The Soul of Jazz: Stories and Inspiration from Those Who Followed the Song in Their Souls

Trish Richardson By

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Life doesn't always take the path you think it'll take, but if you keep working toward what you want and doing what's in your heart, you'll have a pretty interesting journey, if nothing else.
—Mindi Abair
The Soul of Jazz: Stories and Inspiration from Those Who Followed the Song in Their Souls by Trish Richardson (Grayson James Press, 2011) includes interviews with nineteen world renowned jazz artists. The following is an excerpt from saxophonist Mindi Abair's chapter:

What have you learned about your character as a result of being in this business?

My dad was a musician, but he would never teach me music. My dad played sax and keyboards and bass—he played basically anything that was in front of him. His mother was an opera singer. Later in her life, she taught piano and vocals. Neither one of them would teach me how to play or sing. They didn't want to be that person who would push me and then one day find I would hate them for it. There is that day in every kid's life when you hate your music teacher. So I had both of these people who were huge musical influences and inspirations. They'd play and sing with me, and my dad would let me hang out in the studio. Even though they wouldn't teach me, they were really supportive. They let me find my love of music on my own, so it was mine. I love them for that.

There's an early story that I look back on and think, "Thank God I learned that early." I had this huge audition—in my mind, it was huge. It was for the Florida All-State Jazz Band. Every year they put together a band of students. They have a wind ensemble, a jazz band, and a symphonic band. I wanted to be in the jazz band because I thought that was where the "cool" kids hung out. I practiced and practiced for the audition and finally came to the conclusion that I was not good enough. I had heard kids in the All-State jazz band just really play. They were good, and I was new to it. I didn't grow up playing over changes; I grew up listening to Top 40 radio.

At that point, I was the only person in our school who would stand up and take a solo in our jazz band, not because I was good, but because I had the guts to stand up not knowing what I was doing and still play! It was either sheer guts or sheer ignorance. So, I gave up practicing for my audition. I put my sax down, and I went to my dad and said, "These guys are going to eat me alive, and I'm not going to go to this audition. So many people are better than me. I'm going to save myself the heartbreak."

He said, "Okay, you can quit. That's fine." Of course, he knew my personality, when he said I could quit.

I said, "Well, I don't want to quit, but you know..."

He said, "No, no, it's fine; go ahead and quit." So his reverse psychology worked, and I did the audition. I won the first chair alto saxophone for the Florida All-State Jazz Band. I came home, and I was jumping up and down, saying, "Oh, my gosh, I got it! I can't believe I got it!"

He just looked at me and said, "You know what? Sometimes it's not about who is the best, or who is the most talented, or any of that. Sometimes it's just about going after your dream. It's about going after something you want. There are a bunch of talented people who either won't put in the work, or they won't believe enough in themselves to even try. People who go after it have a shot."

That's the best lesson. Sometimes it really is about going out and doing what you love and putting your best foot forward. You wonder if anyone's road is easy. And whether you choose to be a car mechanic or work in an office, it's got its ups and downs. The music business certainly has its share of hardships, and it takes a lot of work to get there. But it is something that if, as a child, you are inclined toward music and your heart is in music, is definitely worth the trip. It's worth putting up the fight and making the sacrifice and going for it.

What, for you, was the most unexpected aspect about being a professional musician?

I did have a lot of people early on tell me that being a woman in this industry was going to be a huge handicap that I was going to have to work extra hard and all this stuff. Now, I don't disagree with them at this point. You do have to prove yourself more as a woman because people don't expect as much, I think. If I walk on stage, people aren't expecting me to sound as good, being a female instrumentalist. One night, I was playing a concert in Seattle with Jonathan Butler, who is a black South African jazz and R&B artist. My mom and dad were in the audience. I walked on stage in the middle of his first song to play a solo and stayed to play with him. As I walked on, this girl sitting next to my mom said, "What is that skinny little white bitch doing on stage?" The perception was, it was going to be bad. But then, after I finished playing and we ended the song, the girl stood up on her feet and cheered for me. She said, "You go, you skinny little white bitch! You go!" She was my biggest fan!

For me, one of the most enjoyable parts is playing for people who have never seen my band, or seen me on stage, and trying to win them over. I love the fact that there are some strong women out there changing people's minds and holding up the torch, saying, "Hey, this is a new millennium; women can do anything."

Was there anyone who said that you wouldn't be able to make it in the music business? What was your response to him or her?

Sure, of course. I remember the mother of one of my friends in high school said, "This isn't a real possibility. Girls don't go out and become musicians for a living. So you really need to sit down and come up with something that is more acceptable."

I looked at her and said, "I don't want to do anything else. I've done it up to this point, and it's been fine. I just think I kind of have to make my own."

She said, "Well, it's just not done."

So I didn't try to tell her she was wrong. I understood that it was something that she just didn't think was acceptable for a young woman to do. But sometimes you've got to break the rules and do things your own way. I just kind of went out there and tried.

Many people along the way said, "Oh, that's impossible! You can't move to L.A.—that's such a huge town. What will you do, when you don't know anyone?"

I thought, "Well, you know, I'll figure it out." So, with all the "No's," I just figured I would find a way to prove them wrong. Maybe that's all you need: someone that you want to prove wrong. You can't do it! Yeah, watch me! Anyone who said I couldn't, I just thought, "Well, we'll see. I'm going to go out there and give it my best shot." This is what fuels me; this is what gets me up in the morning; this is what I look forward to. If there's any chance at making a living with something that you look forward to and something that inspires you, you should give it every chance, I think.

My mom went to an office every day to work, and she told me, "I hope you don't become like me. I hope you go out and go after your dreams. I go to a job that I don't love, every day. But I have to. And that's fine; I understand that's what life is. But I want you to be able to go after your dream." That was something I was able to do because they were supportive of my doing that. Again, I think you go after what you love. If it doesn't work, okay, fine. But at least you have to go for it. I'm definitely fueled by people telling me I can't do something.

In 2010, I was elected as a governor for the Los Angeles chapter of The Recording Academy. They asked me in an interview what my secret to success was, and I responded that a lot of people had told me, "You can't." That just makes me want to do whatever it is even more.

Were there times when you thought that you might not make it as a professional musician?

I've always believed in myself. I had really supportive parents growing up, and I have great friends and family around me now. I believed my teachers and family when I was a kid and they told me, "You can do anything you put your mind to."

Life doesn't always take the path you think it'll take, but if you keep working toward what you want and doing what's in your heart, you'll have a pretty interesting journey, if nothing else.

Do you have a favorite quote that inspires or motivates you?

I have a cocktail napkin from a party that I stuffed in my pocket, and I have had it on my desk for a few years. It has this girl on it in this crazy outfit from the turn of the century. It says, "Be yourself; everyone else is already taken." It's a quote from Oscar Wilde. Those are good words to live by.

That's always been a theme in my music. I have an album called Come as You Are (GRP Records, 1994), and my first album was named It Just Happens That Way (Verve, 2003), which is a piece of a quote from a Cannonball Adderley In New York: Live (OJC, 1962) record that he did. He was basically saying he wanted to record a live album in front of a real jazz audience, an audience that "got it." Some people try to pretend like they are hip, and they want to go and see jazz and feel like they're cool. But you can't make coolness happen; it just happens that way. You either are cool, or you aren't.

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