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Brittany Anjou: Visionary Soul

Paul Rauch By

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AAJ: What draws you to the piano trio format?

BA: It was my first love, Bill Evans Trio, Ahmad Jamal, there's something so intimate about those first records I discovered, and wanting to be able to have that level of communication. That's the goal, and has always been inspiring to me.

AAJ: I was fortunate to see you perform in Seattle in trio with Evan Flory-Barnes and Matt Jorgensen. They integrated into the conversation extremely well. Does your unique approach to composition present unique challenges for your bandmates?

BA: This is such great feedback here, because I don't really hear this. It's interesting to me, to go through the process of composing for an improvised art form. You put it all on a page and hand it out to the band, and they start asking, 'What does this mean? What about bar 51, what does this snowflake mean?' Then you go through drafts, which is basically torturing your band because you're making changes. You try to get the maximum connection with the musician you're working with, which is always different when you change personnel. That's challenging.

AAJ: The music on Enamigo Reciprokatje is truly original sounding. As a listener, I sense the music visually, physically-as I would a dance performance. Now you are out on the road performing it, and with Evan Flory-Barnes and Matt Jorgensen, two musicians who were not part of the original sessions. Talk about the record, and how the music has evolved performing it live.

BA: The record definitely came out the way I hoped. I'm grateful for that. I think what's wild is that there's a point of departure for every record, and the life of the record has a separate life than the life of your tour playing it live. I think what is wonderful is getting to have the process of recording and releasing an album. To get to tour with it as well is special. What I found with the live life of it, I grew with each band I did it with, I grew deeper into the interpretations. Especially with Evan (Flory-Barnes) and Matt (Jorgensen), there's a point of departure where you start to read each other's minds-that's the most exciting part. It feels like I have a long way to go in that vein of finding that connection. You get to do that on tours, and you're playing every night. That kind of high I've always dreamed of experiencing.

AAJ: Each night, things continuously evolve and change.

BA: When you see heroic musicians who just get up there, and every night is different, that's the thing.

AAJ: That night, the second set was Jorgensen's music, adding trumpeter Thomas Marriott and saxophonist Pete Gallio. I came to the realization that the original approach one senses in your trio playing, applies as well to your playing in the quintet setting.

BA: When I played trio it was my music, my comfort zone, me, me, me. With that comes the responsibility of calling a set list, organizing the band. When you're playing a side role, it's such a wonderful gift after leading! It's a breath of fresh air. Ok, now I just get to play my instrument and dig into the tradition. There's trust, a framework, a deep lexicon, and a wind tunnel came over me that night onstage with Thomas, Pete, Matt and Evan. It was like a really good jazz movie.

AAJ: You had never met trumpeter Thomas Marriott until that evening?

BA: I had met him on a street corner once. I'm not in Seattle often enough to really know what's going on with the local scene.

AAJ: What he's doing is usually on the forefront of what's happening in Seattle.

BA: Yes I know! I've known for years. I think there's always that point when you're playing with someone you don't know, the ideal jazz position, that just happened to me at Egan's. The other night I literally got on stage with heroes who I've looked up to for years while growing up in Seattle, and I felt so much energy and excitement before the show, knowing I'm about to play with them as a sideman for the first time, and knowing my family was there to see it was incredible. It was totally surreal to do that for the first time. It's everything I could have dreamed of, and luckily it happened because I put my own stuff out, and Matt asked if I wanted to do a double bill of my trio and his band, and to sit at the piano chair in his band. He's been super supportive of my record and my career. Such a gift!

That's ideal jazz tradition, jam session culture. Being at home it was extra special because I felt a wave of childhood and home combining into the energy and it was amazing. Now that I have a record as a leader and composer on piano out, I feel more ease internally. Playing with those cats, I felt pushed forward in terms of the lexicon of hard bop. I think I was always a sensitive player comping for solos, I was always terrified I was going to over-comp. What's really important to me is that I'm really listening to the horn player. The top priority for me always when improvising is to have an open and curious ear, always trying to connect with what's going on around me. There's a fair amount of propelling, and there's a fair amount of being relaxed and letting other people speak. It was extra powerful to just get up there and do my thing and feel really embraced. Especially at home. Especially playing with jazz greats in your hometown. As a woman I've felt most of my career that I can't be myself in most pure jazz spaces, and I've been fighting to make that better. Jazz scenes need to bring that acceptance vibe in spaces. I love WIJO meetings because we make that space happen and vent about where there is a lack of that vibe in the most common spaces of the field.

One time at a jam session in New York about ten years into my time there, I was the only woman waiting to sit in, completely ignored when I approached the bandstand, and then literally thrown out into the bar when I didn't know the tune. No one acknowledged me when I got up there, all the players ignored me, called a tune without telling me, and dropped out immediately after the head in, leaving me to take the first solo, on a tune I didn't know and didn't recognize. After soloing for 16 bars, the session leader came up to me at the piano in the middle of my solo, grabbed both my wrists by one hand, slammed the piano lid down and said, 'You're done.' He pulled me across the stage by the wrists and threw me into the bar. I was so angry. It didn't help at all that I had pink hair. I never felt safe in that space ever again, a space where a lot of jazz players go to get work and make connections. It took me years to go back to that space, and when I did, I still felt sick to my stomach remembering that night. And then there's all this jazz shame. No one did a single thing, no one questioned the leader, no one approached me, no one introduced themselves to me. These days I go when I want and I laugh at the place for breeding and sustaining that energy. It's unfortunate when there's an interference when jazz is meant to be about individual expression, and then there are clogged arteries amidst the classical machismo of patriarchy.

