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Kathy Kemp Ridl: Creator and Creative Muse

Creativity is non-competitive. No two people are creative in the same way, so don't waste time comparing your own creative output to that of others. I find a great freedom in this attitude...
Kathy Kemp Ridl is the wife of “rising star” jazz pianist, Jim Ridl. In keeping with the expanding role of women in our society, she herself is a gifted and active creative artist both visually and musically. Coming from a musical family, Kathy is not only a skilled classical and jazz violist and bassist, she is also a talented artist and graphic designer, and is currently a premiere designer of CD album covers for many top jazz musicians. Her cover designs for Dreambox Media Records have, in a short time, already become inspiring “classics” of their own, not unlike Gil Melle’s memorable artwork for the earliest Blue Note recordings. They are very striking to see, and when you look at them, you can almost hear the music that's inside.

When I interviewed Jim Ridl at their home, I was struck by the beautiful artwork there, and when Jim showed me Kathy's home office (Kathy was not in at the time), one wall was lined with some of the best quality CD cover designs I’d ever seen. They were all hers!

I thought that our All About Jazz readers would like to know about Kathy and her work, not only in terms of what she can offer to the jazz community and record industry, but also with the hope that she can be an inspiration to other women among our readership. There is considerable talent among the women in the jazz audience and the families of the musicians, and perhaps Kathy’s experience can encourage them to further utilize their creative gifts.

So, I asked Kathy if she would do an interview, and she gladly came on board. She also provided some images of her CD covers, displayed here .

All About Jazz: Well, let’s get started with a deliberately ambiguous question: “What’s it like to be Jim Ridl’s wife?”

Kathy Ridl: Boy, talk about a loaded question! I rarely think of myself purely as “Jim Ridl’s wife,” except maybe at class reunions and the like, as I’m certain Jim doesn't think of himself purely as “Kathy Ridl's husband”. But if you asked me what it's like to hang out with Jim (for over 20 years now), I’d say it’s great! He’s wonderfully fun to be around. I love how he approaches life, at the piano or in the kitchen or in the garden. I truly admire who he is as a person and partner. It is a constant joy for me to hear the music that comes from Jim, and to witness the birth of his new ideas. So, yeah, it’s great to be “Jim Ridl’s wife”...but I guess I think of us more like “not-the-same sex life partners.” The “wife” title, however, has its benefits, like complimentary tickets to Jim's concerts, etc.

AAJ: Jim is such a powerful force in contemporary jazz. He seems to possess a limitless source of creative energy. Do you ever feel overwhelmed or overshadowed by him and his work?

KR: I have never felt overshadowed by Jim, because (not meaning to be too metaphoric) I think we see each other in full light. We have different talents and interests that keep us very much individuals, and there is a lot of respect in our home for those differences. As an artist, it is an inspiration for me to be around Jim's endless creativity, but the inspiration comes not by comparison, rather through admiration for the attention he pays to his music, the honesty of his art, and the creative stretching he always does. We work well together as a team, and we both enjoy the other's individuality. I also think it's important to have a life together outside of “what you do”...to have a figurative place where you both can be “who you are” as well. And we laugh alot...that tends to keep things out of the “shadows.”

AAJ: How do you reconcile your role as a caring wife with your own career? I’m sure our women readers would welcome some tips about this.

KR: Being a good partner to someone while having your own career is a natural and necessary combination in today’s society. They don't have to exist separately, and rarely do. Relationship roles aren’t as defined as they once were, thank goodness, so couples get to find their own balance between work and home, not based on anyone else’s example. I think being in the arts makes it easier to find a good balance because we are used to creative, sometimes unconventional, problem solving. So it’s all about finding your own balance, and then, right when you think you’ve got it all figured out, being willing to change it without getting crazy. One week you do a little more of the “caring partner” thing, and the next week, you may need more independence. That's a big lesson we have learned. Things change: roll with it. If one of us is in the middle of some ongoing creative surge and it’s his or her time to do the dishes, it’s not breaking any rules to switch up the plan...or to let the dishes wait a little longer. A good healthy dose of friendship and flexibility keeps it all in balance for us.

