What can a change of scene do for a musician? First of all, it can change your daily routine; your outlook on things. It can change your feeling of self as part of a greater whole. It can make you humble or arrogant, set you free or box you in - neither the former nor the latter is necessarily better or worse. For a musician, it can inspire you to do different things than you might have done in the previous setting. It can influence composition, improvisation, articulation, and phrasing. It can even change the way you breathe.
The focus of this column is a musician who has done a bit of moving back and forth. Her physical location on Earth has changed a few times. Sometimes they were short moves. Other times they were drastic. She is a free spirit as is common with jazz musicians. But she is most unique because she has done what she has done and made it work for her.
Rebecca Coupe Franks grew up in the Palo Alto, CA. Her childhood was filled with music. Known simply as 'Coupe' by those close to her, Franks began playing trumpet at age ten in her Bay Area hometown. The choice of instrument was an inevitable one as her mother, brother, grandfather and great uncle all were trumpet players.
"I realized this was the music that suited me during high school and continued to study and gig...now here i am twenty five years later. In fact I've played the same horn since I was twelve. I still play the same Schilke M2."
"My high school had an excellent jazz band from 1976-79. As a member of that group, I won soloist award at the Reno Jazz Festival," says Franks. She later became a member of the Monterey All-Star Student Jazz Band. In fact she was in the group with tenor player Donny McCaslin (who appears on her second CD). Another of her bay area acquaintances was Virginia Mayhew. The two young women had played together in a Brazilian jazz group called Chevere.
One of Franks' local heroes was also her mentor - tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson. Henderson adopted San Francisco as his hometown in the 1970s when he began recording for Oakland-based Milestone Records. Franks, who lived in the suburbs met Henderson at a jam session in 1983. When he heard her play, he immediately offered her lessons. From these lessons arose a longtime friendship that Franks cherishes to this day.
"He was a good friend of mine. He was somebody for me to talk to in the jazz world. We would talk on the phone a lot and he would tell me about his gigs. We'd talk about music - that's pretty much all we talked about." So that was really great for a young musician like me to be encouraged by a cat like Joe."
This was not rare for Henderson, who was a mentor to several aspiring female jazz musicians. Often forgotten today amidst his latter-day activities and accomplishments, Henderson organized an all-female rhythm section to back him in the late 80s. Though short-lived, the band featured pianist Renee Rosnes, bassist Marlene Rosenberg, and drummer Sylvia Cuenca (whom Henderson knew from San Francisco since she was 16).
After a spell in South America, a stint in a traveling circus band, and a couple of years at Cal State Northridge, Coupe packed her bags and headed East. She drove cross-country in her VW Bug following Mayhew, who raved about the scene and the opportunities to learn from the greats in the Big Apple. Mayhem was then a student at the New School [for Social Research] studying jazz.
"She was telling me how much fun she was having and how much she enjoyed the New School. So I applied to go to school there. I sent 'em a tape and I was accepted."
When Franks arrived in New York, she and Mayhew put together a band. Arnie Lawrence, the founder and head of the New School Jazz & Contemporary Music Program, got them a gig at the Braeburn Café at 27th St. off 6th Avenue. "There were almost no female jazz musicians playing straight-ahead at that time in New York, and we got a lot of attention and opportunities," recalls Mayhew.
Soon Franks and Mayhew were making the rounds together in clubs and bars where the music was played. Bradley's, Sweet Basil's...you name it...they were all over the town.
"[Rebecca] always had a sense of entitlement that was and is rare among women jazz players...I always thought Rebecca played with a lot of passion. She wasn't wimpy," says Mayhew. "We met a lot of famous people...it was New York!"
Mayhew recalled a time when this audacity came out. "She once asked to sit in with Art Blakey at Sweet Basil."
"Yeah, that was a blast," reminisces Franks. "One time I met Art Farmer. He was playing with Clifford Jordan at Sweet Basil. I asked him if he would give me lessons and said he would be happy to. So he came over and we just hung out and talked and he played his trumpet and I played mine. I think I wrote him a couple letters after that. He was living in Austria then." When Franks asked what she could give Farmer as far as payment, he refused any.
"I never thought I would stay in New York as long as I did. But New York kind of has a way of doing that...going there and ten years go by. My favorite place to practice was the roof of the NYU music building looking over Lower Manhattan. Even when I wasn't going to school there [she went to NYU from 1990-91], the doorman knew me and was cool about it."
Franks recorded her first two records for the Texas-based Justice Records in 1991 and 1992. The first album, Suit of Armor featured the likes of Ben Riley, Leni Stern, Buster Williams, Kenny Barron and yes, you guessed it - Joe Henderson.
Franks' sophomore effort boasted a much younger cast of players. All of A Sudden , featured originals interspersed with standards such as "I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart," and "A Child Is Born." Several of the tracks also had an R&B tinge and fittingly featured a host of background singers.
When I picked up All of A Sudden at my local store and looked at the liners, I was confronted by a band of familiar names and faces. Back then they were all youngsters. Today their names read like a who's who on today's progressive jazz scene. For the session, Franks hired bassist Scott Colley, pianist Kevin Hays, drummer Yoron Israel (currently head of the percussion department at Berklee School of Music), and two tenor players: Javon Jackson, and McCaslin. The recording is full of soul and shows a clear indication that Franks writes and solos very well.
Time To Move On
By 1996, Franks felt she had had enough of New York. She had been mugged twice and was tired of having to look over her shoulder all the time. "I also felt like I needed to reconnect with my roots back in California and also digest all that I had learned. I have a love-hate relationship with New York. A lot of great things happened for me there. But it was also really intense. I needed to take a deep breath.
It's funny - the way things are looking right now, I'll likely be moving to upstate New York some time in the next few months."
After about eight years away from the New York scene, Franks has done everything from writing for television, playing local clubs around her hometown, running private school jazz programs, summer camps, and clinics.
Over ten years of no releases has invigorated Franks to break out and proclaim she's still around and that she ain't goin' away. But she also wants to pay homage to her departed mentor.
A Tribute To Joe Henderson
"I haven't recorded for about ten years now. But I've been doing a lot of writing and I decided to put out an album - the project being a tribute to Joe Henderson. I wrote all the songs on the CD with his spirit in mind."
In fact, many of the tunes are direct references to Henderson. The first track, "Wow," is inspired by Henderson's frequent use of the word 'wow.' "He used to say it on the phone with genuine surprise when I told him what I'd been up to musically." "Detroit Blues" is a salute to Henderson's earlier days in that city. "Los Palmos" was the street in San Francisco where Henderson lived. And "Ode to Joe" is quite obviously a play on Henderson's tune "Mode for Joe."
The new disc aptly titled Exhibition: Tribute to Joe Henderson and it features the veritable talents of Franks alongside pianist Adam Schulman, bassist Essiet Essiet, and drummer Sylvia Cuenca. Most out there should know about New York regulars Essiet and Cuenca, but watch out for Schulman. For a guy in his mid-20s he's definitely someone with chops and an impeccable sense of taste and stylistic inflection - this pianist is one to watch.
Visit Rebecca Coupe Franks on the web at www.rebeccacoupefranks.com .