When people get to know about me and about my passion for music, they usually think it stems from the influence of my father being a jazz musician, or because I had a jazz icon for an uncle. While these are facts, and while there is no doubt that these fortunate circumstances informed and infused my life and DNA, it is my mother who was perhaps my most important musical influence, and largely in part, the reason I do what I do.
My first recollections of any music are songs my mother played on the record player. Growing up in the Bronx in that big apartment with unparalleled acoustics, those songs would permeate my soul and literally hit me right in the gut in the best way imaginable. My mom is a very spirited lady to say the least, and music was her outlet and her love. She would dance and sing all of the ins and outs to every tune. So much so that I would always know which parts of a particular song would tickle or move her the most, and I think she got a kick out of the fact that I studied her. Whether it was the first line of the B section of Monk’s “Little Rootie Tootie”, or when Marvin Gaye’s “Save the Children” would brilliantly segue into “God Is Love”, I knew all of her favorite little spots and would tease her predictability, much to her delight.
It was my mother who was the first woman jazz enthusiast I knew, which was probably the single most impactful part of her persona on my life. She could scat, and she could sing, and she is the funniest mimicker of some of jazz music’s rarest personalities. She is also a great debater. She and my step-dad would have a never-ending argument over who “won the battle” between Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane on “Tenor Madness”. She voted Trane, and would quote the various aspects of nastiness in his solo to make her case. (She loves Sonny too, just for the record.)
She had a very vast album collection, and she would play an array of Black music. From Aretha Franklin to Ray Charles to Stevie Wonder to Joe Williams to Michael Jackson to Bobby Womack to Dinah Washington, we heard lots of music. I remember her talking about a “young cat”, Wynton Marsalis, who was taking the jazz scene by storm when I was a little girl. It’s also one of the most vivid album covers I can remember her owning. Growing up in such a lively, musical household was of great benefit to my siblings and I. We were steeped in our African-American heritage in a way that many of our peers were not. My mom always let us know that this was music that we should be proud of, not by making some big jazz history speech, but by the sheer joy it brought her. It was completely infectious. I immediately loved this music, and she nurtured that love. I’m certain that the gift of passing down this tradition is what made me want to pursue a career in jazz, which was always cool with her. Starting out in this industry meant paying a lot of dues (which included sometimes earning little money) but the sacrifice never concerned her. She was down for the cause, and I will always be grateful to her for that. And for the music.
In honor of my Mom, I’d like to share a playlist I’ve dedicated to my mom with all of you. This is the list of albums that most vividly speak to my formative years.
Aretha Franklin – Young, Gifted and Black (Atlantic)
John Coltrane – Ballads (Impluse!)
Ray Charles – The Genius of Ray Charles (Atlantic)
Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On (Motown)
Sonny Rollins – Tenor Madness (Riverside)
Stevie Wonder – Talking Book (Motown)
Thelonious Monk – We See (Dreyfus)
Lena Horne – The Lady and Her Music (Warner Bros.)
The Jacksons – Destiny (Epic)
Dinah Washington – Dinah ‘62 (Roulette)
Wynton Marsalis – Think of One (Columbia)
John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman (Impulse!)
Michael Jackson – Thriller (Epic)
This one’s for you, Mom!