Meet Marta Ulvaeus

Tessa Souter and Andrea Wolper By

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What struck me at the age of eleven were the blue notes on the guitars. It blew my young mind–it was music that I'd never heard before, and I loved how it FELT!
We love our jazz Super Fans column. It allows us to delve into the lives of so many amazing, truly interesting people, and our May Super Fan is no exception. Educator, deejay, dedicated concert-goer with big ears and a huge heart, Marta Ulvaeus is a true jazz lover—and the musicians who know her love her right back. Now, which Ellington recording do you think opened that huge heart to jazz? Read on to find out.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I grew up in Hamburg, Germany; I lived there until I was 15 years old. What an amazing place that was to grow up! Everything was so close. We'd drive up to Västervik, Sweden, once a year to visit with my cousins, aunts, and uncles on my dad's side. We went skiing in Oberlech, Austria.

My father came from Sweden to the United States, and he met my mother in Southern California, where she had grown up. They moved to Hamburg in 1956. We moved to Montreal, Quebec in 1973, where I graduated from high school. After my father died in July 1975, my mother and I drove across the country with two cats and a dog to our house at Rincon Point, near Carpinteria, CA, which is where we live now.

I studied dance and biological sciences at Santa Barbara City College. Kay Fulton was the dance instructor there. She introduced me to so many kinds of music through her dance classes. We had live drummers for the African and African diasporic dance classes. And she introduced me to Ken Nordine's "word jazz" in her environmental, improvisational dance class.

Being involved in dance got me interested in holistic and naturopathic healing, and eventually, I transferred to University of California, Davis, to study nutrition science. That's where I first got involved with radio on KDVS, in 1983. I moved to New York in 1994 to do graduate work in performance studies. This was a dream come true for me on many levels. I loved that I would be studying various kinds of performance from diverse cultures through the prisms of multiple perspectives. While I studied at New York University, I worked as managing editor of TDR: The Journal of Performance Studies. After I completed my coursework, I got hired as managing editor of Terra Nova: Nature and Culture at New Jersey Institute of Technology, in Newark. The editor was David Rothenberg, an environmental philosopher and musician whose music I had played on my radio program in Davis.

What's your earliest memory of music?

My parents had eclectic musical tastes. We had records by Louis Armstrong, Aretha Franklin, and the Supremes, along with soundtracks to musicals such as My Fair Lady and Oklahoma. We also had lots of classical music playing in the house, and my parents took us to Hamburg's acoustically exquisite Konzerthalle for concerts. I got a transistor radio when I was 10, and late one night I discovered Radio Luxembourg, which was playing rock steady music, a revelation to my ears rhythmically. I never heard music the same way after that. And I stayed up late at night many nights to tune in to that radio station.

How old were you when you got your first record (or other format)?

My first record purchase was a 45 of Van Morrison's "Brown-Eyed Girl." I was 10. I loved listening to the radio, and growing up in Europe during the 1960s, American pop, rock, and soul music was the hippest. We lived near Frankfurt in 1968, during the Vietnam War, and there was a significant U.S. military presence in that part of Germany. I listened to the Armed Forces Network.

What was the first concert you ever attended?

The first concert I attended was John Mayall in Frankfurt, Germany. I was 11 or 12 years old. My friend Jay Vaninni invited me; we accompanied his older sister and her date, and it was a life-changing experience. What struck me at the age of eleven were the blue notes on the guitars. I loved the harmonica, too. It blew my young mind—it was music that I'd never heard before, and I loved how it FELT!

Was there one album or experience that was your doorway to jazz?

When I was living in Montreal, Quebec, I attended a lot of the fusion-oriented concerts at Place-des-Nations. I got to hear artists such as Larry Coryell and the Eleventh House, and so many more. I also got to hear an acoustic concert of Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin at a chapel. All of these experiences were deeply moving.

But what moved me most of all was hearing Duke Ellington's "Crescendo and Diminuendo in Blue" at a friend's house. His mother had it playing on the stereo. I asked her, "What is that?" My hearing was forever altered.

How long have you been going out to hear live music?

I've been going out to hear live music since my early teens, ever since that John Mayall experience. Growing up in Germany allowed me a lot of freedom. It was easy to get around with public transportation, and young people were much more autonomous then than they are now. I went to rock concerts in Frankfurt.

