Interview: Pianist Amina Claudine Myers

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Composer, pianist, organist and vocalist Amina Claudine Myers sat down to talk with Hillary Donnell about some upcoming projects, her most memorable collaborations and her work with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.

Hillary Donnell: How was it playing the Sheen Center on closing night at Winter Jazz, did you enjoy yourself?

Amina Claudine Myers: It went very well. This is my third time playing Winter Jazz. First I was there with the organ trio. The second time I did solo songs from my Sama Rou self-produced CD, and this time with Generation IV. This is our second performance as a group.

HD: Tell me about Generation IV and how that project came to be.

ACM: Pyeng Threadgill wanted to study gospel singing and improvisation harmonies with me. So she studied quite a while, and she decided that she wanted her daughter who was 14, Luna Threadgill-Morderbacher to have the experience of singing gospel as well. So they came over and the 3 of us were singing and it sounded so good I thought “I should document this”. Richarda Abrams had been studying with me on and off throughout the years and I felt she would be the perfect fit for the 4. Just 4 and 3 part harmony. And that’s how it began. We had the opportunity to perform at the AACM series honoring Muhal Richard Abrams, the president and co-founder who recently passed. We were honoring the female gospel singers from the ‘50’s on up.

HD: Speaking of honoring other artists, one of the panels at this year’s Winter Jazz was on the topic of “evocation”. You recorded an album in 1980 called “Amina Claudine Myers Salutes Bessie Smith.” What was it like to channel Bessie’s work and represent her in your own way?

ACM: That idea for recording Bessie Smith came from Leo Fagan from Leo records out of London. At the time I wasn’t that familiar with Bessie Smith. So I bought a Bessie Smith songbook and looked through all the compositions and realized that her music was very spiritual. You could play it blues, gospel, latin, you could play it in all the styles. The lyrics referenced what was going on today. There was comedy in her blues, but they were also serious stories about situations that she experienced. I find her very interesting.

HD: How did you choose which songs to include on that album?

ACM: The book i was looking through was the classic Bessie Smith songbook. I chose songs that I really liked. Jailhouse Blues really spoke to me. It opens up “Lord, lord, lord. This house is about to get raided.” It was so clear that in those days that they used to have these house parties to get money to pay rent and it was illegal to have parties in the home and raise money while drinking. The police would come and raid them and put them all in jail. In the blues when she’s writing she’d write about one thing in one verse and the next verse is altogether different. It was so free. Her music was so open and “Dirty No Good Blues” was humorous, but yet serious. People can relate to these stories because the same sorts of things are happening today.

HD: Right, and the early blues women were using their platforms as musicians to say things that women and in particular black women couldn’t say in a conventional public forum.

ACM: Because women had to play in the parlor and in the homes. Like Louis Armstrong’s wife, Lil Hardin, she was great. A lot of women, they could play and sing, but they were limited in where they could perform. But Bessie was strong because when she was 9 years old she was singing in the street to make money to help her family. She was a beautiful musician.

And then there was Ma Rainey, Bessie worked with her. She had a railroad car that traveled through the south performing in vaudeville tents. I heard that when Bessie had her own show, they set up tents out in the field. One of the dancers came inside and tole Bessie that the Ku Klux Klan was outside and Bessie went outside to say “You get away from here.” She wasn’t afraid of the Ku Klux Klan.

HD: You work a lot in the improvisational space. How do you view your own music? Do you see it as spiritual, as well as avant garde?

ACM: First of all I don’t know that my music is spiritual, but people tell me that. As far as avant garde, I don’t like that term because I consider that when you go up on the roof and you take up a piano and you throw it off. I know it’s supposed to mean moving music forward, but I don’t particularly care for that.

I like to use the term “extended forms”, which I got from Muhal (Richard Abrams). Because the music, it opens up. I came up through the ranks playing the standards like Misty, Moonlight in Vermont. I joined the AACM and I looked at all those musicians, Roscoe Mitchell and Muhal, and they were opening the music up. It wasn’t the same thing all the time, the music was growing and I liked that. That way it’s always new and refreshing when you play it and so I started doing that.

I stretched the music out, the music grows. I like to let the creator come through and use me as a vessel to play this music.

HD: I’m curious about your second album “Song For Mother E”. What was the creative process behind that record?

ACM: Well, I decided to do a duo with Pheeroan akLaff. I had written down two chords and it was like a hymn. But now Mother E is stretched way out. Usually when I write, some of the songs take years to really settle and find its place. Mother E is very simple on that CD because it’s the first time I played it. “Mother E” is my mother Eleanora, so I dedicated that CD to my mother. “Have Mercy Upon Us“, I wrote it for the improvisational suite for chorus pipe organ and percussion. That’s when I decided that I wanted to show operatic voices in an improvisational setting. So it was a pipe organ two drummers and 16 singers. I got these singers from the Alvin Ailey choir. There was a lady who lived here in the building who sang with that group. I play that quite often, but its different now, it’s more impressive and extended. 

HD: I always thought it was Mother E as in “Mother Earth”. Speaking of your early work, what was it like to have joined the AACM so early on in its trajectory, what was that early energy like?

