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Dawn Clement: Here In The Moment

Paul Rauch By

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Vulnerability is the birthplace of creativity, and don’t we need that today? Don’t we all need to be humble, vulnerable, honest? —Dawn Clement
Dawn Clement is like a primal force of nature. From being the mother of three young children, to her professorship at Cornish College of the Arts, to her performing career as a touring and recording artist, she maintains a musical standard of excellence achieved by very few. Her piano style is strong and versatile, whether she is playing at the most intense tempo, or in more tender and vulnerable moments colored in alluring sincerity.

The evening before I met with her at Cornish College of the Arts, I witnessed her extraordinary performance in residence at Seattle's storied Tula's Jazz Club, joined by saxophonist Mark Taylor, bassist Paul Gabrielson, and drummer John Bishop. This marvelous quartet performed many of the tunes featured on Clement's new album Tandem (Origin, 2018), a stunning array of duo performances with some of her closest musical allies over the past 20 years. Expanding these pieces into the quartet format with these wonderful musicians was truly an evening of music not soon forgotten. Her powerful piano style, and instrumental like vocal approach that evening reminded all fortunate enough to attend, that she is a true force to be reckoned with in modern jazz. She invites both her bandmates on stage, and her audience as well, to engage in the fleeting chance that some form of musical lightning may be captured in one magical moment. With the release of her new record, and her recently completed residency at the Earshot Jazz Festival, Clement's star appears to be steadily on the rise.

All About Jazz: You began teaching at Cornish College of the Arts shortly after graduating. Talk about striking the balance between teaching and performing, and your decision to teach at that early stage of your career.

Dawn Clement: I graduated in 2000, then in August, the chair at the time, Laura Kaminsky asked if I would like to teach Randy Halberstadt's piano class. That was the beginning of it. I was super apprehensive, because I didn't want to teach, and I didn't think I'd be teaching. I had designs to move to New York, and just tour and play. Like everybody does. I still thought I'd do that. My roommates at the time were Geoff Harper and his girlfriend. We had this nice place, Dan Heck's old house up in North Seattle. I felt like the adult in the house, taking on this job. All of a sudden I had this job to do, and every night coming home and it would be like a hang. I wanted to do it, but at the same time I thought I would do it for only a little bit and then....

AAJ: Here we are.

DC: Yes. I didn't think I would teach. I didn't think I would want to, or fall in love with it like I have, or be good at it. That first year was hard, because I had my peers in class. That happened for four or five years.

AAJ: How were you mentored heading into Cornish? The role has fallen almost entirely into the hands of academia in these times.

DC: It seems like it, doesn't it? It started for me in high school, for sure. Going to high school in Vancouver, WA, across the river from Portland. I went to Fort Vancouver High School, and we had a crazy band director and a really good band. They were all horn players and dudes, but they were my first mentors. Not all of them were kind about it, but they shared music with me, and we listened all the time. That's who I learned my first tunes from, that's who exposed me to Sonny Rollins Trio, Miles Davis, John Coltrane. We went to Port Townsend together as students, that would be the first mentorship. Moving here, of course Hadley Caliman, and Julian Priester, but some of the students I entered with, like Galen Green and Jonathan Hansen, who's now Jon Solo, Byron Vannoy, we kind of mentored each other.

I started here in '96, and in '98 did that first year of Sisters in Jazz, when IAJE was still a thing. They put this combo together of all girls, but in that combo was Anat Cohen, and Sara Caswell, the violinist. That was the first time I was mentored by Ingrid Jensen, she was our coach. Sunny Wilkinson took us on tour that summer.

AAJ: I hear Ingrid Jensen mentioned a lot by women in jazz, as a role model and mentor. She deserves so much respect for the amazing musician she is, and doing it as a female trumpeter over the years.

DC: She's a gem. She's just been changing a lot of lives for a while. And her sister too. Jay Clayton, she was a great mentor of mine, and still is. Jay's still someone I would refer to a lot.

AAJ: Your time at Cornish also introduced you to the iconic trombonist Julian Priester, both on the faculty there, and as a member of his working quartet. Also the great saxophonist Hadley Caliman was at Cornish during your time as a student. How has your associations with Priester, and Caliman impacted your career as a musician, and as an educator?

