Sarah Manning: Shattering The Glass Ceiling
Listening to Sarah Manning speak at length is nearly as absorbing as her music. She's intelligent, direct, witty, and serious-minded. As Manning waxes eloquent on topics ranging from the impact of three special mentors, to the benefits of being a well-rounded person, to issues surrounding woman's empowerment, you realize that she relishes every aspect of her life. The alto saxophonist and composer is the leader of the New York City-based band Shatter the Glass. Both on and off the bandstand, she's a role model for young women who aspire to play jazz and lead their own groups. Dandelion Clock (2010), the excellent new release on Posi-Tone records which includes her Shatter the Glass cohorts, is sure to expose Manning's music to a wider audience.
Sarah Manning: I grew up in Torrington, CT. Jackie McLean had a school called the Artists Collective. He and Dolly McLean, I believe, were the founders of the school. I think that in growing up in Connecticut, his sound was sort of in the air. I certainly knew who he was and listened to his playing. Jackie was always a little sharp in his tone. I'm one of those people who loved that sound. He definitely encouraged me. I only met him a couple of times in the Artists Collective. One of them was when I debuted an arrangement of a Sonny Clark tune that I transcribed off of one of Jackie's records. I arranged the tenor and the trumpet a half step apart on either side of the alto melody. So I added four bars to that particular arrangement, which was extremely dissonant. He happened to be sitting in the front row and covered his ears. But he actually sort of liked it. That was kind of neat. It definitely encouraged me to have a legend right in front of me when I debuted the arrangement.
I studied with Rufus Reid at William Paterson. He coached the big bands. I would occasionally go in and talk with him. He's such a great personjust a really warm person, very supportive and encouraging. It was after I left the school that I had a dream in which he gave me a bicycle and told me to travel to places where there were musicians who, frankly, could kick my butt. At that time I was living in Northampton, MA. That dream had a big effect on me. I moved to the Bay Area shortly after that.
He was the person who got me in contact with Akira Tana, who played on my first two records. They had a group called TanaReid for about ten years. When I went out to California, I emailed Rufus and I told him what I was doing. He told me a couple of people to look up, and one of them was Akira. I played with Akira for several years. Whenever he was available, I always worked with him. He's a funny guy, too. I think the California lifestyle suits him. He likes to play golf and carries around a golf tee in his pocket. He's got his golf shirt and his golf cap. When the gig's over and it's a nice day, I think he's heading for the green.
Yusef Lateef had a monumental influence on me, philosophically. William Paterson is a very straight-ahead school. When I went there, I played one of my original tunes on a jury. One of the people who came from a very strong tradition was kind of questioning why I played an original. You don't want to be playing an original, you want to play the tradition of the music.
I transferred to Smith College from William Paterson. I spent two years at William Paterson, then I got my degree in Women's Studies from Smith. Yusef Lateef had a Monday morning master class at Hampshire College. I went to his office hours and played him a recording of a couple of things of mine, including a version of "Body and Soul." He kind of said, "Look, this isn't really relevant. This is music of 40 or 50 years ago." He really put the emphasis on finding your own voice, even if it means having a small audience. It took a while for his words to sink in. I had been very concerned with sounding like a bebop player before I could get to my own sound and my own voice. I think he kind of pushed it aside and said that you always need to be searching for that. He had an enormous influence. I studied composition with him privately as well, when I was at University of Massachusetts, where I did a couple of years of graduate school.
SM: I always like to think that I allow myself to be influenced by many different things. I deliberately did not just study music. At Smith, there were a whole lot of other things I could study. I was interested in Asian Literature. A certain style of Japanese poems has influenced some of my compositions. So I try to take a holistic approach to music, in general. I think that if you can be a well- rounded, beautiful person, then your music will follow.