AAJ: Kathy, tell us a bit about your childhood, and specifically the influences that led to your interest in music, jazz, and art work.

KR: I was born in Oklahoma, the youngest of a big family of musicians. We performed together as a family since I arrived on the scene, singing at Christmas services and doing other concerts in the community throughout the year. Dad (John Kemp) was a choral conductor in Church music (later the head of the Church Music Department at Westminster Choir College), and Mom (Helen Kemp) was a soprano, who led the children’s choir program (who is now internationally recognized as a specialist in Children Choirs, still active as a clinician/composer at age 85).

Thus, music was part of every day family life for me. In addition to all the singing, my brothers and sisters all played stringed instruments. There was always a lot of practicing behind a lot of doors.

When I was 6, my parents took a year's sabbatical from the church music program they led, and we moved to Holland, where we did a full year of concerts, including embassies, radio and television. I remember vividly the whole year, and the adventure included visits to many great art museums across Europe.

When we returned to Oklahoma, Dad put up an exhibit of religious paintings at the church, which fascinated me. I recall asking WAY too many questions about “WHY did they use those colors?” “Why did one artist see St. Peter as short and squat and another see him as tall and lean...?” I am sure it drove them crazy, but much in the art world needed explaining to this young inquisitor. Art remained a great fascination of mine, looking at and participating in it, while music took center stage.

AAJ: You played the viola and other string instruments?

KR: Although I was raised playing viola, I discovered bass, and had a teacher who was a jazz musician in Dallas. I loved the instrument, and the whole jazz “thing” — so when we moved to New Jersey, where I finished high school, I kept playing bass and became more interested in jazz.

During my college years, I was a wanderer...annoyingly trying to “find Myself” as I went from school to school, keeping music at the core, but searching for something different than the normal music degree path. I finally ended up at the University of Colorado at Denver, where they had a new program that concentrated on music business, recording, scoring/ arranging, etc. I loved being around teachers and students who had gigs at night, people who listened to all kinds of music, and the quirky creative nature of jazz musicians. I played bass in several jazz ensembles and viola in a classical trio, and miraculously stayed at UCD and (to my parents’ delight) graduated.

AAJ: Was it then that you met your to-be-husband, the pianist Jim Ridl?

KR: It was my great fortune to meet Jim while at UCD, was instantly smitten, and we were happily married a few years later.

AAJ: It would seem at that point that you were destined for a career as a combined jazz and classical musician. Yet now, in addition to your music, you are quite a successful designer of CD cover art. How did that come about?

KR: Artwork remained an expression for me through all these formative years, but it wasn't until Jim and I moved to New Jersey in 1990 that it seemed like a good time to do some studying in that field. I went back to school for computer graphics, and got into some computer animation, all of which I just loved immediately. I tried my hand at designing concert programs and posters as a favor for friends, and really enjoyed the process and the outcome.

AAJ: How did you get into doing CD cover art?

KR: That started spontaneously in much the same way. Denis DiBlasio, the great baritone-saxophonist with whom Jim was playing, had a new recording coming out and asked if I'd help him put together the cover. I jumped at the chance, and really had no idea what I was doing...I learned so much from that project. It turned out well, and is still one of my favorites. From that first project, the word got around. So many musicians were putting out their own music but didn't know where to turn for help with cover art and all that non-music, manufacturing nitty-gritty that no-one taught you in school. At the beginning, I learned right along with my clients. Now, I hope to be a reference for independent musicians who have put their heart and soul into a recording, and need to get it designed and manufactured as painlessly as possible.

AAJ: So doing these CD covers brings together your art work with your love of music.

KR: For me, designing covers (and the promotional materials that go along with them) has become a way of combining my love of music and art with my desire to play a supportive role to people in the Arts generally. I love working with musicians, and I know from releasing Jims recordings how much is involved in the process...The project is officially “finished” when there is a cover on it. It is a visual representation of the music, the thing that people look for when they want to play your CD, the thing that's in the back of their head when discussing CDs. It’s another way to identify the music. So, it’s very important that the artwork be a good match with the music, and that the musician feels good about it. When the cover is done and on the way to the manufacturer, it's time to uncork the bottle.

