The Future (of Jazz) Is Female: Interview with Saxophonist and Composer Roxy Coss
Roxy Coss has just released a new album of all-original music, and she has recently founded the Women in Jazz Organization, a community and activist group. She can improvise and she can organize.
The Future Is Female
20 Mar 2018Other
"Even in college—even in middle school—this has been a problem," explains saxophonist and composer Roxy Coss. "This has been part of my awareness forever.
"Every time I play, the first response is either shock or a comment on my looks, or on my 'lung capacity'." The comment she hears often: "You're sexy and you can play".
Coss, who commands her instruments with authority and power, whose compositions both challenge and charm, is acting to change the way women in jazz are marginalized, abused, ignored, and discounted. First, her new recording, The Future is Female, cannot be ignored. It's too good. Second, in the past year she founded the Women in Jazz Organization, which is creating community, opportunity, and resources aimed at making women a powerful force in the music.
PopMatters talks with Coss about her music and her activism.
The Future Is Female
On the cover of her new recording, Coss wears camouflage pants and a black top, brandishing her tenor and soprano saxophones like tools. Her eyes are up, looking way ahead, and her face is serious. She looks strong. Inside the recording where it counts the most, she sounds strong.
The Future Is Female contains ten original compositions, each titled in step with the events of the last year in our culture. The band is a sleek quintet pairing Coss's horn and Alex Wintz's guitar in the front line, with Jimmy MacBride on drums, bassist Rick Rosato, and pianist Miki Yamanaka. As a composer, Coss presents a wide array of styles here: hard bop, blues, impressionistic ballads, Latin grooves, and fresh takes on soul-jazz. Sewing them together are clean arrangements that typically give Yamanaka a set part in the theme, which creates a sound more layered than that achieved by most quintets.
"I started composing at a young age", Coss explains, "even before playing saxophones. I started taking piano lessons, and I was required to compose. I did music theory, worked with software, and learned theory."
A great example of what Coss is up to, compositionally, is "Choices", a ballad that uses every element of her band to perfection. The brief introduction states a version of the theme on Rosato's bowed bass as accompanied by Wintz, then Coss plays the full theme gently on tenor sax with Wintz harmonizing in soft whole notes that sit below the melody. Yamanaka enters with a composed accompaniment, and then the guitar takes over with a variation of the them as saxophone and piano play a counter theme. But for all the different pieces of this arrangement, it is airy and open, and it nods indirectly to Duke Ellington.
"Almost all my friends took piano lessons. I was aware that my music education was different. We had a very hip music teacher at the school. Every Friday you could do a musical performance. Most would do Bach, and I felt insecure that I couldn't do that. My music teacher let us pick what we wanted, and I would always pick stuff that was a little more funky. I didn't realize until later how important this would be for jazz and composing."
The tone poem "She Needed a Hero" does not set up a standard melodic theme, instead starting with a set of ambiguous harmonies stated by woodwinds and guitar, over which Yamanaka mists a subtle improvisation that allows you to absorb the enticing harmonic platform. Coss then solos on soprano saxophone, where her sound is unique. Though her intonation is clear and strong, she often bends the notes freely, getting in and out of her tones, creating a sensation of rubbery freedom that always lands square in tune. MacBride is free to color all around the improvisations, making "She Needed a Hero" sound multidimensional for six strong minutes.
"It's huge part of my relationship with music to compose and create realities. My two favorite things are being on the bandstand playing and being home, by myself, writing. As I get more experience, getting to combine the two and perform my music, is very rewarding."
Becoming a Saxophone Player
Coss got this interesting music education in Seattle. Though that city became known for a couple of well-known musicians—pianist Wayne Horvitz and guitarist Bill Frisell—who moved there after making a mark on the downtown New York scene, "that side of the scene hadn't really evolved yet when I was in Seattle," she says. She does note, however, that Horvitz lived across the street from her piano teacher and she took piano lessons with him later, when she came home from music school in the summer.
"Some students a couple years younger than me were a product of that scene. For example, the guys who would become the Westerlies. But there were so many great musicians in Seattle at the time that affected my education.
"I went to Garfield High School, and I was in the 'A' jazz band for three years and went to Ellington [' Essentially Ellington', the high school jazz band competition that takes place in New York at Jazz at Lincoln Center] and to Europe. It was a strong jazz program."
