Saskia Laroo: Lady Miles
“ Maybe it's because I hope to connect people through my music. I like all kinds of music and all kinds of people, so maybe my music can connect different people to each other as well. ”
A new album will hit the streets on March 15. Her name garners respect and admiration. Trumpeter Saskia Laroo, also referred to as a trumpet stylist, has been performing more than three decades on various stages across the globe. We had agreed on an interview for AAJ in 2006, but somehow timetables didn't match up. A year had passed and miss Laroo sent an email apologizing about the delay. In the meantime, I came across a blog from Koen Scherer, a former orthopedagogy behavioral scientist who now occasionally coaches people in improvisational music. He improvised a piano piece titled "Love" which offered room for a musical dialogue. Laroo came to mind, because she had just written me. The sound of a trumpet would be perfect for the piano piece. I asked her whether she'd like to contribute and improvise a trumpet part. She did.
Scherer then went to see Laroo perform in the cafe Alto in Amsterdam, to thank her for her contribution. He ended up on stage with her, playing the piano, thinking it was a jam session. It wasn't until afterwards when Laroo told him it hadn't been a jam session, but a regular gig with her band Jazzkia. It was the start of a wonderful new friendship.
Since Scherer lives in a city near Laroo's hometown Amsterdam, he was in the position to interview her up close and personal, so he agreed to represent AAJ.
Koen Scherer: We met early October 2007, she had invited me to meet at her home in Amsterdam. Laroo had just returned from China and would spent a few days at home before traveling to Taiwan and Bangkok with the Saskia Laroo Band, a groovy dance jazz band. This is typical for her versatility concerning instrumentation as well as genres and styles. Because next to Jazzkia and her dance jazz band, Laroo's also skilled in Salsa, performing this music with her Salsabop Band. On top of that, she's involved in individual projects and duo performances with her lifetime partner, a remarkable pianist from the United States, Warren Byrd.
Saskia Laroo explains her preference for versatility by thinking out loud: Maybe it's because I hope to connect people through my music. I like all kinds of music and all kinds of people, so maybe my music can connect different people to each other as well. It's like falling in love with a certain style over and over again. I've always considered it strange, for people to stay put in the world they know. Reality taught me that playing the "wrong" music for a "wrong" crowd is awful. When I just started out, I had no clue whatsoever. I was asked to come and play, but people had a different style in mind and were disappointed. I hated that, so I decided to learn as much genres and music as possible, so no matter where I was, there would always be something I could play so the audience had a good time that evening.
All About Jazz: How about your musical upbringing, why did you choose the trumpet?
Saskia Laroo: When I was seven years old, I started with recorder lessons at our local music school. I followed lessons until I was 11. It was merely a coincidence how I got introduced to the trumpet when I became a member of the village brass band at eight. During my high school years I picked up playing the cello. I did that for three years, because it was a genuine instrument. But by the time I'd reached the age of fourteen, I thought it was a stupid instrument, being in puberty. A guitar was the real deal then! And singing.
At high school (the Zaanland Lyceum) I joined the school's big band at age sixteen, playing my trumpet. Leader was Jan Molenaar. I remember thinking wow, what is that? I saw and heard this horn section and I so wanted to be part of that.
Soon it became clear that Laroo had a real talent for improvisation.
SL: I had no idea I was capable of that, to be playing something at the spot. I thought it was impossible, I wanted to analyze it, to reason about the idea intellectually. At the time I couldn't realize that improvising depends on having faith in your intuition. It was such a magical thing.
At age eighteen, Laroo went to Amsterdam, to study Mathematics. A whole new world dawned upon her and she soon discovered the music scene; she took part in workshops of Arnold Dooyeweerd (teacher at the Amsterdam Conservatory) and trumpeter Nedley Elstak.
SL: I was so driven by music that I soon learned about schnabbels, earning a few bucks by playing anywhere you can. But to let me play the lead on trumpet, no, my fellow musicians didn't trust me with that yet. Then I wondered what other instrument there was where they would need more musicians for. That's how I started playing the double bass. I practiced for three months, 9 hours a day. I went to jam sessions carrying the Real Book under my arm and that's how I got the gigs. I also took classical lessons, because I wanted to take this whole bass playing seriously. I wanted to learn all the techniques and figured I would be able to learn jazz along the way. I started to study how others play bass and found out that audiences seldom notice when mistakes are made. That's entirely different compared to the trumpet, every mistake you make is heard.
Playing as a bassist got me into the scene of schnabbels and after a while, people got used to the idea that I schnabbelde as a musician (being a math student) and they also hired me as a trumpeter. I was accepted as such, yes.