DC: Hadley was my first combo instructor, and I came in with an attitude, and a chip on my shoulder. I didn't think anybody could play. Hadley was hardcore, he helped turn my attitude around. He'd take me out and say things like, "I know you're not feeling this, but there's still something to learn from being together." I learned tunes in a different way from Hadley, because he was all by ear, and he would sit down and just play it. The tune, on the piano, or on the guitar. He was real oral tradition, he didn't love to use charts, and he had such a beautiful concept of harmony. It's the opposite of how I usually think about it as a pianist. He would just simplify and think of things as the five chord, and the one chord. Break it down real simple. But we learned all sorts of amazing tunes. Hadley, yeah. Just being the real deal. I also learned from him, not necessarily by him directly saying it to me, but observing him over time, he always brought, wherever he was at that day, to the bandstand. So I learned there is some inconsistency in what happens on a day to day playing level. But he always was shedding. One day it comes out like he wants it, and about 85% of the time I would hear him say he wasn't satisfied. But it didn't change the amount of time he was spending with the horn, and he was bringing it every time.

Another person I had was Denny Goodhew. He was just so cool. We wouldn't really play any tunes in his band, he taught me how to play free.

AAJ: You would see him play straight ahead one night with Barney McClure, and then see him in a combo with Ralph Towner, playing more out on the edge the next.

DC: He taught everyone in that band how to have an actual conversation musically, that didn't revolve around the structure of a tune, or the form of something. He would tell us to each bring an object in, to interpret. So someone would bring in a painting, somebody brought a plant in. It was pretty conceptual.

I never actually had class with Priester. We played after graduation. All my pals were in his combo. I think I learned the most about how to play, by just playing with Priester. Playing his music, and having it have a certain attitude and openness about being yourself. Everyone contributes, and has the capacity to go anywhere. Developing that over time. That band is a long term thing. Jane Ira Bloom's band is the same, bring yourself. She's hiring you for you. She loves having diverse characters in the band. Different reference points. Yes. Priester, we all had listened to him long before we got here.

AAJ: You have a new release coming up on the Origin label, Tandem, an album of duo performances. Your musical partners include Julian Priester, vocal artist Johnaye Kendrick, saxophonist Mark Taylor, bassist Michael Glynn, and drummer, Matt Wilson. Tell us about your musical vision for the record, and how these wonderfully talented musicians fit into that vision.

DC: I had been wanting to do it for a while. There are a lot of people in Seattle I had wanted to play duo with, and had conversations with about it. Then there were several collaborations that already existed in duo form. Johnaye Kendrick and I had a duo. Mark Taylor and I, of course, have always played duo. John Gilbreath asked if I wanted to be the resident artist for the Earshot Jazz Festival, and I proposed a bunch of duets. Going into it I was thinking of each project, the CD recording and the Earshot Festival, as a vehicle for showcasing some of these things. It's nice to be able to explore, without everything there. Just to let sound and silence both be part of the music. I actually recorded more than is on the record, so I've been thinking, man, should this be volume one? There's Thomas Marriott, Marina Albero, Cole Schuster. So maybe. Maybe they'll be a few more.

It was really tricky to think about what to call it. On the road with Matt Wilson he was wanting me to call it "Pairings," like wine pairings with your dinner, like a scratch and sniff. The first thing I pulled up when I googled "Tandem," was a couple of dudes in lederhosen, riding a bike. There are several records with the name. It's not an original name. But I like the idea.

AAJ: Two people on one vehicle working together.

DC: Yeah, I love it. I had just come off a period of time when I was trying to compose a lot for a broader scope of instruments. And I'd really like to come back to that. On Tandem, there are some pieces, and songs and tunes that have been part of my repertoire for a bit. It's kind of vulnerable, I like that. If I could do a whole set of what I wanted to do, I think the audience the whole time would be holding their breath. I like that feeling, I like the delicacy, the vulnerability and the fragile quality that the word duo makes you think of. Vulnerability is the birthplace of creativity, and don't we need that today? Don't we all need to be humble, vulnerable, honest?

AAJ: There are originals, and compositions by Monk and Tristano, a true classic ballad in "My Ideal." This is an album recorded with some of your closest colleagues over the past 20 years. Why these particular pieces for this special selection of artists?

DC: "I Think of You" originated for Johnaye and me to do. I've done that in a lot of different settings. I arranged it for Roosevelt High School jazz, but it originated with my voice and her voice together. That's an old standard, it was in a fake book somewhere. I learned it from Jay Clayton. I liked that one for Johnaye.

