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Family Jazz

A host of forces conspire to make life rough for the working jazz musician. Beset by lower pay abroad, fewer gigs and higher costs at home and slumping record sales the obstacles keep piling up. Add a marriage and a child or two or three to the equation and the challenge seems insurmountable, but many top talented musicians have managed to strike that delicate balance between career and family.

In more carefree times, rents were cheaper, gigs were plentiful and the hedonistic pursuit of “the hang” was the thing. Nowadays, for those who have taken on the responsibility of fatherhood or motherhood, the family has become the thing. No more enjoying cognac and holding court at Bradley’s till the wee hours for these folks, particularly when they’re going to be up at dawn pouring Rice Krispies and orange juice before getting the kids off to school.

Sleeping patterns get radically altered, old habits die, new routines emerge, perspectives change and priorities shift when you make the commitment to have kids. Finding time for practicing, composing, rehearsing and gigging becomes the ultimate juggling act. In the end, most working jazz parents resolve to run their lives as they deal with their music: by deftly improvising within a loose framework.

“Being a parent has got to be one of the most challenging and important things you could ever do as an adult, so I don’t think it will ever be easy for anybody,” says pianist Renee Rosnes, who is married to drummer Billy Drummond. “Babies don’t come with manuals, so everybody’s in the same boat, kind of wondering, ‘How do we take care of this little human being?’ But just infusing that concern with what we do for a living, it’s very challenging. And I think it works for us because we’ve learned not to stress out about things, in terms of the future: How are we gonna do this when that happens? What happens next week at this kind of job and how are we gonna make this work? I just like to take each situation as it comes along on an individual basis and figure out how to make it work.”

Rosnes and Drummond have a 3-year-old son, Dylan, who is well acquainted with the ways of his two working jazz parents. “We’ve just continued to do what we’ve been doing all along,” says Drummond. “But now we have an extra little person that we have to deal with as well so we try to fit him into the equation as best we can.”

As Rosnes explains, “Basically, if Billy’s on the road, I’m home and vice versa. If it’s a case of where we really want and need to be out together, then we take him with us. Of course, some nightclubs are more kid-friendly than others. And it also depends on how close the gig is it to the hotel so he can get back quickly after the first set and go to bed. All those sorts of things are considerations.”

When the NYC couple is on the road together, whether playing a weeklong engagement with Bobby Hutcherson at Yoshi’s in Oakland or a one-nighter with the Drummonds (a trio with bassist Ray Drummond), Billy and Renee rely on friends and caregivers to watch after Dylan while they are on the bandstand. And so far, Dylan has been a trooper. “He’s traveled with us to Europe, Thailand, across Canada and to California,” says Rosnes. “I’m definitely not comfortable having both of us be away and having Dylan be with somebody else, so in that case one of us will take him along, depending on what makes the best sense. I don’t like the idea of being away at all, especially with what’s going on now in the world. The prospect of traveling is so frightening because you don’t know what’s going to happen. And yet, that’s what we do for a living.”

When Dylan was just two, Rosnes and Drummond took him on a trip they made to Japan. “It was actually very difficult,” she recalls, “because at one point he got quite ill and we had to take him to a hospital in the middle of the night in Osaka. The doctor didn’t speak English at all and the whole situation was so stressful that it made us wonder whether or not we were being naive in thinking we could really do this. But Dylan was pretty young then and it was difficult because he wasn’t even communicating in words what his problems were. Of course, that’s changing now because he’s starting to become very verbal. So it’s gotten better.”

But Drummond points out that there are also economic considerations that come into play when baby grows up. “When they turn two it becomes a different challenge because kids don’t ride on the airplane for free anymore at that age. So at that point you have to work him into the financial equation with promoters or club owners and the money situation changes somewhat.”

John and Susan Scofield began taking their daughter, Jeannie, around to gigs when she was three months old. Now 19 and attending New York University, where she’s following in her mother’s footsteps by taking courses in the business side of music, Jeannie probably doesn’t remember hanging backstage in her stroller when daddy played guitar in the Miles Davis band (1982-1985). But she and brother Evan (now 14) have both had their share of memorable experiences over the years while traveling abroad with working jazz dad and his manager mom.

“There have been a number of perks that don’t seem like really obvious perks at first to kids when they’re growing up,” says Susan. “Travel is one. They always have taken the travel part of it for granted. But looking back on their lives and how it set the tone for how they perceive the world, it’s really been special and enriching. They’ve gotten to experience parts of the world firsthand. They know very strongly that everything in their hometown and their everyday life doesn’t mean squat elsewhere. ‘When in Rome’ really means something to my kids because they’ve been in Rome and Russia and South America and everywhere.”