What are some of your other memorable concert-going experiences?

In Santa Barbara in the early '70s I got to hear Mississippi John Bevel, Taj Mahal, and Gil Scott-Heron at the Arlington Theater. I also went to hear the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Hot Tuna with Papa John Creach, It's a Beautiful Day, Bob Marley and the Wailers with the I-Threes, David Byrne, and so many more, at various venues.

I spent most of the '80s and half of the '90s in Davis, California, which is close to Sacramento and not far from the Bay Area. I got to hear the World Saxophone Quartet right in the UCD Coffeehouse! I think it was 1981 or '82. The students booked great gigs there for a while. Off campus there was a wonderful club called The Palms Public Playhouse, in an old barn, where I saw so many performances of many kinds of music—blues, folk, world, jazz. Sun Ra and his Arkestra were there twice! In Sacramento there was a club called Malarkey's, where I got to hear The Leaders and Dewey Redman a couple of times. I saw Max Roach at the Off Broadway.

I would drive to the Bay Area to hear music at least once a week. My first time seeing Sun Ra and his Arkestra was in 1987, at New George's in San Rafael. I also heard amazing music at Koncepts Cultural Gallery: Arthur Blythe, Henry Threadgill, Steve Lacy, Oliver Lake, Horace Tapscott, Cassandra Wilson, Geri Allen, and many more. And of course, there was Yoshi's, where Jazz in Flight's annual Festival of the Drum, in honor of the great drummer Eddie Moore, took place. Ed Blackwell's performance there was recorded; Don Cherry sat in for one piece. I saw Cecil Taylor there, too. Kimball's East was in Emeryville, where I saw Elvin Jones (with a very young Wynton Marsalis), Eartha Kitt, and Maceo Parker, and many others. I got to see the Art Ensemble Of Chicago in the Bay Area, too.

How often do you go out to hear live music?

I go out to hear live music every chance I get. I invest a significant amount in purchasing tickets to Santa Barbara and Los Angeles concerts, although because of work and transportation I don't always get to them, unfortunately. Santa Barbara is fickle when it comes to supporting live jazz. Sadly, adventurous music doesn't have much of an audience in Santa Barbara.

While I was living in New York City, I attended live performances several times a week. I'm not much of a festival-goer, but New York has a festival that I attended every year until I moved to the west coast: the Vision Festival. I have continued to attend when I can. It truly is a visionary festival that celebrates innovative music, dance, poetry, and visual art. I love being in New York during the summer. There are so many wonderful outdoor music performances in the parks and around the city, and I travel there as often as I can, to visit with friends and to hear music.

What is it about live music that makes it so special for you?

Live music is being created in the moment. I share the space with the musicians and other music lovers. We are enveloped in the magic of the creative act.

What are the elements of an amazing concert?

An amazing concert transports me into the sound world that is being created. Henry Threadgill's music is like that for me—every time.

What's the farthest you've traveled to get to a jazz performance?

Since I moved back west in July 2001, I've traveled to New York City at least once a year to visit friends and attend music performances. I've also driven from Santa Barbara to San Francisco for a weekend just to see Henry Threadgill!

Is there one concert that got away that you still regret having missed?

There are too many to list, but from my youth, Jimi Hendrix. I also regret that I have missed several of the beautiful memorials that the NYC music community organizes for its musicians who have transitioned: Lester Bowie, Ornette Coleman, and Cecil Taylor, just to name a few. I love to be a part of the community in honoring the legacies of these brilliant creative lights.

If you could go back in time and hear one of the jazz legends perform live, who would it be?

Thelonious Monk. Eric Dolphy. Charles Mingus. John Coltrane.

What makes a great jazz club?

Intimacy, a sense of community, and good food! That said, I really am there for the music, so food isn't imperative. However, if there is a minimum, I like good food, since I don't drink. I love small venues most, with great sight lines no matter where you're sitting. When I'm in New York City, I always see people I know when I go out to hear music; that contributes to the experience, too.

Which clubs are you most regularly to be found at?

When I'm in New York: the Stone, the Jazz Standard, Smalls Jazz Club, Mezzrow, the Village Vanguard, NuBlu, Zinc Bar.