The blues with Priester, that one seemed fitting for Julian because of the playful nature of it. I wrote it for Wayne Horvitz a year or so ago for his birthday. I wanted it kind of to be free. That's what we do, Priester and I.

My original idea was that I would do a free improv, and a set piece with everyone in the studio. Then it ended up being that we recorded four or five things. We didn't really call any tunes, I had several things that I wanted to try. I tried "I Think of You" with a couple other combos. The "Stay Awake" lullaby was from "Mary Poppins." We did several takes of it trying some different things. I like the message of the song, I know it's a lullaby but, you just want to stay awake in life, stay aware. The double time on the drums propels it along.

AAJ: There is a real emotional sincerity to the album, lyrically in the singing, and in the music itself. I was thinking that this has to be something that is very difficult to achieve in the studio. Was there anything in the process of recording that made this easier to accomplish?

DC: Well, yeah. They're just beautiful individuals, that I feel at ease and comfortable around.

AAJ: They're all long time colleagues.

DC: Yes, and friends. Also each one of the musicians on the record, I have a trusting relationship with musically. So right there is a beautiful space to try and make music. When you trust each other, anything can happen. If something happens unexpected, it's OK. Recording albums, it's not my favorite because you can't have lightning in a bottle every time. You can't plan to get lightning in a bottle. I don't work my solos out ahead of time. I have an idea of material, you want to go in prepared. It's important for me to capture the honesty of the moment, but you can't count on that happening. It is just a moment in time. You have to be objective as it's happening, because it's just like a live performance. You can feel amazing about it in the moment, and a week later think that it sucked. Or you can have a feeling that it's not going well in the moment, and you listen to it later and are pleasantly surprised. You can't judge it in the moment. You just have to have it be real.

AAJ: In the studio you're not having that emotional exchange with the audience, the feedback that it provides.

DC: Exactly, and there were two dates, and I was trying to grab Matt Wilson while he was here, so there was a lot going on that week. We were doing a workshop together, and went straight from that. It would be nice to have the luxury sometime to go in for a couple of weeks.

AAJ: How did your interest in becoming a musician begin, and how did the piano became your focus?

DC: I was a really shy kid, Paul. I had nothing going on. I think of my kids now, they all play screens, that's how they socialize with their friends, they talk about minecraft, they listen to that music. They have multiple activities-music, soccer. When I was growing up, we didn't have any of that going on. My mom could be home with us, and she was a real creative educator, so she taught us at home, on and off. I was the oldest and very concerned about everything being OK. My mom's dad was a baptist preacher, so we grew up attending his church, learning the hymns, and those all still resonate with me. We always sang. That was part of my mom's healing process and worship, getting her family together and singing. She plays piano. That was an outlet for all of us, whether we knew it or not.

AAJ: How old were you when you started playing?

DC: Ten, that was when we got the piano. But we sang a lot, and my mom taught us a lot through songs. She would make up games and songs to teach us about science, it's how kids learn, through songs. The oral tradition, it starts there, right?

We had a church organist, and we use to go to her place to get babysat. I was like, "Can we get one of those." She had an organ in her basement. So mom got a player piano with all the felts worn off, that's what I learned on. My teacher, Keith Taylor down in Glendale, Oregon, was a stride player, he played ragtime. He taught me how to read the notes.

But I was shy, I didn't have all the activities, socially shy. So for me, getting up and playing piano, that was what I wanted to do. I'm thankful that I did that, I put a lot of work in early. I wish I had that time now!

AAJ: How has your experience as a performer impacted your approach as an educator?

DC: I think it's the only way you can even be a music educator. I've had a conflicting opinion about it in the past, but now lately I think, for the last ten years or so, that they have to go hand in hand because we don't have the oral tradition like we did. Not just speaking for jazz, but for all types of music. Students learn how to access that by going to school now. I think being able to play and think about your own process is so important in validating how you can articulate that to somebody else. I don't feel like I'm always teaching, I feel like I'm always learning. I'm learning by playing all the time, and I'm learning from students too.

I was drawn to finishing my masters degree, it took me a long time. I don't think of myself as a great academic, but I wanted to grow in my composition process. I think for all these high school and college students, it's important to be able to walk the walk, and talk the talk. Be able to talk about it because you play. And to play together, to play with your students. Hanging with them, I've driven students to jam sessions.

