June 2010 By Lee Mergner
In the week before this issue was finalized, I traveled to southern Louisiana to attend music festivals in Lafayette, Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Considering that my trip was taking place less than five years removed from Hurricane Katrina, I expected to hear a succession of hard-luck stories from locals who have endured so much hardship and tragedy. Instead, it was rarely mentioned.
It wasn’t that they’d simply forgotten or moved on, but rather that they were moving forward with a sense of determination and self-reliance. And for many of the people I encountered, music was a big part of that process of renewal. Returning from that trip and reading through this issue one last time before going to press, I realized that several of the artists featured in this edition, which is also our annual saxophone issue, have likewise dealt with levels of adversity that would sideline most of us.
Consider an artist like David S. Ware, who underwent a kidney transplant in 2009 and subsequently contracted diabetes, yet has not only continued his aggressive explorations on the saxophone but even dialed it up a notch by committing to solo performances. In his profile of Ware, David R. Adler expertly captures the resilient nature of this singular player.
The old saying “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” becomes something of a philosophy in the case of saxophonist Fred Ho, who survived a grievous bout with colon cancer. Our writer Shaun Brady found out that Ho, a tireless political activist, hasn’t slowed down at all and now thinks of himself as starting over, to the point that he says he’s now just 3 1/2 years old—the amount of time since his diagnosis. Now that’s what I call renewal.
Not all of the challenges are physical ones, either. Amir ElSaffar and Hafez Modirzadeh, of Iraqi and Iranian descent, respectively, are using their music to establish a jazz-based bridge between two cultures that have clashed so dramatically for so many years. As Modirzadeh notes, it’s that invaluable cultural exchange, and the sheer joy and exuberance of the music, that he hopes listeners will absorb.
Even our cover subject Tia Fuller, who seems to have the world on a string right now, confessed to John Murph that her career path has not been entirely smooth and upward: She recalled her early years in which her mother helped her put out her first CD and she worked more weddings than clubs, like so many a journeyman jazz musician.
Leave it to Steve Coleman, the former M-Base Collective member, to demonstrate the best solution to overcoming adversity. As Michael J. West discovered in the course of profiling Coleman for this issue, the saxophonist chooses to focus much of his time and energy on his role as mentor, teaching complex rhythms and challenging harmonies to younger players. Coleman opts to pay it forward, so that the next generation of jazz musicians can take whatever trials and tribulations come their way. The lesson I took away from my time in Louisiana—and this issue—is that adversity can define us, but it should never confine us.
Originally published in June 2010