When John is on the road alone for long stretches of time, he invariably misses out on important events like a kid’s birthday party, a school recital or even his own wedding anniversary. “We’ve been married for 24 years,” laments Susan, “and in all that time we’ve only spent two anniversaries together.”

Says John, “My kids have suffered that way, and I have suffered too. I guess it just means you have to work extra hard at making the time you’re together really count. But it’s not a broken home. I mean, it’s sorta like a broken home sometimes because daddy’s not there. But we’re together emotionally and we stay in touch by phone every day.

“We’ve just made it work because we’ve wanted it to work,” says John. “And I’ve been really lucky that I had a wife and kids that put up with the whole travel thing. Because I know a whole lot of families that don’t stay together when the husband is a musician, which is a hard alternate lifestyle that makes for a lot of uncertainty about when the rent is coming and when the daddy is going to be back home. If you are lucky enough to work it means you travel all the time. And this is all my kids have ever known. And so I think it’s hard for jazz musicians and their families, but at the same time all the challenges that they have to deal with can also make those families stronger than ever.”

Drummer Matt Wilson may be facing the most mind-boggling challenge among working jazz parents today. On April 12, 2001, following a full-term pregnancy, his wife Felicia delivered triplets-19 pounds of baby boys. Now with Henry, Max, Ethan and their nearly 4-year-old sister, Audrey, proud papa Matt now has the makings for a future family jazz quintet.

When Felicia’s doctor first broke the news to Matt back on Sept. 30, 2000, he harbored fears that his jazz career was over. Indeed, bassist Dominic Duval, himself a father of triplets, had put his playing and composing on the shelf for several years in favor of driving trucks and washing windows to support his wife and kids before returning to the jazz scene in the early ’90s with Cecil Taylor’s trio. In his darkest hour, Wilson sought out the counsel of Charlie Haden, who had become a father of triplets back in the late ’60s.

“Dewey Redman gave me Charlie’s phone number and when I finally got him on the line we talked for at least 45 minutes,” recalls Wilson. “He was very supportive and gave me some good advice. It was great to talk to him about the triplets thing and hear how much he was into it. We really bonded on the phone. I always felt part of that Ornette lineage somehow through Dewey, so this made another connection between me and Charlie. And at some point I just realized that if Charlie could do it, I could do it.”

Wilson is long past the initial shock of having triplets, though the challenge remains no less daunting. “It’s almost been a year that we found out,” he says. “And if somebody would’ve said that to me back then, ‘You’re gonna have triplets,’ I’d say, ‘Yeah, right!’ And at the same time, if somebody said to me a year ago that the World Trade Center would be gone, I’d have said, ‘Yeah, right!’ You just never know what’s going to happen, so you just gotta go for it.”

Wilson has cut back considerably on his touring regime, and he’s far more selective about what gigs he takes abroad. “I’m at the point now where the stuff really has to be where I want it to be, conditions-wise, to make it worthwhile for me,” he says. “In the past, the quality of the music has always been more important to me than the money. But now I’ve got a lot of mouths to feed around here.”

Adds Felicia, “We made a deal with each other when we found out we were having triplets that Matt would only travel when it was something necessary and something that was lucrative. He couldn’t go out for just anything anymore while the triplets are little. It’s just too difficult. We used to take Audrey out on the road to Matt’s gigs. We’d fly with him here and there or drive to the gig and spend the night. With the triplets, it’s a whole new ballgame. We won’t be traveling with Matt. That part of my life is done for a while.”

Come January, when Felicia returns to her job as orchestra teacher at Long Beach High School, full-time caregivers will help ease the burden somewhat. But sacrifices will still have to be made by both parents. “I hold down the fort for Matt when he’s out gigging late at night,” says Felicia, “but then he has to wake up early in the morning to take care of the kids because I’m outta here by 6:30 to get to school on time.”

At the time of this interview, Wilson had a relatively cushy situation at the ritzy Algonquin Hotel in the heart of midtown Manhattan with pianist Dena DeRose and vocalist Bill Henderson. With only one set a night and his drums already set up for the duration of the five-week engagement, he could take the train in from Oceanside, do the hit, jump on the train back to Oceanside and be back home by 11:30. But those kinds of gigs are few and far between. More often than not, it’s two sets a night and three on weekends, interspersed with infrequent jaunts abroad.

Meanwhile, Felicia is gradually getting her violin chops back together by playing the occasional chamber music wedding gig on Long Island. But for now, she is strictly mommy to a brood of four. And she’s dealing quite well, considering the demanding nature of the gig. “The kid thing has been great for us so far,” she says. “It’s been difficult to have the three all at once but we’re making do.”

