Jazz-funk-soul doyenne, PATRICE RUSHEN, is due to appear with a star-studded band (billed as ‘Patrice Rushen & Friends’) at the Southport Weekender on Saturday 12th May. In the run up to her small UK tour (she’s also due to appear at Ronnie Scott’s alongside drummer NDUGU CHANCLER for two consecutive nights beginning Monday May 14th) SJF is publishing the second part of an extensive and fascinating interview with the California-born musician. Here, she talks about her formative years, how she got into jazz, and also tells us how she got her first record deal…
If we can rewind the clock a few years and go back right beginning, can you recall how old you were when you first showed an interest in music?
Really young, like three, ‘cos I was in a nursery school program and the teacher there was very musical and told my parents that during the day that I may not be all that excited about the sandboxes but when we had to do any singing and dancing I was right there. So they enrolled me in a program that was happening here (in LA). Actually it was at the University of Southern California. It was a graduate course for music education majors and they were learning about early childhood development and the impact of music and developing ideas about how music could be taught to kids that were seemingly innately gifted. And I was a part of this class and was in that program from the age of about three and continued through high school until I was ready to go to college.
What attracted you to the piano? Or were you directed towards it?
I was directed towards the piano. I don’t know that I was even really given a choice. It was like: “oh, you’d like to play an instrument? You want to play the piano, don’t you?” And everybody was nodding. (Laughs). But the piano has turned out to be a tremendous springboard for all of my interests. It’s certainly been to my advantage as a songwriter and a composer to have command over that particular instrument. I did that in my little school days and loved the idea that all the kids that played music were so cool because they had a case so that they could carry the instrument home. I wanted a case but I knew that was a big deal with the piano so I learned to play flute. And that really kind of opened up my mind and my head towards orchestration and things like that. And later I learned to play the guitar a little bit, just because it intrigued me.
At what point did you start learning the guitar? Was that later on, after the piano?
Oh yeah, much later. I’ve been playing the piano since I was five and I don’t think I really got my hands on the guitar until I was maybe in my twenties. I would see one and pick it up and try to figure it out. I wrote a song on it and I thought it was so beautiful and I really liked the sound of it. I could relate a lot of what I had learned about harmony and chords and try to identify what my hands were falling upon. I learned to play bass as well and I also learned to play drums. I learned to really understand different instruments through music education actually, because I was a Music Ed major, though ironically, I didn’t want to be. I wanted to be a composition major but my parents were like: “that’s nice, but what will your real job be?” So the deal for me to go to music school was to be a Music Ed major and it actually worked out very well because if there’s a possibility that you may be actually be teaching, for example, about wind instruments at a little school you have to learn how to play trumpet and trombone and French horn and put your hands on the flute, clarinet and saxophone. You might even play strings. So I learned about the mechanics of the different instruments and it really aided my orchestration and knowledge about just how the instruments sound.
What appealed to you about jazz? When did jazz first come on your radar?
I had been exposed to jazz because my parents were big jazz lovers and they belonged to a record club that used to send them all kinds of albums – not just jazz – when I was a kid. So I heard everything. But they were particularly enamoured with Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Oscar Peterson – all those kinds of people. So I heard those names and my dad and mum would just sit and listen to people and on a couple of occasions my dad would say “I’m just going down to the club, ‘cos so-and so’s in town”. So that was a big part of my growing up in a culture where that music was revered and of significance and importance. And then when I was at high school – I went to an all-black high school – one of the music teachers there used that music to enhance our understanding of the contributions of black people in America and used the music to introduce us to that cultural identity. We learned history, we learned social graces, we learned aspects of communication, and we learned about teamwork by learning to also appreciate the significance of listening to jazz. It forced you to have to learn harmony so that you could learn to improvise. We were discovering what it was all about by listening to wonderful recordings and analysing solos. On field trips we’d go to clubs and actually hear and see jazz musicians in their own environment because it was available for us to be able to do it. It wasn’t about YouTube and that kind of thing, it was about: if you need to see it, you need to go, and arrangements were made for us to go and sit in the back of the club and listen. The experience was amazing and life-changing and got me into an area where I could see that with all the years of classical piano training and all of the exposures to different kinds of music that I had finally to make a commitment towards what I really wanted to do – and be good at it. So jazz became the classical music of the contemporary music that I would explore.