before, you know, it might meet with some hesitation. That could mean not enough promotion or being late in terms of being able to capitalize on it connecting with the public or not getting dollars to make it happen," she says.
"The music connected with people, but it didn't get the kind of company support that was in proportion to some of our other colleagues that were recording."
Straight from the Heart has had a robust after-life, selling steadily out of catalogue and with "Forget Me Nots'" grooves turning up everywhere from the Men in Black soundtrack to George Michael's "Fastlove" to samples in any number of hip-hop songs.
"I think people seem to relate to it because the grooves are really strong," says Rushen, speculating on why the tune connects with rap artists. "Their music is based on the rhythmic concept first, and I think that their relationship between that feel and the rest of the music is something that they, maybe are attracted to. The other part of it is the idea of the songwriting and the phrases and things like that, I think they like that."
No Magic Bullets
After Straight from the Heart, Rushen's contract with Elektra expired and she signed with Clive Davis' Arista Records. "I was on Arista for about three years and in that time, I did one record. In the first year," she recalls. "And then because they didn't hear a hit, I waited for a year and a half or so, for them to come up with this magic bullet. I wasn't used to that. I had had over a decade of being allowed to not only put together the records without much interference, but also it had connected with the audience and with radio, in terms of whatever the perception of my musical persona was, it had worked."
Unlike Elektra, Arista didn't release records until its people -- primarily Davis -- were satisfied with them. "Clive had to have his stamp of approval on each thing before they would do it, and I had to wait my turn. It took almost two years. And by the time they came up with what they thought was this magic bullet, I was like, you know, I don't think I want to do this," she recalls. "I was never going to be what I think he may have had in mind, and I certainly don't think that I would be allowed to continue to grow and experiment in the ways that I had, up to that point, been allowed to do, so I asked to be released. And, you know, ultimately, they did."
Making Music Every Day
Rushen hasn't made a studio record since Signature in 1997, but she continues to play, compose, arrange music across a variety of genres and formats. She has realized her lifelong ambition to make music for film and television; she has been the music director for the NAACP Image Awards, the Grammys (three times), and the People's Choice Awards. As long-time chair of the Popular Music program at USC's Thornton School of music, she has taught generations of students about jazz, pop, soul, R&B, and dance music, and she continues to pass her knowledge along.
"To answer your question, am I still making music, yes. But I think the connotation of your question is are you still making records, recordings, and from that standpoint, it has been a long time since the last CD that I did," she says. "I needed to step away. The record business as I knew it has definitely changed, but it left some negatives on me."
Her current project, Remind Me: The Classic Elektra Recordings 1979-1984, selects 15 songs, representing all four albums, as well as singles, to introduce her work to a new generation.
Rushen says that she got a call when Warner Brothers Group announced it was selling some of the Elektra catalogue it had acquired in a series of mergers and acquisitions. "My albums were still selling even though they weren't putting any promotion dollars into it. The use of the material by hip-hop and other artists has ensured that my material remains popular," says Rushen. "I guess somebody had the bright idea to see if we can get this catalog."
"There's a generation of people who are using this music and a generation of people who could be introduced to more of it. It is viable and useful, and it sounds good. It was really well recorded," she adds. "It's difficult to imagine that it would not be relevant and catch on with people." The music will available as a three-album vinyl set, as well as in all digital formats.
The world has changed in a lot of ways since the late 1970s and early 1980s, but the music's appeal remains constant. "I hope people get the same thing out of it now that they got back then," she says. "People need hope. People need ways in which they can step back sometimes and just allow themselves to remember what it feels like to feel good about something."
Songs that stand the test of time, says Rushen, have both an immediate appeal and a way of opening up on repeat listens. "For a song to be great, there's got to be some element of a song that resonates with the listener. It can come from a lot of different places. Maybe it's the rhythm or a melody, chord progression. Even the way that the lyric feels in your mouth when you sing it. If a lyric is hard to sing, it's probably not going to be that memorable. There are all these elements that can capture your attention. It can be catchy. That can come from any direction," she says.
"But the other thing is if you keep on listening, you discover something," she adds. "You get deeper inside the story. Or you hear how that bass line works against the kick drum. And these are not things that you consciously say, gee, I'm going to sit here and listen for these things. These are things that just are. But those things are the things that make you keep going back."
Hugely catchy hooks, backed with a craft and skill and complexity that comes from a deep knowledge of music -- sounds like Rushen's songs, back for another turn in the spotlight.