While being engaged as a full-time daddy-feeding and burping, changing diapers, cleaning spit-up and watching Teletubbies-Matt has continued to compose, such as fulfilling a Chamber Music America grant to write music based on the poems of Carl Sandburg. His key to achieving the perfect career-family balance is prioritizing his time. “You really get that sense of time being so much more important now,” he says. “It’s the quality of time spent more than the quantity. You realize that you need to really focus to get things done. I know that I have limited time for composing or playing and I can’t waste it. So I look forward to doing those things even more now and I’m more intense about them. You can’t do anything half-assed, whether it’s with your music or with your family. You have to really go for it. So I have more of a take-no-prisoners attitude about everything in my life these days.”

Finding time to practice and compose is an ongoing concern for most jazz musicians with little children in the house. The way Drummond sees it, “As a parent you need to spend a lot of time with your kid, so for the first couple of years you can basically forget practicing. You know you should be practicing but you end up on your hands and knees watching Bob the Builder with your kid and playing trains. Sometimes just getting to your instrument for 15 minutes during the day is impossible when you have so many other responsibilities besides just spending time with the kid and all the other things that go along with it like being a responsible parent, taking care of your house and cars and yard. For me, it was hard to come to grips with it at first. But after a while, going to the bandstand becomes such a joy that sometimes the spirit takes over where in the past you may have relied on sheer technique or ability.”

Saxophonist Ravi Coltrane can relate to the difficulties of finding practice time. As the father of two-year-old William Narayan Coltrane, he too has found himself woodshedding less and enjoying his son more. “It really has been the hardest thing and I’m still in the process of trying to really deal with not forgetting to be a musician every day and every moment,” says Coltrane. “Because this kid comes out and all of a sudden I feel like I’m a kid again and I’m kind of forgoing my other responsibilities just so I can hang out with him, get on the floor and roll around and play games and things like that. I want to hang out with him; I want to play with him. And it’s usually in conflict with me actually working on my horn and getting things done musically. I may realize that I need to practice my horn but on the other hand he might’ve just gotten up from a nap and I really can’t resist hanging with him. Here’s this new life that’s come into the world and you don’t want to miss a second of it. So it is kind of a battle.”

Lately, Coltrane has come to reconcile the struggle just a bit. “I always have to remember that I’m not the first one to do this,” he says. “This isn’t anything new. This has been going on for a very long time. Other musicians, other creative people have done this and done a good job of it. So I’m looking for that day, that moment when the balance is really there and I can feel as good about both sides of my life-the music side and the family side. At this point I feel good about things but I don’t feel like I’ve got control of it. It’s like-I may be practicing today or I may be writing today or I may be hanging out with the kid today. We haven’t gotten it down to a science yet of schedules and things like that. But we will.”

Meanwhile, Ravi is very conscious of preserving the family lineage, even though his two-year-old son William is currently more aware of his choo-choo train than grandfather Trane. A dramatic black-and-white portrait of the jazz legend hangs on one wall in the living room of Ravi and his wife Kathleen Hennessy’s Brooklyn brownstone, right next to the mantle on top of which sit several framed family snapshots. “I played my father’s music from the first week he was home,” says Coltrane. “I put on Giant Steps and I just held him. We listened to the whole record and he didn’t cry-stayed awake the whole time and really listened. It’s nice to nurture a young child that way. In that first year they’re taking in so much information at such an alarming rate and as a parent you have an opportunity to inject these kind of things that will be part of his early personality. I have great memories of some of the first music that I heard-my mom playing the organ and piano in the house; records that she played me. I just want to kind of pass that on to my son.”

Bassist Cameron Brown has had two separate and unique domestic challenges during his career as an itinerant jazz bassist. One was the prospect of sharing joint custody and co-parenting duties following a divorce with his first wife, the Norwegian-born Marit, while he was touring frantically with the George Adams-Don Pullen Quartet. The other was deciding to home-school his second set of young children with his second wife, Debra. Both situations have compromised his career somewhat over time but he has persevered with a positive attitude while maintaining a deep-seated love for both his music and his family.

Brown’s oldest daughter, Moki (named after Don Cherry’s wife and now 26 years old), was born in 1975, which he recalls was a particularly crazy year. “From the summer of ’75 to the summer of ’76 I was on the road eight months. The summer of ’76 I was in Europe for three months-half the time with Archie Shepp and half the time with the Jazz Messengers. I didn’t go home between the gigs but I was finally able to rendezvous with my wife and daughter in Oslo at the end of the summer of ’76. And Moki didn’t even recognize me by then. It was very horrible to feel that your kin didn’t even recognize you by the end of a tour. Eventually it resulted in me spending only six months with Blakey instead of god knows how long.”

