The Amazing LaFrae Sci

A determined woman brings jazz to Siberia—against all odds

Composer, drummer, leader, conductor LaFrae Sci led her band the 13th Amendment? on a triumphant series of concerts in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, Russia on June 27, 28 and 29. The shows, all sell-outs, featured Sci’s “orchestral jazz piece” of Mikhail Bulgakov’s oft-banned novel The Master and Margarita.

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“The novel was published in Russia 27 years after Bulgakov’s death,” says Sci. “Before that, single copies were smuggled into the country and up to 100 people would share one copy, having only 36 hours each with the book before passing it on.” The success of Sci and her band’s concerts is amazing given that The Master and Margarita was “rebanned in Russian schools as of July 1, 2014,” by Vladimir Putin, reportedly because of its author’s use of “profanity.”

The Master and Margarita Meets Jazz, according to its creator, “is often called an opera because of the vocal component, but there is more improvisation than words in the whole suite of themes.”

The 13th Amendment? consists of Alex Blake on upright bass, Brandee Younger on harp, Mazz Swift on violin and vox, Micah Gaugh on alto sax and vox, Tamar Kali on vox and conductor/composer Sci on drums.

“The project,” says Sci, “was two years of writing, teaching and organizing on my part in concert with a team of young, supportive Siberian women, all under 26 years of age, who helped me navigate the political landscape to build this [series of concerts] from nothing in a part of Russia that does not have an established jazz tradition.”

Bulgakov (1891-1940) worked on his masterpiece from 1928-1940, but The Master and Margarita was not published in book form until 1967. The novel describes a visit by Satan to Moscow during the 1917 revolution. When a young Mick Jagger read it in 1968, he was reportedly inspired to write the lyrics to “Sympathy for the Devil.”

Says Sci, “The deputy minister of culture presented to me her grandfather’s copy of The Master and Margarita and thanked me for bringing my culture and Russian culture together in a beautiful way, and inspiring Russians to re-read this book, as our concerts were sold out two weeks prior to the show, and was probably the most talked-about concert of the season.”

The composer took a page from the Beatles, circa January 1969, London: “We also organized the first rooftop concert in the Krasnoyarsk region. We hooked up with a meditation center that had a beautiful fenced-in rooftop. I made a deal to charge for tickets, and all the money earned after my budget was met would be for them, and they would have the added benefit of new people discovering their center. We hired Siberian musicians, rehearsed and we advertised it as an interactive concert.”

In a world rife with violence and ethnic tension, LaFrae Sci was proving true Louis Armstrong’s dictum: “Music doesn’t know hatred; music doesn’t know prejudice. It’s just them notes.”

“People brought pots, pans, guitars, drums,” continues Sci. “We played Mary Lou Williams, Duke Ellington. I got folks to sing, and we did an arrangement of ‘Wade in the Water’ that went into the trad Russian tune ‘Kalinka Malinka.’ I started playing balalaika for this arrangement. We had over 200 people attend, and I was able to pay my band and myself. This was a great thing to me as I discovered once already here that one of the quiet effects of the sanctions is the sabotage of Visa/MasterCard. I hadn’t had access to my bank account since June 2, but I was able to live off the cash from our rooftop success! The sanctions also affected international bank transfers. JP Morgan Chase stopped doing business with the Russian federal bank a few months ago. There were some nail-biting moments, but it all worked out.”

So how did this globetrotting, barrier-smashing musician develop? In an interview with The Independent Ear, Sci says: “I moved to New York City with $600, a drumset and a backpack of clothes. My foundation is church to blues to jazz, but I’m an Air Force kid, born in Okinawa, and traveling for my whole life. I also spent early years in dance studios as my mom was a choreographer for the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company in the ’70s. Lots of drumming there. Later Mom was the director of the Paul Lawrence Dunbar House for over 20 years, and tours with a solo presentation of the African American elocutionist, Halley Q. Brown. I studied political theory and economics at Oberlin, and did several internships in D.C. before I was inextricably bitten by a love of swing, jazz and drumming. I mention these details to suppose that the sum total of those experiences led me to become a cultural ambassador, composer, educator, bandleading drummer, firmly rooted in the tradition, with a developed sense of myself, and my place in the world as an African American woman.”

