Mimi Fox: Getting Her Due


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AAJ: How has your production work affected you as a player?

MF: Well, sometimes it's just nice to take a little breather, if I'm playing 4 or 5 nights a week. Whether I'm at home or on the road, I play a lot. I'm always gigging. Sometimes, after three or four sets of hard-driving jazz and bop, it's nice to sort of clear out your ears. So when I'm around stuff that's harmonically a lot simpler, it gives me a chance to refuel as a jazz artist. Then when I pick up my ax again on the gig, I feel really energized. Whenever I'm tempted to feel jaded over some stupid gig or some dumb situation that just happens, it's really ameliorated by the chance to clear out my ears and then come back fresh remembering why I love this music in spite of all the b.s. and professional politics that you have to deal with.

AAJ: If you weren't a jazz musician, what do you think you'd be doing now?

MF: Here's a funny story. When I was sixteen I was working with a number of different bands, but I was also playing in my high school band. So my guidance counselor, Alan Silverman — he was so sweet — he says, "Now Mimi, we all think you're very talented. But a career in music is no kind of career. I think what you should do is take a year off, go to Israel, live on a kibbutz, and then when you come back you should be a lawyer because you love to argue." And I said, "What do you mean, Alan?!" — but of course even then I realized the irony of what I was saying: you love to argue / no I don't!...

But truthfully, I don't know. I've done a lot of traveling in the last seven or eight years; I've gone to a lot of countries, and I've seen a lot of poverty and a lot of suffering. That's something that has really impacted me. I think if I wasn't a musician what I'd like to be doing is giving in some way to humanity. I had an extended stay in Bangkok. I was playing at a beautiful place, but then I'd go out on the streets and the poverty there — and you know the problem with land mines and the people with blown-off limbs — the suffering was enormous. And when I was in the Dominican Republic a few years ago, again I saw a lot of poverty in villages.

I also think children could benefit from having music brought into their lives; I've thought about giving in that kind of way, or teaching children, helping communities build in some way. Yes, I think some kind of humanitarian work is what would appeal to me. Another lucrative field [laughs], but I think the benefits you get from doing something like that far outweigh the sacrifice.

That's just what comes to me off the top of my head. I don't know if I would have made a good lawyer.

AAJ: Who are your heroes, musical or otherwise?

MF: Of course musically, I have my favorites. My friend and mentor Bruce Forman, and also Joe Pass musically are real heroes for me. And then there are many people that I've admired in other realms, from Harriet Tubman to Cesar Chavez, Gloria Steinem... many people who have been involved in human rights, civil rights, women's rights, struggles for human dignity. I admire all of them for being on the front lines. They have devoted their lives to doing things that really changed the course of history and of the world. I have great admiration for those people.

AAJ: Okay, here's a new subject. You give a lot of interviews. In all the time people like you have been interviewed by people like us, but especially in the past few years, it seems that musicians have been very critical of jazz journalism. Do you have any thoughts on that?

MF: I think that any time you're writing about something and maybe not doing it yourself, you're an easy target. The musician can turn around and say, "well, what do you know? You're not out there in the trenches, playing these gigs and dealing with these promoters and so on. You're not an artist." I think it's really easy to get into that, and I think there's some truth in it. I know that there are some very knowledgeable, literate, even brilliant jazz journalists, but then there are those that maybe aren't so knowledgeable. There, wasn't that diplomatic?

But personally, jazz journalists have been very good to me. You know the old adage, "just spell my name right?" Basically, short of saying someone's an axe murderer or whatever, I think that generally just getting any publicity is a good thing. I think most critics do try to be well-balanced, but everyone comes to the plate with their own series of biases. Hopefully they don't have too much of an axe to grind, but I guess there are some people that do.

I think it's just a delicate thing, and sometimes musicians and journalists, who should be friends, just fall into an adversarial thing, simply because sometimes you say something, and then it gets to print and you didn't mean it to come off that way. Or maybe something you said tongue-in-cheek comes off the wrong way.

I had a funny experience in Seattle a few years ago. I was sent to a big radio station, I can't remember the call letters. One of the marketing people or publicists had set this up for me. So I dutifully showed up on time and ready for my interview. Well, I was a little nervous because the woman who was interviewing me had like ten piercings and didn't look like someone you'd normally see at a jazz station. It was more like a college station, definitely a different look. But I thought, "oh, Mimi, shed your prejudices, just do your interview." Well, midway through the interview, she asks me what rock guitar players I liked, and me being rather flippant and casual, I said, "none." The next thing I knew, all 80 lights on the telephone switchboard lit up. Apparently, the publicist never told me, but they had booked me on a big rock station! So all these irate rock 'n' roll hackers call up saying, "whaddaya you know, you jazz schmuck?" I was tired, it was the end of a long tour, I didn't check. I'm a jazz musician; I just assumed the publicist was sending me to a jazz station. So I called the publicist afterwards and said, "Vinny, how could you do this to me?" He said he didn't know, the person who called him sounded really nice... anyway it turned out that the woman who interviewed me, this was her thing, being a troublemaker and trying to sort of snare people and get them to incriminate themselves. Now how did we get into this silly story?

AAJ: We were talking about the relationship between artists and journalists.

MF: Right. Maybe I've been lucky, but I've found most journalists to be intelligent and articulate. I never hold against a journalist what an editor does. I think that sometimes you say some things that you wish got into an article and then they don't because of space or editorial constraints, but I'd certainly never hold that against a journalist. However, sometimes things can happen because of the way things are edited that can make a story slant one way...

AAJ: And sometimes a minor point or a passing comment gets elevated to the theme of the whole piece.

MF: Right. So I've learned to be who I am but use some restraint, because things can get distorted. As a jazz musician, you do have to be aware of these things when you're giving interviews... There are probably some people out there who shouldn't be in positions of reviewing jazz. Jazz is an art form, and it should be reviewed by people who are art critics, who understand the music and know the history. It's one thing for someone to say "I prefer this material over that," but it's another to say "this isn't good music," especially if they don't know what they're talking about. I've had good experiences, I haven't gotten panned, but maybe if I become successful enough someone's gonna slam me someday!

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