Laroo quit university and enlisted for a music education instead. She studied classical trumpet at the Muziekpedagogische Academie in Alkmaar followed by two years at the Amsterdam Conservatory studying under Boy Raaymakers where they expelled her because she "lacked the talent."
SL: In a way they were right, I was so busy organizing gigs and putting together bands that I hadn't studied much. But I already studied music for 4 years, so I wanted a chance to finish it. That's why I went to Hilversum, my teacher there was Ack van Rooyen. Things weren't really smooth there either. Both Raaymakers and van Rooyten thought I played without emotion. They were right, to some extent. So I decided to play in a way that wouldn't require emotion, or wouldn't give away I couldn't understand what they tried to teach me. It's like learning to speak a language. I hadn't mastered the dialect of jazz yet, all I knew was the countryside-like dialect of the local brass band, you know.
My graduation in Hilversum was perhaps a little unorthodox. I played more relaxed when on stage than at school, so I made recordings of my live performances and played those for the teachers. They thought it sounded good and then van Rooyen let me take the exams and graduate.
AAJ: So you must have mastered the jazz dialect then, if they considered your playing good enough to graduate?
SL: Yes, I learned it by listening to musicians, by asking myself who I respected as a trumpeter. To me that could only be Miles Davis because he played his instrument with so much emotion. His music moved me when I was still a teen and didn't know anything about jazz. By listening to his music and way of phrasing I learned a lot which, in hindsight, took me to where I am today. It's not as if I copied his style or sound, I just felt connected and could relate to his way of phrasing because it's what I tended to do as well, initially. I also learned a lot from all those schnabbels, gigs, workshops and jam sessions I participated in.
AAJ: Being a music student at school then worked against you rather than for you?
SL: (laughing out loud) Oh yes, you bet! And I also went to those Bim meetings in the Bimhuis where I met Hans Dulfer who offered me a schnabbel.
AAJ: You mention the word schnabbel quite a lot in your story.
SL: Yes, because that's how I could earn money and it felt like I was a professional and taken seriously. That education in Mathematics of course didn't work out at all as soon as I got into the Amsterdam music scene. It was a huge blow to my ego, however, because in those times, I wanted to be an intellectual, the brightest girl in the whole world! Hans Dulfer accepted me for who I was. I asked him what he wanted me to play and his reply, professing this typical Amsterdam humor was: oh, whenever I play a solo, you just play as loud as you can, whatever you like. He appreciated me playing along, because whenever he did one of his licks, I almost immediately tuned into a harmonizing second voice, no matter what scale. I think that's genuine intuition and a special quality even; my ear is pretty good developed if I say so myself. I already had that in the big band at high school, but no knowledge about it at all in those days. Later on, I did some research on it because I wanted to find out how it works, the function of the brain and such.
AAJ: Next to the word schnabbel as a main thread in your music career, being intellectual and trusting your intuition also seems to be a reoccurring theme.
SL: Yes. I used to analyze chord schemes in a mathematical fashion. Now, of course, I do trust my intuition. But this is something I had to learn by researching it, thinking about it and analyzing my actions. I always thought, as a kid, that you had to study like 8 hours a day before you were good enough to get into a conservatory. I could already write down and play melodies as soon as I heard them. I had that talent as a young one. I just didn't trust myself enough to give into it and because I wanted to approach things as an intellectual. During my conservatory years, I could be pretty nervous about it all, the tension between my intuition and the desire to exactly KNOW it all, from a cognitive point of view. Now everything is different. I can hear exactly what dialect a musician 'speaks' and by dialect I refer to everything: style, phrasing, timing, tension, the works.
AAJ: So basically you've found the ideal combination of learning how to improvise, based on both knowledge and trusting your intuition?
SL: Maybe, but I would love to study on my technical skills more, regrettably I don't have enough time left between touring and traveling. And I also wondered about being Dutch and the influence of Calvinism? Maybe that's how we're brought up, to not show emotions and hide your feelings. That's why I also loved to work with people from the Antilles and Suriname. Among them I felt more like me. They liked my playing without judging it what encouraged me to perform better. Among them, I could show emotion, just as I experienced with Brazilian musicians and the Salsa and Reggae bands I played in.
AAJ: And how about your family, your parents?
SL: There was room for creativity in our family. My father read both De Waarheid and De Telegraaf newspapers. Maybe I got this versatility in styles from him, you know, whether it's free jazz or Dixieland. My father used to joke about it, the tabloids, the sensation and thrills. My mother was a painter and she made our clothing herself. They also built their own house. Everyone had something creative and my parents let their children free to do what they wanted. In the village I grew up, most people thought we were a strange family and my mother used to say to us: remember, you're city kids, not village kids!
