Beth Fleenor: The Discipline Of Being
Reeds player, multi-instrumentalist sonic manipulator, and founder of the Frank Agency that was "established in an effort to open the lines of communication, dedicated to bridging the spaces between artists, presenters, and audience members," Beth Fleenor strives to move freely between musical genres uninhibited by categorical boundaries. She has worked extensively with musical luminaries including Wayne Horvitz, Gino Yevdjevich and Kultur Shock, and Samantha Boshnack. Adopting the motto that "art is the discipline of being," Fleenor has performed internationally at festivals attended by more than 100,000 people, and at venues across the United States ranging from clubs to concert halls to maximum security prisons.
All About Jazz: How did you get started playing music?
Beth Fleenor: I got into the band in school, on clarinet. I pause when I think about that because I am singing a lot too, and lately I have been thinking about at what point in my life did that start. I was in a church choir briefly when I was in elementary school, but my first instrument was definitely clarinet and that was because of somebody that came around to the schools and had you try out different instruments. It was not the instrument that I wanted to play, but the director thought that my jaw structure would lend itself to the instrument and so he made a deal with me about doing it, and then I totally fell in love with it. It started in beginning band and went through high school.
AAJ: Did you have any other instruments that you played also?
BF: I played percussion in high school as well. I didn't get to develop it as fully as I would have liked, but we had an indoor line and also a percussion ensemble with a really great instructor, so I got a little bit of time in this other area. That was definitely my other interest and something that I wanted to do more of.
I moved to Seattle in '98 to go to Cornish, specifically. When I moved out here I had an alto saxophone and a flute. I had this idea that I played clarinet, I was playing percussion, next I had to learn these other woodwinds to be a doubler. I ended up having this situation where I didn't have rent, and I sold the saxophone and I sold the flute. It was like, I am not going to be a doubler, I am going to be a clarinetist! It was actually a really awesome moment.
Things happen where you are making a decision that seems functional and practical for the time, but it is actually a choice that is a pathway to something else that is really where your focus lies, and that was one of those moments. Clarinet, and then percussion, and voice has now come in as this other entity.
AAJ: What were some of your early musical influences?
BF: My parents were divorced, and my father was a planetarium director in South Florida in the eighties, which basically means laser show central. The favorite past time with people at this point was to go to these psychedelic laser shows at concert level volumes, and it was all classic rock. I grew up being totally absorbed and obsessed with that because I spent three months out of the year in the planetarium watching the same show seven times a weekend, just like the album, and I got really into that.
On my maternal side, I took these trips every weekend with my grandparents. My uncle had a football scholarship so he was playing all up and down the East Coast. I would ride with my grandparents to go to these football games, and they played all of these jazz records. My grandfather was super into the big bands and went to see all of these incredible players when they were touring the colleges, when he was in college. All of these people were on the road at that point, so he had seen all of these bands live and he liked to listen to those recordings.
I was kind of like slung between Nat "King" Cole and Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin and Hendrix. (Laughs) That was kind of what my world consisted of. I was growing up in Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee. There is a lot of Appalachian and bluegrass music in that area, that is what the roots of that area are. So the music that I got into hook, line, and sinker, and also is what led me to want to become a professional musician, was Frank Zappa.
I was playing band literature and I was working at this certain level and was getting more and more into symphonic music. There weren't any orchestras that I could play with so I wasn't doing that, but I was getting to play all of this really thick symphonic material. I was super into rock and I was also into jazz, but I didn't really know that much about improvisation.