In Santa Barbara one of the venues I love most is the Piano Kitchen, a small performance space curated by bassist Jim Connelly. I also love the Lobero Theatre there. Los Angeles has the Angel City Jazz Festival, which is amazing; it takes place in many venues, with one concert at a particular venue each night, so you don't have to miss any of the music. And there's the Jazz Bakery, which is curated by Ruth Price, which finally found a new home at the Moss Theater.

Is there a club that's no longer around that you miss the most?

Sweet Basil and, more recently, Cornelia Street Cafe; I loved Cornelia Street, and I'm heartbroken that it is gone. There are so many wonderful music spaces that have disappeared over the years: Sweet Basil, Tonic.

How do you discover new artists?

I get suggestions from friends and listeners; and I informally serve as jazz music director for KCSB-FM in Santa Barbara, for which I review, add, and report new jazz releases and airplay. I listen to the radio. I read jazz journals and read reviews.

Vinyl, CDs, MP3s, streaming?

I'm a vinyl and CD gal. I exclusively play physical media on my show. I love the way I can change up my flow as the spirit guides me. I always bring much more music that I can possibly fit into two hours.

Tell us about your history as a DJ.

At U.C. Davis, a roommate who had a show on KDVS invited me to join her. She showed me the ropes and, after one mandatory training session, I was on the air. My first show focused on female artists of all music genres for the first half, and jazz of all stripes for the second half. KDVS had an amazing vinyl library, and the station had listening rooms, so I would spend hours combing through the collection, listening from A to Z. I titled my show "Roots to the Source," which was inspired by my discovery of Lester Bowie's LP, "From the Root to the Source." The music has many roots that dig deep down into the creative source. I featured the more adventurous artists, who were exploring new directions and sonic textures. This was during the time that so-called "smooth jazz" was gaining public attention—that was NOT what you would hear on "Roots to the Source!"

From time to time, guitarist Henry Kaiser would come to Davis to perform at the Palms Playhouse (an amazing venue that is a story unto itself), and he'd often go on KDVS with folk DJ Jim Veit to publicize the show. One time, Jim asked if he could have some of my airtime for that purpose. Of course, I said yes. Henry, who had his own radio show on KPFA in Berkeley, looked through the records I had pulled for my show, and asked me to sub for him on KPFA. At that point I was studying Applied Behavioral Sciences with an emphasis on ethnomusicology, and after we'd been friends for a while, Henry, who also taught a course on world music at Mills College in Oakland, asked me to give his class a seminar on "Women in World Music" one day after subbing on his show. That was the day that I knew I wanted to be an educator.

There were two shows on KPFA in Berkeley that influenced me deeply: Jim Bennett's "Forms and Feelings," and Art Sato's "In Your Ear." I ended up doing several shows on that wonderful station, as well as my show on KDVS, until I moved to New York in 1994.

Now you do a show on KCSB in Santa Barbara.

My show, now called "Bright Moments," is on Sundays on KCSB-FM. Odd riffs and blue notes in deep time. After I moved to the Santa Barbara area in 2001, I became an elementary school teacher, and I took my students on a field trip to radio station KCSB. I had met the station's director, Elizabeth Robinson, when I'd served as KDVS's general manager in the early '90s. She welcomed my class and encouraged me to get involved with radio again, and I've been doing a weekly show there since 2002. It feeds my soul to immerse myself in the music.

Do you have a favorite jazz anecdote?

I was doing laundry at a laundromat in Davis in the early '90s, and I saw a notice posted on the community message board. It was a call for auditions to form a band. The author of the message was none other than the late, great John Tchicai, who had just moved to Davis to be near his daughters. I tore off his phone number and contacted him to invite him to be a guest on my show. He visited my show on KDVS, and we developed a beautiful friendship.

The Knitting Factory West Coast tour came to the Palms Playhouse, and one of the bands was the Jazz Passengers. John Tchicai attended the concert. It was such a delight to see the look of thrilled surprise on the faces of the musicians when they recognized John's face in the audience!

If you were a professional musician, which instrument would you play and why?

Bass clarinet. I love the woody and somewhat melancholy tone.

What's your desert island disc?

Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch.

What do you think keeps jazz alive and thriving?

People supporting the artists by attending live performances and purchasing new music. Artists being encouraged to continue taking creative risks by being supported by the local communities. Media support via print, radio, television, and film. This country needs to do more to support the arts at every level—local, state, and federal.

Finish this sentence: Life without music would be...


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