Some of my favorite educators that play, like Matt Wilson for example, are people that I would want to emulate in my career. As far as playing and sharing that with young musicians, or musicians of all ages really. He's a great example in terms of how he communicates, how generous he is with his time. Jane Ira Bloom as well.

AAJ: You are a professor, a very active performer and recording artist, a side woman in several combos, and a dedicated mother of three children. How do you manage to do all of that, and do it at the high level that you have achieved?

DC: Half the time it feels like it's not a high level. I try not to judge it in the moment. If I were a single parent, I think I'd probably be in a hole. My man, it's like we're ships passing in the night, but we had a lot of time in the bank before we had kids, we hung out a lot. So we joke that we're still using the bank. We don't spend a lot of time together. There's an invigorating thing about being with my kids, that feeds the other stuff. It's fun! And yes, I'm tired, and I'm not getting any sleep, and my house is a mess. I don't always prioritize my own self care. I think the energy kind of revolves. The time is now, I just made a record, and I had these distractions, lots of distractions.

AAJ: You recently worked with innovative saxophonist and composer Jane Ira Bloom. How did this association come to be?

DC: Almost everybody I've met, played with, collaborated with, has been through this institution (Cornish College of the Arts). This place has provided a lot of connections and contacts for me. Through alumni, people coming through. Jane played here, her band couldn't make it and I played. I sent her my record Hush (Conduit, 2003), she loved it, and that's history man. Ever since then, I've been playing with her. That wouldn't have happened if she wasn't playing the Cornish music series. I've met a lot of people that way. I did know about her, and had listened to her. Talk about a pioneer.

AAJ: Your vocal work is often overshadowed by your piano playing, notably the result of your mastery in the art of the piano. I hear a lot of instrumental identity in your vocal style, very much akin to that of your friend and colleague, Johnaye Kendrick. What are the differences and similarities between your approach on piano, and with voice?

DC: I think the similarity would be my desire to be honest with each instrument. I want to only sing and play what I hear. The idea is that I would want to do that. If you can sing it, you can play it, that's an age old concept.

AAJ: Do you write at the piano, or do you just hear melodies and write them directly to paper?

DC: I think my default, the thing I would lean on, would be to use the piano all the time. I think it is sometimes easier to articulate ideas. It's not a vulnerable place like the voice is. The voice is just all out there. So if I really want to strip all the bullshit layers away, and get to the heart of what I'm hearing, I don't have the piano in front of me, or the computer. Vocally, I have a lot of work to do. I'm not a conscientious technical vocalist. I don't have huge range or chops.

AAJ: Your intonation is amazing.

DC: I don't know about that. I like using it as an instrument. I like to think about it like a horn.

AAJ: That's how it comes off on the new record, and I really enjoy that.

DC: I like thinking about that, I've had a lot of criticism. I had a review that thought there were way too many vocals. He wanted more piano. For me they're both an instrument, they're both an extension of my ideas. Playing and singing, it's a journey. Sometimes there's no way to express something except with a lyric, depending on what it is. Sometimes, I don't want to sing at all.

AAJ: I have been asking women jazz instrumentalists about their experiences in a genre that is decidedly male dominated. How can we turn the tide and achieve gender equity in jazz, and what role do jazz educators play in this?

DC: Just returning from JEN, that is a heavily male dominated conference, and an educators conference, I did attend two female presentations. I think men and women who are already in education, need to value that as something important that needs to change. It's not like it hasn't been changing. Peggy Stern told me a long time ago, "Don't you forget who paved the way for you." There has already been a lot of women before me making great music, being great educators. Being underappreciated, but holding their own. Women need to value themselves and consider themselves as legit, and bring confidence with that. And be themselves. But men that already are in education and academia, need to value and appreciate that. I think there are already a lot. I feel blessed to have worked with a lot of male musicians who value me as a musician, regardless of gender. So I don't have a chip on my shoulder.

I think Seattle is really progressive in that way. We have Kate Labiak in Edmonds, Amy Stephenson at Lynnwood High School. We have JazzEd. We have Kelly Clingan and Laurie DeKoch there. A lot of people really pushing for opportunity for girls in jazz. Seattle is progressive, bottom line is, be a good musician, work on your music, take yourself seriously. Have pride in what you do, and spend time doing it. If you come across gender discrimination along the way, don't play with those people.

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