In an interview with this writer, Sci says, “The musicians that motivate and inspire me were the ones who not only sought to preserve their cultural heritage and legacy, but also used the music to protest, inspire and build within communities: AACM, BAG, Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, Mary Lou Williams, Art Blakey, Sonny Rollins. These musicians showed me that it was possible to change the world with jazz.”

LaFrae Sci not only “changes the world with jazz” through her global performances, but also with her teaching. She is an educational consultant for Jazz at Lincoln Center, having co-written (with pianist/educator Eli Yamin) the curriculum for JALC’s Middle School Jazz Academy. She explains: “Most people teach, or play. Or play a lot and teach a little. Sometimes I feel invisible because I’ve made a commitment to both, and I focus much of my work educationally with middle and lower grade school kids. You can turn on middle school kids to the point where they can be equally as conversant about swing and Duke Ellington as they are about Lil Wayne.”

Yet although sometimes working within the system, Sci has also found a way to transcend the system. “I have made a journey of working with jazz outside of the confines designed to ensure its survival—outside of the educational structures, summer camps, universities, festivals, competitions and corporate structures who by their very nature create systems. The challenge for the young musician is to figure out a way to take jazz beyond these systems. I personally couldn’t imagine a career of flying to the different parts of the world again and again, only to see the same cats at the festival bar that I could see where I live in New York City.”

Hence the swinging gig with local folks on the rooftop of a meditation center in Siberia!

So how does a gifted jazz musician become a musical ambassador? As Sci told The Independent Ear, “Initially I auditioned for the program that is formerly known as the Jazz Ambassador program that first sent Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie to showcase this beautiful Jazz music of ours that embodies the very best of what America can be…democratic, and free.” She has visited over 30 countries for our State Department. “The world loves the blues, and every culture has their blues. I teach the folk music of my culture, and in turn I learn other folk traditions. The whole world respects the concept of tradition in some way. This is a real great starting point. Additionally, the music builds a community in the moment, connecting cultures, generations and experiences. The response has been exponentially positive as social media facilitates international connection. One example is getting 75 friend requests from Montenegrin middle school students who are now finishing college, or getting married and still say hello.”

And throughout this discussion, let’s not forget the fact that LaFrae Sci is one fiercely swinging drummer: “I discovered that the blues connects to audiences all over the world. I suspect it’s because everybody gets the blues. In teaching about this music to international audiences, I always have to go back to the source of the blues, which runs right into the spirituals. I decided I wanted to experience singing these songs with my main voice—the drums. In my own way I’m reclaiming the drums to the tradition. I can only imagine the reason why the spiritual tradition is drum-less is because the drum was taken away (during the period of slavery in the American South). The 13th Amendment? is about freedom. We take this approach musically. The 13th Amendment?: It’s jazz, it’s funk, it’s blues, it rocks, it swings, it’s free.”

If you doubt these words, go to 13th Amendment to see and hear the 13th Amendment? live in Paris. This is truly one beautiful, intense, impossible-to-pigeonhole band at the peak of its powers.

While sitting in a Moscow airport in June, waiting for a connecting flight back to New York, Sci poured out her feelings: “At the same time, the romance of the jazz ambassadors is long gone. The foundation laid by Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and Dave Brubeck has been reduced to an international exchange program where the young artists from any genre play for embassy parties and events while putting pretty photos on social media. I realized it was over for jazz and the State Department when I saw that the State Department sent a band of Caucasian men with no Brazilian heritage to West Africa to share the folk tradition of Northeast Brazil. I know this sounds like some sort of ironic recolonization joke, but it’s not.

“To be fair, the State Department’s use of jazz internationally was not because of some enlightened moment of government clarity; it was because jazz was the message of the moment. In its own words, jazz was ‘a sonic secret weapon.’ So the challenge I lay to young cats in university programs is how can you create something outside of the systems? I traveled to North Africa with a conscious hip-hop band. (The very fact that the word conscious has to be used to legitimize hip-hop shows its flaw, in my opinion). As a child of the early ’80s, I was fascinated to see the original spirit of hip-hop culture being cultivated as free expression in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. However, the evolution of hip-hop culture in the U.S.A. is more troubling to me than the ‘extinction’ of jazz given its present day incarnation of excess, misogyny and anti-intellectualism. Additionally, if one is teaching internationally about the evolution of hip-hop, it’s inevitable to go back to jazz and the blues. Herein lies the opportunity for jazz I have discovered. People internationally really respect culture.”

