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Monika Herzig: A Portrait of a Hero

Monika Herzig: A Portrait of a Hero
Hrayr Attarian By

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German-born and US-based pianist, author and composer Monika Herzig released her most accomplished work to date the sublime Sheroes in March of 2018. This cohesive album is a celebration of women in music and particularly jazz, on it Herzig's group of women instrumentalists stimulatingly interpret several originals and two covers. Herzig has a doctorate in music education and is a Senior Lecturer at Indiana University in Bloomington. She also has authored two books and has several recordings both as a leader and co-leader. She is the recipient of the 2015 Jazz Journalist Association's jazz hero award and is very active in advocacy.

All About Jazz: At what age did you start playing an instrument?

Monika Herzig: I started with nine, begged my parents for a piano and added church organ a bit after—I subbed for services in the large German catholic churches during my teenage years which was terrifying but also great experience.

AAJ: Was piano your first or did you also study others?

MH: First instrument to study seriously, I was involved in a lot of musical church groups—in college I played alto saxophone for a few years.

AAJ: How did you get interested in music, and particularly jazz, as a career?

MH: Music has always captivated me—I got interested in jazz during High School when I started playing in bands. I loved the creative process and being in a group rather than having to play by myself as a pianist.

AAJ: Who are your major influences in both composition and in performance?

MH: I'm the biggest Chick Corea nerd—his compositions and virtuosity have always been a model. Finally, last year I got to share my nerdism by publishing Exploring Chick Corea: A Listener's Companion on Rowman & Littlefield—the book was also a finalist for Best Book on Jazz 2017 nominated by the Jazz Journalist Association. In composition, I adore Carla Bley—her minimalistic compositional and performance style are so deep and effective. I saw her in the '80s at a jazz festival in Austria conducting her Big Band and she became one of my biggest role models. David Baker was a very special mentor for me especially during the years getting my Doctorate at Indiana University. It was an honor to be able to put a book on his work together published in 2011 on IU Press.

AAJ: Your earlier recordings were with collaborative groups such as The Time Flies and BeebleBrox that had a more electric sound. What do the names mean and how did you get involved with these bands?

MH: BeebleBrox was the first group my husband Peter Kienle and myself headed up when we moved to the US for a good decade and recorded seven albums with. We both are avid composers and the electric sound of the '70s is one of our big influences. The group was quite successful with two overseas tours and opening slots in Indianapolis for Tower of Power, Dixie Dregs, Sting, Yes, Santana. The Time Flies is our recent follow-up project of BeebleBrox that we started two years ago on the request of a studio/label in Germany (Flavored Tune) that wanted to produce limited edition LP release series and was interested in a series of tracks that we recorded with Bob Berg in the 90s. We formed a group with two young amazing musicians that came out of the IU Jazz Program—Josh Roberts and Quinn Sternberg—and took them to Germany for the sessions. In addition to reworking the Bob Berg track, we invited various saxophone stars from Germany as guests: Peter Lehel, Lutz Haefner, and Sandi Kuhn. The LP was released last year and this year we're returning for more recordings and concerts. It's a very tight band that mastered our complex originals and it's super fun to dig out the keyboards again and turn it up. We'll be featured at the ISME Conference in Baku, Azerbaijan in July as well as the Etud Jazz Bar there. The Time Flies is a play on words in literal sense as well as metaphorical.

AAJ: You also recorded with, the aptly named, Monika Herzig Acoustic Project. Did you feel more at home with this formation as opposed to the ones above?

MH: The Acoustic Project was the first group that I got to lead by myself. Of course, I love working with my husband, but just like marriage it's a constant balancing act to match both compositional voices and some pieces just don't match. When our first baby was born we decided to pursue individual projects for a while so we could switch off doing babysitting—which worked out partially as we always do a lot of other performances together. I love the Acoustic Project though because I get to do all my compositions and arrangements and play a lot of piano.

AAJ: How did each of these different styles influences your later work?

MH: Working continuously on composing and arranging music in bands adds experience, refines the style, adds to the repertoire. And if you listen closely—all of those influences, styles and compositions come together in the Sheroes project.

AAJ: In 2015 you were named one of the jazz heroes by the Jazz Journalists' Association. Can you please tell us a bit about your work that lead to that award?

