Rebecca Coupe Franks
“ My favorite place to practice was the roof of the NYU music building looking over Lower Manhattan. Even when I wasn't going to school there [she went to NYU from 1990-91], the doorman knew me and was cool about it. ”
What can a change of scene do for a musician? First of all, it can change your daily routine; your outlook on things. It can change your feeling of self as part of a greater whole. It can make you humble or arrogant, set you free or box you in - neither the former nor the latter is necessarily better or worse. For a musician, it can inspire you to do different things than you might have done in the previous setting. It can influence composition, improvisation, articulation, and phrasing. It can even change the way you breathe.
The focus of this column is a musician who has done a bit of moving back and forth. Her physical location on Earth has changed a few times. Sometimes they were short moves. Other times they were drastic. She is a free spirit as is common with jazz musicians. But she is most unique because she has done what she has done and made it work for her.
Rebecca Coupe Franks grew up in the Palo Alto, CA. Her childhood was filled with music. Known simply as 'Coupe' by those close to her, Franks began playing trumpet at age ten in her Bay Area hometown. The choice of instrument was an inevitable one as her mother, brother, grandfather and great uncle all were trumpet players.
"I realized this was the music that suited me during high school and continued to study and gig...now here i am twenty five years later. In fact I've played the same horn since I was twelve. I still play the same Schilke M2."
"My high school had an excellent jazz band from 1976-79. As a member of that group, I won soloist award at the Reno Jazz Festival," says Franks. She later became a member of the Monterey All-Star Student Jazz Band. In fact she was in the group with tenor player Donny McCaslin (who appears on her second CD). Another of her bay area acquaintances was Virginia Mayhew. The two young women had played together in a Brazilian jazz group called Chevere.
One of Franks' local heroes was also her mentor - tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson. Henderson adopted San Francisco as his hometown in the 1970s when he began recording for Oakland-based Milestone Records. Franks, who lived in the suburbs met Henderson at a jam session in 1983. When he heard her play, he immediately offered her lessons. From these lessons arose a longtime friendship that Franks cherishes to this day.
"He was a good friend of mine. He was somebody for me to talk to in the jazz world. We would talk on the phone a lot and he would tell me about his gigs. We'd talk about music - that's pretty much all we talked about." So that was really great for a young musician like me to be encouraged by a cat like Joe."
This was not rare for Henderson, who was a mentor to several aspiring female jazz musicians. Often forgotten today amidst his latter-day activities and accomplishments, Henderson organized an all-female rhythm section to back him in the late 80s. Though short-lived, the band featured pianist Renee Rosnes, bassist Marlene Rosenberg, and drummer Sylvia Cuenca (whom Henderson knew from San Francisco since she was 16).
After a spell in South America, a stint in a traveling circus band, and a couple of years at Cal State Northridge, Coupe packed her bags and headed East. She drove cross-country in her VW Bug following Mayhew, who raved about the scene and the opportunities to learn from the greats in the Big Apple. Mayhem was then a student at the New School [for Social Research] studying jazz.
"She was telling me how much fun she was having and how much she enjoyed the New School. So I applied to go to school there. I sent 'em a tape and I was accepted."
When Franks arrived in New York, she and Mayhew put together a band. Arnie Lawrence, the founder and head of the New School Jazz & Contemporary Music Program, got them a gig at the Braeburn Café at 27th St. off 6th Avenue. "There were almost no female jazz musicians playing straight-ahead at that time in New York, and we got a lot of attention and opportunities," recalls Mayhew.
Soon Franks and Mayhew were making the rounds together in clubs and bars where the music was played. Bradley's, Sweet Basil's...you name it...they were all over the town.
"[Rebecca] always had a sense of entitlement that was and is rare among women jazz players...I always thought Rebecca played with a lot of passion. She wasn't wimpy," says Mayhew. "We met a lot of famous people...it was New York!"
Mayhew recalled a time when this audacity came out. "She once asked to sit in with Art Blakey at Sweet Basil."
"Yeah, that was a blast," reminisces Franks. "One time I met Art Farmer. He was playing with Clifford Jordan at Sweet Basil. I asked him if he would give me lessons and said he would be happy to. So he came over and we just hung out and talked and he played his trumpet and I played mine. I think I wrote him a couple letters after that. He was living in Austria then." When Franks asked what she could give Farmer as far as payment, he refused any.