Coming out of Garfield, Coss knew that going to music school for jazz "was a clear option. I saw what it was like being on the road. Going to Ellington for the first time in New York, at 15, it was just a given that I was going to music school." She chose the William Paterson University jazz program in Northern New Jersey. "I went to the Stanford Jazz Workshop, and [legendary jazz pianist] Harold Mabern was talking it up. I got a full scholarship."
Of all the accomplishments memorialized on The Future is Female, the greatest is the development of a truly personalized sound on three different instruments. The bass clarinet on "#MeToo" is like nothing else in jazz—light and full of air but still reverberating with clarity. On tenor, where getting an identity is a daunting challenge, she has a sound that is hard-charging but still very human, reflecting a woody tone reminiscent of Joe Lovano and Joe Henderson.
"When jazz was introduced to me by my band director in sixth grade, he stressed that playing jazz required creating a unique voice. He would lend me CDs and ask, What is unique about these players? What do you like?
"I got deep with the tenor before approaching a sound on another instrument. I was really into Dexter Gordon and Hank Mobley and then Wayne Shorter. Benny Golson too. In terms of the sound, tone, it was Dexter and Coltrane for a long time, Then more modern players such as Mark Turner and Joshua Redman. More recently, it has been Joe Henderson, which is probably clearer now than ever."
On "Mr. President", a tune that shifts through several changes in mood and tempo, the influence of Henderson is clear, as Coss takes an uptempo solo that seems always to be going from one fascinating moment of invention to another. Her tone is dark rather than brassy, but it sounds very light and liquid too, like a stream running easily over rocks in the light.
"All my work paid off eventually. There's tone, but there's also articulation, phrasing. I've always known what I want myself to sound like. As I get older, I'm getting closer to what I want to sound like but also getting used to who I am. It's an eternal quest. And the more music you hear, the more that vision is shaped."
Coss's identity on soprano is possibly more distinct. She plays it, for example, on "Nasty Women Grab Back", a Monk-ish theme that gives her the chance to sound extremely vocal with her playing, forming phrases like they were conversation rather than a string of notes. "On soprano," Coss says, "I feel a flexibility I don't feel on other instruments. I don't know why, but on the soprano, I feel like I'm playing the shapes. I tend to play faster on the soprano and can be more flexible with the notes, playing shapes and sheets."
From The Future Is Female
Women (and #MeToo) in Jazz
Getting to this moment in her career hasn't been easy—when is it easy in any of the arts? But it's that much harder for women. Coss decided she needed to do something to empower women in jazz, helping others in ways she would have wanted to be helped.
"I founded the Women in Jazz Organization (WIJO) in response to the 2016 election. I felt depressed and was grieving because of what Trump's election means for women."
Coss is clear as a bell, however, in explaining that the election was a catalyst that confirmed what had been true for a very long time for women in music. Yes, founding WIJO during the same year as #MeToo and Trump's inauguration was timely, but it's not "trendy". "This is past due," she notes. "I'm glad of the timing, it's great, and hopefully people will take it more seriously. Hopefully our stuff won't fall on deaf ears as it might have in the past."
WIJO is new, but it's off to a zooming start. It's creating real opportunities for women in jazz through mentorships, jam sessions, a concert series, monthly meetings to create community, collaborations with regional groups and even collaboration with Jazz at Lincoln Center. Coss is the founder and president.
"I feel like I gave birth. I just started it in July and it went public in the past months. The breadth of it represents what women are doing already," she explains. WIJO is acting as a clearinghouse to bring more attention to the wide array of ways that women are making jazz and supporting each other in that creative act. "Women's accomplishments are erased over time," Coss says, "and this gives them a chance to be seen. I thought maybe 50 people would get involved, but we have over 300 people in the community right now. But we are just getting started."
Coss began with a simple question: what does a woman in the jazz community need? "We just started in with solutions. Right now it's shifting from brainstorming to doing."
Jazz, of course, is a small part of the culture. But 2017 clearly demonstrated that it suffers from the same horrendous marginalization, exclusion, and abuse of woman that was highlighted in politics and the entertainment industry. When specific stories surfaced in the jazz community, Coss's thinking was "I'm glad we're finally talking about it. I've been talking about it for years. This has been my reality for my whole life—every time I pick up a saxophone."