MH: I'm an activist and advocate by nature—with my passion for jazz, I founded a presenting/ educational non-profit organization in Bloomington, IN about 20 years ago to foster the local scene and bring national artists to town. When the University took over that function the organization focused on educational outreach and we take groups every year to the local Elementary Schools with interactive shows about the history and ingredients of jazz music. I also help presenting the talented pre-college performers in a yearly concert with national clinicians. Another outreach program I lead are adult education jazz history classes that have interview and performance components. Hence, I became the community jazz activist for Bloomington and it was very special to be recognized for all the work.

AAJ: What inspired you to put together the Sheroes ensemble?

MH: Over the years, I realized many times that there are various glass ceilings for us female instrumentalists. From the little things of being assumed to be the singer at most every performance, to realizing that band leaders rather call their buddies first and it's difficult to get access to performing and learning opportunities. Several of my colleagues also did research on the subject and found a lot of issues early on in education with instrument selection and psychological issues with the risk of improvisation during puberty that lead to a nearly 100% dropout rate for the female players by college. My academic career also experienced various detours due to hiring practices as well as raising children preventing me to do 'hangouts' for networking. I heard many similar stories as well as other discrimination stories from my fellow instrumentalists and wanted to find an avenue to showcase these amazing musicians in a deserving way.

AAJ: Have you experienced gender bias yourself or witnessed it affect other women in the music world and particularly when it comes to improvised music? (I recently finished reading Leslie Gourse's 1995 Madame Jazz and was dismayed by and shocked at the countless examples of blatant sexist discrimination reported within it)

MH: As I mentioned above—even though there is definitely a trend towards inclusion, I have accumulated my fair share of prejudices, assumptions, lost opportunities and stories from colleagues and students that are often not told in public out of fear to lose credibility and career opportunities. For the same reasons, I'd rather not mention specific examples.

AAJ: What made you approach these particular eight musicians who joined you on your recording Sheroes?

MH: This is already the second project with the all-female ensemble. The first one—The Whole World in Her Hands—was my attempt of gathering a host of musicians that I always admired. As the unit started touring a core group of six evolved with Jamie Baum, Reut Regev, Leni Stern, Jennifer Vincent, and Rosa Avila. Throughout our journeys together we also became very close friends and cheerleaders for each other. Ingrid Jensen was able to join us at several occasions and Mayra Casales and Ada Rovatti were amazing additions to round out the sound. I love the sound of our touring unit with the flute and trombone frontline—super fun to arrange for.

AAJ: Why did you choose to include particularly "The House of the Rising Sun" and "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" on the Sheroes album?

MH: Both of these songs work well for our mission—an ode to the lost women and an encouragement to keep climbing. And they just worked out really well in terms of arrangements. Even Valerie Simpson, the writer of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" expressed how she enjoyed the unique treatment of her song.

AAJ: Were all the compositions, both yours and the other artists,' written expressly for this project?

MH: They were not necessarily written for this specific project but they exemplify each writer's compositional and musical voice, which is also a mission of the project. Reut did write her song during one of our tours specifically for this group. We were able to tour extensively prior to the recording and thus were able to refine the music and create our unique arrangements. I really enjoy having all the compositional voices contribute in addition to the instrumental voices—it creates a wonderful showcase for these amazing musicians.

AAJ: Are you planning anymore recordings with this band?

MH: Oh yes, I love this group—the studio projects were very expensive due to the large size of the ensemble and the superstars involved. With my oldest kid starting college and another one following soon, I'm hoping to do a live recording next to streamline the process and also capture the energy of the group on stage. Also, documentary filmmaker Kay D. Ray, who also produced the documentary Lady Be Good has been documenting our journey and will be touring an initial cut of the upcoming film at film festivals over the upcoming year.

AAJ: And lastly can you tell us a bit about your upcoming tour? When and where will you be performing?

MH: Right now I'm in Europe performing several dates with The Time Flies and recording a new album—we'll be in Baku July 17/18 and in Germany: July 21 Trochtelfingen, July 22 Tübingen. The Sheroes will be at the Dobbs Ferry Summer Music Series in Tarrytown, NY on August 22. We also have a tour booked with the group in October with stops in Bloomington, IN (October 25), the Bop Stop, Cleveland, OH (October 26), Blu, Akron, OH (October 27), Blues Alley, Washington, DC (October 29), Charlottesville Jazz Society, Charlottesville, VA (October 30) and Rite of Swing Jazz Café, Temple University, Philadelphia (November 1)—hopefully more dates to come.
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