AAJ: In part, you’re talking about marketing the CDs. How do you get a sense of what will attract buyers to the CD when they see the cover?

KR: If the cover really represents the music, I believe it will attract an appreciative audience. In the world of independent releases, one doesn't have to work as hard to generalize (or “dumb down”) the cover to appeal to the masses. It’s more individual than that. Each CD is different and requires a unique approach to its design. Everything in my much varied background helps me with that design process. Performing, retail sales, advertising, picture framing,cooking in a restaurant... it somehow all ties in. I end up using different skills for each CD project I do.

Some musicians know exactly what they want, but just don't know how to do it. Some people don” t have any ideas about it, so I get to develop the whole thing. Most folks are somewhere in the middle, and just need someone to pull all the ends together for them. That’s what great about it. I appreciate the variety. With each, there are new problems to solve, new answers to find, and always new music to help deliver to its listeners. Although I do believe a good cover design can attract new listeners for years to come, it still is paramount that each project remains about the music.

AAJ: What are you yourself doing these days musically?

KR: Music is still an every day activity. I still play bass in a number of musical settings, and viola in my brother's community orchestra. Family holidays are still filled with song, and there is always always music coming from behind our own doors.

AAJ: You’re all too modest. You’ve also performed on Jim’s CD “A Door in a Field.” Fill us in on some of the details about that and your other musical accomplishments. And since your family are all singers, how come you aren’t a vocalist?

KR: A Door in a Field...what a great project! Jim's string trio arrangements are so beautiful, and it was a wonderful experience to record with Diane Monroe and Jeffrey Solow. And I really loved getting to play accordion on “Caragana” — I love that tune. Jim had decided he wanted accordion to double the melody on Caragana after we found a small accordion in a closet on the Ridl's farm in North Dakota. The sound was perfect for that piece, and went with the general feel of the CD, which is dedicated to his parents and the experience of growing up on the farm. Jim’s grandfather played accordion, and we all have fond memories of his playing Czech folk songs for us. In fact, when we first found the accordion, we tried playing some of those same Czech songs “accordion 4-hands:” Jim played the melodies on the keyboard side, I worked the buttons for the chords, and we both pushed and pulled to keep the bellows pumping. Jim's family sang and laughed along with us! An hilarious Polka night at the Ridls!

Why aren’t I a vocalist, coming from a family of singers? Hmm...probably because I come from a family of singers;-) Seriously, I love singing, and have such an appreciation for great singers, but I guess I found my own “voice” in the instrumental and art worlds. I do love singing, though, especially harmony..you know, that great natural harmonic stuff that erupts from a group spontaneously, like in gospel and folk music.

AAJ: What are your personal ambitions? And how do you and Jim envision your future together?

KR: I hope to expand the cover art business, and get into web design, again working mostly with musicians and arts-oriented groups---alot of people need simple web sites to support their CD releases and performances. As to what the future holds for Jim and me, it's all a big adventure together. There are enough creative projects between the two of us to keep both the front and back burners hot. I think we'll just keep on doing what we believe in, and enjoy doing it together, and life will continue to be fresh and rewarding.

AAJ: What concluding advice might you have for anyone who wants to develop his or her creative potential?

KR: Allow yourself to be hungry for whatever your passion is. Study your art, immerse yourself in it. Read alot. Enjoy the process of learning. And most importantly, be active. If your desire is to paint, then paint. If you want to play, play. If you are a writer, pick up the pen and start writing. It won't come out until you have established an active dialog with your chosen art. Nobody begins a project with all the answers— only by being active do the right questions come out.

Creativity is non-competitive. No two people are creative in the same way, so don't waste time comparing your own creative output to that of others. I find a great freedom in this attitude...

Respect those who have gone before you, respect those who stand beside you, and encourage those who are learning. We are all in this together.

Visit Kathy Ridl on the web at www.kathyridl.com .

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April 2004



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