"This culture makes women feel powerless. And working on the Women in Jazz Organization makes me feel powerful," she says. "This is how I felt in the jazz community—that this is a patriarchy." Coss declined to share the specifics of any of her "multiple horror stories" about being a woman in jazz. But she was clear about how widespread the problem is. "Every single woman I've ever talked to in this industry has many stories that are horrible. People need to hear the stories, but the bigger idea is: This is going on, it is rampant, and we have to fix it, deal with it, and do something positive."
Coss's thinking about the treatment of women in jazz includes systemic exclusion and marginalization. "Finances are definitely a part of it. We know that women don't make as much as men. On top of that, women are hired less often. I have had experiences where I had the skills to be hired, knew the people, but was passed over for a less experienced guy because there was more comfort in taking a guy on the road. Worse than finances are the lack of respect, the sexual harassment, the assault, and the isolation. Women get erased—they'll play something incredible and then a month later it disappears."
WIJO is about changing the culture but it is also, for Coss, a way of balancing her life through community. "If I don't have a community, I can't keep going. So many women want to quit music. Mary Lou Williams quit twice. As I get closer to this community, I feel less like leaving New York and leaving the music. You don't feel so alone or crazy. It's a lot of work but it's a huge pay off. It gives me support and energy. If I work on the organization, then music can be what it was intended to be: passionate, fun work and not just slogging through a career."
Collaboration and a Path Forward
Organizing and collaboration have been important skills for Coss as a musician too. She notes that the opportunity to play in trumpeter Jeremy Pelt's band "changed [her] trajectory". With Pelt, Coss was touring, recording and learning. "I was playing his quintet book of music and picking up so much just from being there: phrasing with him, learning how you sell CDs, knowing which microphone you ask for. The exposure of having someone like him vouch for you makes people see you differently."
Coss and Pelt met when Coss was 25 or 26 years old and had been doing a lot of sitting in at New York clubs like Smalls, Fat Cat, and Smoke. Bassist Andrew Klein suggested her as a substitute on tenor for Pelt's quintet. "I showed up at [the uptown club] Smoke after his gig, and we hung out. They were playing Hank Mobley on the sound system and he asked if I knew who it was. He had a gig at an elementary school soon after playing music by Dizzy Gillespie, and it went well." Coss notes, however, that even that positive experience was affected by her gender. "People questioned Jeremy's motives. This was ridiculous, but people weren't listening with their ears. Despite and because all of that, hiring me was a heroic thing for him to do—it wasn't easy for him."
Today, Coss is recording on Posi-Tone Records where she works with producer Marc Free, another important collaborator. "This is my first time working with a producer, and you have to get used to that. Marc knew my deal going into it, and I knew Marc's deal." Coss approached Posi-Tone with her 2016 album
Restless Idealism. He liked it but suggested they work together on her next one. "He heard my stuff, all originals, and he knew my goals and sound. Chasing the Unicorn was the first one we did together. There was an extensive getting-to-know-you period, and that helps you when you're making the music later."
For Chasing the Unicorn, Coss says, Free suggested that one way to approach a first record on Posi-Tone would be to have a framing tune and a transition tune. "So I did 'Shade of Jade' [by Joe Henderson] and "Oh, Darling" [by the Beatles]. That was sort of a guide from Marc, but I liked that idea."
Although Free has also suggested that keeping the solos brief will help get Coss's recordings on jazz radio, the music remains her creation. "I didn't really change anything in terms of my composing process, but there is some work in rehearsal, recording, and post-production that reflects Marc's input. And, yes, radio stations are playing it. I hear from people who know me from radio and who are buying the CD because of it." Coss's music could be called "mainstream" in 2018—it's not the New Jazz of complex, shifting time signatures or non-traditional structures, but it doesn't lean toward the "smooth", either.
"I'm just taking steps forward," Coss says. "I'm trying to represent my music as best I can. I'm 31, and there's a sense that I'm not a kid any more. I'll turn down a gig because it's not my thing or I don't enjoy playing with certain people. I have more freedom to choose. Then naturally you get closer to who you really are as a individual."
"On the one hand," Coss observes, "the scene is small compared to the world we live in. But on the other hand there are so many things going on. And you can participate in different things. I'll play five gigs in a week that are in five different worlds. You learn different things. But you only have so much time."
For someone who founded a wide-reaching community organizing group at the same time that she was recording a new, striking batch of music, it is obvious that time is limited. Roxy Coss, however, seems to be making the most of hers.