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!


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