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Marilyn Mazur: The Song in the Woods

Adriana Carcu By

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I get inspired by the variation of energy, by the balance resulting out of it, and by the harmony emanated by stillness. —Marilyn Mazur
Danish drummer, percussionist and composer Marilyn Mazur reached iconic status on the contemporary jazz scene in the early years of her career. Playing in the eighties with titans Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter and Gil Evans, she later joined Jan Garbarek's group and was instrumental in some of the musician's most significant projects at the beginning of the millennium. With astounding versatility and a natural sense of emulation, Mazur turns each of her performances into a powerful show that emanates energy, musicality, and grace. She is presently touring with her bands Spirit Cave, Celestial Circle, and the Marilyn Mazur Group. Her most recent project, Shamania, was released on July 8 in Copenhagen.

All About Jazz: Do remember your first musical experience?

Marilyn Mazur: When I look back, I have the feeling that I have always been conscious of music, but that's easy to say now. Until I was six years old I lived in New York and I was involved very early, as a three year old, in some musical activities. What I remember is that my mother had a baby-book with percussion sounds and my family kept telling me that I was fascinated by them and wanted to hear them again and again although I became involved with percussion only when I was 19.

What I do remember is that in Denmark we had a record player, I was 7 or 8 years old, and I would close the curtains and retire into a magical world to listen to Stravinsky's Le Sacre du printemps. I had am imaginary teacher who came in to teach me the magical steps of the ballet, her name was Ms. Misticolum, and she looked like an old-fashioned classical dance teacher. That's what I would call my first strong musical experience.

I also think that Le Sacre du printemps has inspired me a lot, because I was fascinated by the ritual aspect of music ever since. As things happen, later on the Danish composer Lars Møller wrote The Rewrite of Spring and invited me to perform together with David Liebman and the Aarhus Jazz Orchestra. So it looks like Le Sacre keeps following me all through my life. I really loved that project.

AAJ: It is not common for a woman to become fascinated with percussion, how did it happen?

MM: I would say that it was rather a gradual process than a sudden revelation. In the early years I was into classical music taking piano and ballet classes. I also started very early writing stories and poems and inventing my own dance steps. So there was a multitude of ways of expressing myself and I didn't know which one I would choose.

I left school and I joined a professional dance-group in Copenhagen. I wasn't playing drums yet at that time, but once, as we were at a festival in Austria drummer Fredy Studer from the group OM said that I must be the drummer in the group, just by looking at the way in which my movements could relate to rhythm.

At that time, this was in 1971, I was actually playing piano, and the festival put me on the program with a solo piano where I was allowed to play my little compositions and sing a few songs. I remember that the people gathered around the piano to listen better. So, my first solo performance was on piano, not on the drums.

I started taking classical piano lessons at the age of 9. As a teenager, I realized that you have to have an education, but at that time you could not study jazz in Denmark, so because I didn't want to be a classical pianist, and my playing was very rhythm-orientated, I decided to study classical percussion for some years at the Conservatory. And that hit home. I just loved it so that I couldn't get away from it.

AAJ: What was so different?

MM: Although at that time I already had my first band as a pianist, playing drums offered me a new kind of freedom. I didn't have to obey all those rules and chords that a pianist had to follow, I could just use my ears, follow, and play as I liked. It gave me the feeling that I could do my own stuff. At that time there were no women around playing drums, especially in the jazz world, there were a few piano players but no drummers. In the following years I changed from piano to drums. Of course I still use the piano, especially when I write music.

AAJ: By the time you started studying music at the Conservatory in Copenhagen you were already active as a composer and a bandleader. What kind of impact had the institutionalized study on your native musicality?

MM: It was good to have it because it put a little order into my musical word. I learned a few theoretical things about arrangements and conducting for example, but for me it's always been two separate worlds. Studying classical piano and writing my own pieces didn't have to do very much with each other. One had to do with the correctness of the classical world, the good way, and the other one had to do with my own, secret world. As I said I was into writing poems and stories and that was a world of magic I wouldn't share with anyone when I was a kid.

The guys would always meet and play together and at that time women were not part of it so I didn't have anyone to share it with. At 15 I would go to a music school and be part of a group or another but before that it was all private and secret. And that followed a long time, even after I started learning things the "correct" way I still had my own territory where despite what they were teaching me, I would follow my own feelings in the world of music. Which I am still doing today.

So, the classical formation is good to have but I am happy that I haven't followed that way. I only had two drum lessons and that's probably why I still do some things in a more complicated way because I never learned it the proper way. As a matter of fact I've never been very good at practicing, that's why I still struggle in some ways. I do it with my feelings and I am happy about it.

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