AAJ: You taught students in Taiwan and lectured them about how to be positive in life. Can you tell us more about this?
SL: Well, I base my teaching on my own experience. The goal is to increase one's self-confidence and how to achieve this by living a healthy life, proper breathing and discipline. But we shouldn't underestimate the mental aspects, such as the power of positive thinking and being aware of this. I've always kept something in mind I once read in a book of methods. It says that people should not limit their options in advance, because in general, people only use 10% of their capabilities. And if they limit their possibilities beforehand, it will even be less. By playing a lot, a musician also becomes familiar with the instrument and this can also be significant in one's sense of self-esteem. Wishful thinking! And then things can really happen! If you dare to be vulnerable in your music, it can add an extra layer and make your music more appealing. This can also boost your self-confidence. I know I am glad I don't mind anymore and am not afraid to open up.
AAJ: You're busy touring with a variety in bands, all over the world. You often play with younger lesser known musicians. Any special reasons?
SL: Yes, I love to work with foreign musicians, young musicians from the country or city where I perform. It adds something to the band as a whole and because of our cultural differences, interesting things can happen, it is an inspiring experience. Every musician has a certain role to play. We're all equal and valuable, both as soloists and accommodating musicians. Even if I play the lead, I can support another musician in his or her lead too, you can arrange this while on stage together. It's the band as a whole concept. If I were in the audience, listening, I would want to learn about every musician involved, not just the leader of the band. It's about unity; the soloist depends on those surrounding him or her. That's why I am very pleased with Warren because he is such a good accompanist.
AAJ: Let's take a look at your schedule. You went to Taiwan and Bangkok. You went to Indonesia in November last year and headed out to India in December, February is all about Germany, you're off to Singapore in March and in April you're in Brasil. How do you manage, organizing it all?
SL: Most of it is done by myself and I got a lot of paperwork at home to prove it. But I now got someone helping me plan the touring, because with travel schedules and all, it has to be well organized.
AAJ: Tell us something about your own label, Laroo Records.
SL: I had a gig at a party once, for the staff and personnel of a factory that manufactured albums for a record company. They didn't pay me cash, but in 1,000 LP's. All I had to do was to provide the recordings. Another record company offered me a contract after they had heard the music I wanted to release on those 1,000 albums. It was 1992, instead of vinyl it was CD. That record company however was only interested in one composition. They wanted to remix it and release it as a single. So I said no and decided to found my own label. The first 1,000 CD's were sold within a week and in the Netherlands alone, 10,000 have been sold and 25,000 CD's worldwide. That wasn't bad for a relatively unknown musician, because that's what I was then. Because of these CD's more people got to know about my music, but it was mostly in the underground scene. Still, if you see how big the cities in China are, there are 33 million people which means twice the size of the Netherlands in just one town! Interest in my music from abroad grew due to those first CD's.
AAJ: Do you have a wish list of musicians you'd like to perform with?
SL: I could say Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter, or McCoy Tyner and Hargrove or Marsalis because I think they're great. But I would want to play with everyone, really. To share a stage is like a conversation, getting to know each other. I like jamming. Especially those huge festivals, like in Montreux? Afterwards there's often a great after jam. Last time we jammed with the John Legend band, for instance. And in South Africa, that was really cool, insane even. Capetown had a fantastic after jam, you meet so many famous musicians there.
AAJ: How would you describe your chosen profession as a musician, what is your drive?
SL: First, I am grateful I can make music all over the world and that it makes me happy. I enjoy it if people enjoy the music I create and am pleased to be able to share my musical experiences with other musicians. Being older now also makes me realize how fortunate I am to be able to live this life. It's what I've been working for all these years. I still work hard for it. The music is what matters most. I invest in myself by being a performing artist and earn a living by it. And to travel to so many countries as an artist, I can see things from wider perspectives and various points of views. I try to stay objective in my opinions, so it won't influence my music wherever I am. People are free to think or feel whatever they want when they listen to my music. It's important to me to take my audience seriously and treat them with respect.
I hope that when they come to my concerts they can forget about their worries and problems and simply have a good time enjoying themselves, feel revived even. I try to reach within, touch their emotion, that's most essential to me. Like there's some sort of atmosphere between the audience and the musicians, on levels of meditation perhaps. I hope I can stimulate this, so the audience feels understood. Especially if I'm in countries where they don't have democracy like we know in the Netherlands. I'd like to bring people together, that's it. I'm more of a diplomat, a musical diplomat.
Saskia Laroo, Real Jazzy (2008)
Saskia Laroo, It's Like Jazz (2004)
Saskia Laroo, Sunset Eyes (1999)
Saskia Laroo, Jazzkia (1999)
Saskia Laroo, Bodymusic (1998)