Performing original music for theater was the first time in my life that a team of costumers came at me with makeup, heels, hair, and clothes for the stage. I was totally overwhelmed and shocked to be demanded to be a feminine person performing onstage for the first time in my life coming from jazz culture. Jazz school nor jam sessions were never the space where I, nor any girl or woman I knew, felt embraced wearing makeup or being feminine, not without the fear of suffering social consequences, judgment of appearance, or rejection. So having been through a lot you can imagine how much of an absolute gift it was to be hired and to play quintet with Thomas Marriott, Pete Gallio, Matt Jorgensen and Evan Flory-Barnes at Egan's in Seattle, and feel accepted. And with pink hair! Something in me before that show knew I needed to make my hair pink and so I showed up hours early and put pink streaks in my hair in the bathroom at Egan's. Now I realize I was subconsciously for myself undoing the trauma from being thrown out of a jazz jam with pink hair a decade ago, and in my own way, saying fuck that and getting up onstage and playing in the quintet tradition. There is a lot of PTSD that marginalized people experience in the performing arts. This conversation these days is opened, thanks to so many movements, and we're in a much better place, and I feel it because I follow that social conversation, and ignore the trolls. It's just a relief to be hired in what you do, be yourself, and feel welcome.

AAJ: There's still people in jazz whose actions are intrinsically misogynistic. We all deal with overcoming the biases of our parent's generation. But patriarchy in all shapes and forms has deep, deep roots.

BA: Sometimes stating the shittiness of reality just directs the conversation to a lesser consciousness, and can hurt those suffering from those actions constantly and bring down their mood. I've forever been so tired of seeing the all-men all-the-time dominant narrative rampant in jazz. I think we are killing ourselves from it actually. It's true, but we could also die from thinking it is true and not doing something about it. Everyday when I read jazz news I particularly look for the non-binary and women's narratives and I try to meet and bond with other folks. It's getting better. It's always on my radar. I know literally hundreds if not thousands of amazing women musicians and I feel that everyone should know.

We all know the world has thousands of years of patriarchy and in this country, hundreds of years of colonialism to overcome. I'm more interested in the spiritual, cultural, emotional fabric of healing that, and supporting and directing attention to those artists and speakers who are doing that. I think Marianne Williamson is really onto something when she says to pray for those who trespass against you. It frees you from the trap of feeling small and stuck, from the inside, and that can change who you are to the outside. For performing artists in the margins it is survival mode tactics of dealing with the world, dealing with people, dealing with business on and offstage. Every person who shares their honest real story is a gift to the world. When you try to explore really tough stuff and you share it, it's a gift to others. Sometimes that catharsis can be top heavy after you release something, but I think it all is your journey of growing our consciousness.

Hearing women, non-binary and transfolks stories and retelling them is an important part of our fabric and vivacity. I think in America we have a balancing act of seeing and hearing each other while not othering each other and while growing ourselves from the inside. I'm interested in seeing, crediting and connecting people who attend to this. We are starting to do that in film and TV. It's important that jazz thrives with the times. Paying respect to African-Americans to whom this music and country owes its existence, I feel America can progress socially when we deal with our history spiritually on a national level. You can't let the lie that is the dominant patriarchal colonialist misogynistic homophobic culture continually bleed into your worldview, and you can't lose sleep over fighting it every night, you have to rebalance your spirit.

I flee America as much as I can, loads because of this. A huge moment that helped me stay in the game and continue with music happened when I was 16 in Seattle. The jazz vocalist Lisa Henry came to my high school and did a workshop. She watched me take a few choruses of soloing on a B flat blues, and after, immediately told me in front of the whole class that I was onto something. Her recognizing something in me as an improviser, in front of all my classmates, changed the way my peers saw me, who were nearly all male, all of who I'd been wanting to fit in with for years. They would jam on Sublime, Nirvana and blues, and I wanted in on that, but felt I wasn't welcome. That day, Lisa saw me and saw that I had something to say. I remember her saying that I was good, and she wanted more, she wanted to hear more from me. No one had ever said that to me in my life in a group situation after improvising before. I remember it clear as day. She ignored the boy who was thought of as being the best player by all, and focused on me. The next day I walked in and felt valuable, for the first time in four years, with all my classmates. I still talk about it with them to this day. Recently a classmate of mine told me he remembered that day and that he thought of me as a better musician after that, and recognized that I hadn't been acknowledged by our peers before that. It was something that we didn't know how to name, and she did. And him telling me, decades later as adults, freed me of how isolated I felt when I was 16, and not knowing what others thought, being unable to have that conversation. I'm still grateful for that day and what Lisa Henry said that day.

It is so important to pass that torch on. I believe women need women mentors. I'm so stoked for the WIJO mentors program for this very reason. Last year I started to make a jazz history curriculum of all women jazz artists on all instruments for the kids jazz classes at JACC. I had a list up on the board all year of twenty great historical jazz artists and they were all women. I had all girls in my class last year and I wanted them to see themselves on that board. I didn't even put the usual 'greats' men's names on that list because seeing only them, foremost for all girls who are beginners just doesn't help the purpose. Of course we would listen and talk about all the usual greats, but I put women on the board because I want to tell a gender equal story. Eli Yamin just told me that Mary Lou Williams taught Bud Powell, Thelonius Monk, Dizzy Gillespie and was a staff writer for Duke Ellington. I didn't even know that until this month! It pisses me off that no one told me til now. I celebrate pianist Dorothy Donegan all the time, learning about her a few years ago through Mara Rosenbloom via Connie Crothers. And now I tell everyone I know about Dorothy Donegan.
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