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Mimi Fox: Getting Her Due

By Published: January 5, 2005
AAJ: How long have you lived in the Bay Area?

MF: I moved here at the end of 1979, so 23, almost 24 years now.

AAJ: What brought you out here?

MF: Well, you know I grew up in New York, although we moved quite a bit when I was a kid; we lived all over the east coast. And I had sort of had enough of it. It's an intense place; if you've been there, you know the vibe of it. And I'm an intense person. So when I came out to California, I slowed down a little bit, and it really helped me cool my jets, for lack of a better term. I find that it helps me, because I really do need a more relaxed pace. Plus I'm a very outdoors-y kind of gal. I can't run anymore because of that aforementioned injury, but I do love to go hiking and biking and be outside a lot. I'd also had enough of the New York winters!

When I first moved to California I lived down in LA, doing a lot of studio work, and then I realized that I didn't want to spend the rest of my life having some idiot producer telling me what to play over these eight bars, and could I try to sound like Duane Eddy here, and could I put in this riff there... it's totally the opposite of what you want as a jazz player. It stymies your creativity. So then I moved up to San Francisco, and it was there that I met Bruce Forman, and that really turned my head around. I said that's it, okay, I'm going to give up my drums and just devote myself to jazz guitar.

AAJ: Do you ever play outside of the jazz idiom?

MF: I've done a lot of different projects. I do a lot of producing, and I've produced and arranged projects from hiphop and r&b groups to folk singers and singer-songwriters, world music, all kinds of stuff. As a player, I've been offered some high-profile pop engagements over the years, but I have continued to turn them down, because I'm doing pretty well as a jazz artist. I'm not a millionaire, needless to say, but I'm doing okay. If I ever needed to, I might do it, but I don't want to. Although there are a few pop people that I love, people like Stevie Wonder, Bonnie Raitt... I just don't want to be taken out of what I've devoted my life to. I've made my choice.

AAJ: How has your production work affected you as a player?

MF: Well, sometimes it's just nice to take a little breather, if I'm playing 4 or 5 nights a week. Whether I'm at home or on the road, I play a lot. I'm always gigging. Sometimes, after three or four sets of hard-driving jazz and bop, it's nice to sort of clear out your ears. So when I'm around stuff that's harmonically a lot simpler, it gives me a chance to refuel as a jazz artist. Then when I pick up my ax again on the gig, I feel really energized. Whenever I'm tempted to feel jaded over some stupid gig or some dumb situation that just happens, it's really ameliorated by the chance to clear out my ears and then come back fresh remembering why I love this music in spite of all the b.s. and professional politics that you have to deal with.

AAJ: If you weren't a jazz musician, what do you think you'd be doing now?

MF: Here's a funny story. When I was sixteen I was working with a number of different bands, but I was also playing in my high school band. So my guidance counselor, Alan Silverman — he was so sweet — he says, "Now Mimi, we all think you're very talented. But a career in music is no kind of career. I think what you should do is take a year off, go to Israel, live on a kibbutz, and then when you come back you should be a lawyer because you love to argue." And I said, "What do you mean, Alan?!" — but of course even then I realized the irony of what I was saying: you love to argue / no I don't!...

But truthfully, I don't know. I've done a lot of traveling in the last seven or eight years; I've gone to a lot of countries, and I've seen a lot of poverty and a lot of suffering. That's something that has really impacted me. I think if I wasn't a musician what I'd like to be doing is giving in some way to humanity. I had an extended stay in Bangkok. I was playing at a beautiful place, but then I'd go out on the streets and the poverty there — and you know the problem with land mines and the people with blown-off limbs — the suffering was enormous. And when I was in the Dominican Republic a few years ago, again I saw a lot of poverty in villages.

I also think children could benefit from having music brought into their lives; I've thought about giving in that kind of way, or teaching children, helping communities build in some way. Yes, I think some kind of humanitarian work is what would appeal to me. Another lucrative field [laughs], but I think the benefits you get from doing something like that far outweigh the sacrifice.

That's just what comes to me off the top of my head. I don't know if I would have made a good lawyer.

AAJ: Who are your heroes, musical or otherwise?

MF: Of course musically, I have my favorites. My friend and mentor Bruce Forman, and also Joe Pass musically are real heroes for me. And then there are many people that I've admired in other realms, from Harriet Tubman to Cesar Chavez, Gloria Steinem... many people who have been involved in human rights, civil rights, women's rights, struggles for human dignity. I admire all of them for being on the front lines. They have devoted their lives to doing things that really changed the course of history and of the world. I have great admiration for those people.

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