Cameron and Marit’s son, Ian, arrived in 1979. “I sort of lost the gig with Betty Carter because I had to be at home that month that he was due,” he recalls. By the early ’80s, the Adams-Pullen Quartet was picking up momentum; Ian now has vivid memories of those times when Cameron would bring him along to the gig and he would fall asleep curled up in Dannie Richmond’s drum case. “That music was like my lullabies,” recalls the sophomore at Pratt College.

By 1983, during a flurry of activity with the Adams-Pullen Quartet, Brown and Marit had divorced. For the next few years, Cameron’s second wife, Debra, became a second mother to Moki and Ian. By 1986, Rylan was added to the extended family and Lula came along in May 1990. Two years later, Brown moved his family from a spacious loft in Brooklyn to a home in Rockland County. It was there that Cameron and Debra began pursuing the home schooling of their two little children, basing their methods on Rudolf Steiner’s progressive theory of education. “In a nutshell, Steiner considers children to be, until they are seven, not all the way here, and his idea is that we need to welcome them as gently as possible and make them feel as safe as possible,” explains Cameron. “In terms of curriculum, his idea is that you don’t have kids just sitting and copying things for long periods of time. Instead he has kids singing and chanting their lessons, standing up and doing poetry or doing math by throwing beanbags back and forth to each other. Steiner doesn’t believe that it’s really very appropriate for children to sit for long periods of time, that it’s against their nature at that age. And along with that philosophy, art and music and song are involved in every lesson. It just seemed light years away from conventional teaching methods. And my son Rylan, who had had some real problems adjusting to public school, really responded well to it all.”

During their first two years after relocating to Rockland County, Debra organized art classes and eurhythmy (movement) classes for other interested parents. “One year there were so many families involved that we actually rented space in a church in New Jersey,” Cameron recalls. “And I had to kind of commit to working with the kids two or three days a week. Obviously, I wasn’t traveling that much then. There were one or two periods where I was on the road with Dewey [Redman] so much that I wasn’t quite making it with my home-schooling duties. But Dewey’s thing was more a weekend here, a quick in-and-out there or a short European tour maybe every 18 months. It was much easier to work that around my home-schooling schedule as opposed to the Adams-Pullen band or the Jazz Messengers, which toured relentlessly.”

Cameron says that colleagues, particularly those hiring for gigs, reacted differently to his involvement with home schooling. “I think when I put out the word that Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays were going to be really hard for me to make rehearsals, it tended to take me off the scene a little bit in certain circles. Sometimes people were understanding, though I think I lost some gigs because of it.”

French-horn player and composer Tom Varner has very consciously entered into the realm of parenthood. At the time of this writing, he and his wife, Terri, were preparing to fly to Vietnam to adopt a three-month-old baby boy. “We’re going to name him Jack,” he announces proudly. “Jack Varner-I like that. Sounds either like a really cool mystery writer or a really cool jazz musician.”

While the 44-year-old may be emotionally prepared for fatherhood, he is uncertain of just how that new role will impact on his musical career. “After many years of thinking that kids just would not be in the picture for me, I’ve changed my attitude. Only in the last three years have I thought, ‘There’s lots of other musicians out there who are struggling creative musicians. They have kids. They didn’t die. They’re figuring it out one way or another and they’re doing just fine.’ So that helped me reconcile doing this. And whether that means I would have to get a job teaching at a university or make my income by subbing in the pit orchestra for The Lion King on Broadway, I don’t know. Or maybe it would make more sense to explore the possibility of teaching someplace outside of New York, even if it means moving to Wisconsin or Michigan or Maine for a few years. Basically, we don’t know what the future will hold but we’re ready to sort of take that leap of faith and just see what happens.”

Varner confesses that the prospect of leaving the Big Apple after residing there for 22 years does haunt him a bit. “But on the other side there’s the feeling that maybe I’ll do better than I ever have before. Maybe I’ll actually get more writing done and still be able to come to New York to perform,” he says, citing Roscoe Mitchell, Ron Miles, Bill Frisell and Wayne Horvitz as role models. “These are all people who left New York and they’re doing fine. So I’m not so die-hard about ‘I must be in New York for the rest of my life’ in the way that I used to think.”

One fact that Varner does acknowledge is that no matter what happens, things will be different from the moment that little Jack arrives home. “I’ve had the luxury of doing exactly what I wanted with my music and not worrying about anything else,” he says. “I’ve had that now for quite a while and it served me quite well. For me it’s like, ‘OK, I’ve made 12 CDs. Do I want to put all my energy into the 13th or 14th or 15th? Or do I want to take this new adventure and still make new CDs as well?’ And I’ve come to the point where I’m saying, ‘Yes, I want this new adventure.'”

Let the family drama-and music-unfold.

Originally Published