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Roxy Coss: Standing Out

Paul Rauch By

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AAJ: Often at a club like Tula's, in the introduction, we mention the etiquette of keeping table conversation to a polite minimum during the performance, because, as you said, some folks are just not familiar with jazz culture. You tell them, and they get it, they listen, there is more listening energy in the room. When people are all in, it impacts the music in a positive way. People are paying a cover to listen to the music. If someone's conversation is impacting that experience in a negative way, it's unfortunate, even if it's unconscious. The patron doesn't pay a cover to hear your conversation. It's a matter of respect and manners, consideration for others. It's not always about you. But it is incumbent upon the venue to make that etiquette known politely and positively.

RC: I wish audiences would realize that what they give, they will get back. If you're a good audience member, you're going to get a better performance. One thing I try to learn from playing with Jeremy Pelt, or Rufus Reid, people I look up to, is that they demand a certain energy and respect from an audience. When I would play Smoke, the audience would just be talking, and disrespectful. I would question what I was doing, because when I played with Rufus, he would demand that respect. You have to learn how to demand that respect. It's a sensitive thing. Dizzy's, for example, is a horrible room in that most of the people are tourists, they don't know jazz etiquette, they talk, which is shocking for that location.

AAJ: They don't set up the room during introductions from the stage?

RC: No.

AAJ: That's both surprising and disappointing.

RC: Almost everything I've done there, or been to there, the people are talking. When I'm in the audience there, I typically have to ask people to please be quiet. But when I played with Rufus, it was silent. So he's doing something that is requiring that.

AAJ: You were commissioned by the Daniel Gwirtzman Dance Company in 2009 to write a full score for a 35-minute dance piece, Tribe. Had you at that point collaborated much with artists dedicated to other art forms aside from music?

RC: He was my upstairs neighbor, and heard me practicing all the time. Before I moved in, he had lived in that building ten years, and he had dance rehearsals in his apartment. He had started his own company. When I moved in, I was very young, and he was hearing me practice and wanted to encourage me, but also he was inspired by what he was hearing, when he created "Tribe."

So he suggested we work together on this thing, and so that was definitely the first project like that I had done. I haven't worked with dancers other than him. We did that and another called "Breaking." It was less structured, more a free improv based on a structure. At the time, I was considering going into film composing. I was just out of school, trying to figure out how to do this as a living, and I was pretty dark about jazz and the jazz scene at the time. It was sort of an experiment at that time into that sort of composition.

AAJ: You studied at William Paterson University in New Jersey, with baritone saxophone master, Gary Smulyan. Gary is a dues paid musician, who learned through traditional jazz mentorship outside of academia. How was your experience with him as a mentor within the framework of academia?

RC: His technique was to throw you into the fire. For better or worse, it was like, 'Do this!' I would ask how and he would say, 'Just do it.' He would give me ten tunes to learn and tell me to just do it when I would ask him how to do it. I would come back and tell him I had learned them and he would say, 'Ok, learn ten more.' In certain ways it was frustrating, because I didn't know what I was doing, but the idea of just doing was making me learn, which was great. If you're uncomfortable, you learn, that's when you grow. It really pushed me.

AAJ: Jazz instrumentalists are historically and currently overwhelmingly male. Talk about your experience as a woman jazz instrumentalist, and how you see the possibility of gender equity in the future.

RC: Women need more opportunities, so I am a firm believer in affirmative action. In this case it has to apply to women musicians in jazz. Men have to make an effort to hire women in their bands, even if there might be a slight better choice on an instrument for a man. It sounds bad, and a lot of women would disagree with me, there is so much pride involved. The problem is, women will never be as good as men if they don't have the opportunities that men have. You learn on the bandstand, and if you're not on the bandstand, you're never going to grow as much. That's part of it. In the professional world, men need to make a commitment.

Before that happens, men have to understand why, and I don't think many men understand what the music is lacking, that the music could be better. The music would be more successful, more people would want to hear it. It would be a better situation.

AAJ: It's half the population.

RC: Yes! If men could understand that, I would think they would want to make the effort. People are selfish, let's be honest, if they saw a benefit for themselves, then they would want to. It's just a matter of them of having them see those benefits. In the meantime, women need to stand up for themselves, and just work hard and be active. I just started a women in jazz organization in New York. I think most women in jazz don't realize that they're not alone. There's an overwhelming feeling that you're alone because you grow up all alone, you're the only woman in sight. When I first started finding women on gigs, it was such an incredible and powerful experience to connect with them. To be on a gig with another woman is such a different experience. When you start to exchange experiences, you realize that you've had the same experiences. I'm not alone, I'm not crazy. Psychologically, if you think that you're the only one experiencing something, you think you're crazy. When you realize it's not you, it's powerful. It gives you sanity and allows you to have energy to make music, instead of all the other stuff you have to deal with.

I see tons of girls in jazz programs that just end up quitting, this has been a very pervasive problem over time. For young girls to see mentors is super important. I'm trying to make sure that the women who are on the scene now, the young women continue and feel a support network. Eventually, start to connect us with young girls, because it has to start from a young age.

Partly it's educating men and women educators, because a lot of them that mean well, don't know how to implement a safe and productive environment for girls. It's a societal problem, not just in jazz. Our language, the terminology we choose to use. We refer to women as girls, we refer to girls as ladies. That term refers to ladies in waiting, concubines, and implies ownership by a man. There's all these little subtle things. that refer to women as a conquest. Everything we use to refer to girls and women objectified them sexually, and vandalizes them from a young age. It tells them that they're not important, you're ignored, forgotten. I'm trying to counter all of that.

A lot of times if I go into a school, and do workshops and clinics, best case scenario the director is aware of the value I'm giving to the young girls. I try tell them it's not just that, the boys need to see a strong woman too. If they don't see a strong woman, they don't think women can be strong leaders. Until it's just accepted that women are part of the scene for the kids, they're not going to change. We mimic what we see as kids, in our parents, gender roles, but also as jazz mentors, the boys need to see women as role models too.


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