The June 2014 shows were not Sci’s first visit to Siberia. “I first traveled to Siberia on a tour of Russia with my friend Eli Yamin’s band. We played a few festivals and did the obligatory 4th of July party at the ambassador’s residence. While in Siberia I met some kindred spirits who were curious about the type of improvisation and African American culture masterclasses I conduct. They invited me back the following December and arranged for me to teach masterclasses at a few conservatories, music schools and music stores.

“While there I connected with a talented pianist, Katya Kateva, who is the director of a fledgling jazz department at a music college in Krasnoyarsk. Katya had little support because jazz is often viewed as party or club music. Russia has such a longstanding academic music tradition [yet] Katya has been fighting an uphill battle for resources, students and support. At the same time, I started reading The Master and Margarita. As I read this powerful book, I started to hear some musical themes and I wrote them down, made some mock-up Mp3s, and sent them to Katya, who said she liked the music. I then imagined a collaborative project where I could teach students, help Katya’s jazz department and bring my band to Krasnoyarsk, [which] is not one of the most open parts of Siberia. Other parts have a longstanding connection to jazz [but] Krasnoyarsk opened to the West in the ’90s.

“I returned to Krasnoyarsk a few more times, teaching more improvisation masterclasses. The Ministry of Culture sent me last summer to a camp 10 hours out of the main city. I had an outhouse and had to bathe in a river, but also had an amazing time teaching these students spirituals like ‘Wade in the Water,’ ‘Oh, Freedom,’ and rhythms that they incorporated into their daily evening performances. I wasn’t paid for this work, but I was already in Europe, and I thought by doing a solid for the ministry they would be game for my proposal.

“Fortunately, I had a team of young visionaries in the ministry who guided me and the project through the political minefield. At the end of that summer [2013], the project was approved, and I then met with the teachers at the music college to show them my scores. I have photos. It was an intense meeting—the teachers of each department were being asked to commit his/her students to this project for the year, as the music was going to become part of the curriculum. They scrutinized my instrumentation. Teacher: ‘We have no bassoon.’ Me: ‘Okay, cool.’ Teacher: ‘You didn’t write for marimba?’ Me: ‘Okay, I will write a marimba part,’ and so on. They were concerned that my music was too difficult for the students. They were afraid of the ‘jazz.’ Teacher: ‘Our students do not improvise.’ Me: ‘Okay, I will teach them.’ It was on and agreed to.

“I returned to Krasnoyarsk about every three months after that and rehearsed with the students and checked in on their progress. All rehearsals were like mini-masterclasses. I taught blues expression, form and used Butch Morris-inspired conduction. I emailed Katya new music as I finished it, and she rehearsed the student ensemble every week from October 2013 until June 2014.

“In December 2013 I wrote then Ambassador Michael McFaul and told him about the project, and asked if the embassy could lend support in any way. He wrote me back in 30 minutes, then cc’d his staff. I appreciated their support, but the U.S.A. only put in one-sixth of what Russian sources allocated. This project became the perfect marriage of U.S. and Russian culture. I’ve been on Russian television maybe 10 times, and had countless interviews written. It was interesting to them. They asked, ‘Why Siberia and not Moscow or St. Petersburg? Why the music college and not the philharmonic? Why Bulgakov? How can you write from this perspective and not be Russian?’”

Now back home in Brooklyn, her triumph complete, what are Sci’s most prized accomplishments from this historical collaboration?

She says:
“*I developed my composing chops by getting to write for an orchestra for a whole year;
“*This project connected segments of the community with other segments that have never previously connected;
“*My students learned to ask questions, something that traditional academic music education does not encourage;
“*I put Jazz on a serious stage in Siberia, with lights, orchestra, choirs and my band—taking Jazz out of the stereotypical ‘club’ presentation;
“*Katya says that enrollment is up for her Jazz program, a result of this project;
“*I know, and my students now know, that anything is possible. Today a friend emailed and said, ‘You created something new in Russia! No challenge can be too big now.’
“*The fact that this even happened given the political environment, and that The Master and Margarita was banned in Russian schools as of July 1, 2014.”

LaFrae Sci wrapped up her Moscow musings by saying: “I know that anything is possible…and that jazz is the answer.”

In these troubled times, we are fortunate to have a musician, a composer, an artist as gifted, fearless and open-hearted as LaFrae Sci.

My excuse for not voting for Dizzy Gillespie for president in 1964? I was only five years old.

Maybe it’s time to allow our artists to run our world.

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