ACM: It was wonderful. I’ve said this over and over throughout the years. It was a beehive of activity. When I became a member I saw what everybody was doing, there was so much love there. No body criticized you, they were just encouraging and everyone was respective of the work you put out. Joseph (Jarman) was multi-theatre. And Roscoe, he had a cigar box he would carry around and he would ask you to contribute to the box. Then the next week he would give you something out of the box. I got a little skeleton on a keychain. Hahah, I was gonna keep that forever!

They were doing everything in the AACM. You had to be brought in, you couldn’t just walk up and join. But I moved there to teach school and I was brought into the AACM by Ajaramu. He was a drummer and my boyfriend at the time and that’s when I started to wanting to move the music, open it up more. You get great joy just being free playing that music, trusting. Of course you practice for technique. But then it’s most important to be open and let the spirit come through you. That’s what I learned in the AACM.

The clubs were folding on the South Side of Chicago and music was moving to the North Side. In the early the clubs started closing and people were charging 5 dollars to come in and there was whole scene was changing.

When I quit teaching school to focus on opening up the music, I wasn’t making any money after I resigned so I went back to playing for the church in Chicago. But I felt that I was going backwards because I had done that as a preteen. So I thought, I need to go to New York or LA. But everything from the AACM I carry with me. It’s AACM forever for me. [Amina crosses her arms across her chest]

HD: Black Panther reference? Did you see that movie?

ACM: It was great. I was proud when I was watching it. It was so beautiful.

HD: I wanted to ask you about a work that you composed for Mary Lou Williams’ 100th birthday. What was the context for your composing that piece?

ACM: I got commissioned to do that. I met Mary Lou. I was invited to her home. I played for her and I then I told her “I sing too.” I think I played “Fine and Mellow”. Then she said, “Ok, you can sing.”

HD: She had to test you out, so to speak.

ACM: Well, I just decided to sing because she said “No, don’t”. Then I did that Fine and Mellow to let her know, I guess, that I could sing. She’s a great great composer who came through the eras. She wrote for everything. Cecilia Smith plays Marimbas in Brooklyn and we play arrangements of Mary Lou’s music. We play with a band and a choir. That’s when I really saw some of her larger pieces. She was a masterful composer, I didn’t know that she had done all that.

She wrote this one song for Duke Ellington, and we said “No wonder Duke didn’t play this it was too hard!” That song was hard!

HD: Wow! Mary Lou was quite the genius composer and arranger. She is getting more recognition now than ever before.

ACM: That’s what happens after they pass away. Another good pianist is Dorothy Donegan. There’s a video of her, it’s with Cab Calloway. People don’t know about Dorothy, but she would play the piano and would sing, but her playing was masterful. Two white pianos concert grands.

HD: Two pianos makes me think about your duet work with Muhal Richard Abrams.

ACM: Yeah, we toured Europe with that duo, Muhal and I. I’ve done several CDs with Muhal. I did Lifea Blinec and some others. But I loved that. He’s very stimulating, every time I’d hear him in concert I’d want to go home and play. That’s one thing about him, you’re learning while you’re playing.

We worked with Lester Bowie, one time with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, we did a blues project. And Joseph (Jarman) wrote this song, with lyrics like “If you never sat down/on a pillow that’s round”. A blues, about meditation, called Hail We Now Sing Joy. Ooh that’s a beautiful song.

We did a concert in Paris, Roscoe, George Lewis and I. My dressing room was next to theirs. Not once did we talk about what we were gonna play. Roscoe had a friend in Paris, he’s a painter and he told us he saw God while we were playing. That’s a nice compliment.

I’m not just playing anything. It makes sense. You can tell when something doesn’t make sense. Like when i was in college they had Ornette Coleman on the jukebox. I didn’t know what it was, but I liked it. People in the audience in black clubs liked Ornette, otherwise he wouldn’t have been on the box.

HD: You were talking earlier about playing with Roscoe and letting the music come through you. As a listener you don’t know what to expect either, but you have to open yourself up to be receptive to this kind of music.

ACM: You have to listen to the others. Sometimes they may not even be playing. The music becomes airborne and you have to trust yourself and understand that its about feeling. And to be open and not to be scared.

Don’t be scared. That’s what Art Blakey used to tell me “DON’T BE SCARED!” I said “I’m not scared.” I played with Art Blakey. That was a beautiful experience. “You look like Mary Lou Williams,” he’d say. “Don’t be scared.” I’d say back, “Art, I’m not scared.”

HD: Was he trying to scare you?

ACM: He liked me because everybody loved Mary Lou and since I looked like her and I’m playing the piano…. Walter Davis was his piano player, but he’d be in and out of the band. So Joanne Brakeen and I are the only women that have played with the Messengers. So I told Art I could sing and I was singing with the Jazz Messengers! That was a beautiful experience, playing with him. It was very stimulating. Art would have his tongue out while he was playing the drums, he’d look over and say “Ahhhhhh, “Don’t be scared!”

I only played one gig. And immediately he said, “Get your passport we’re going to Brazil, get your passport we’re going to Brazil.” It had to be ’77 or ’78.

HD: You were playing with Lester Bowie, that year as well. Tell me about the band that made the record “African Children” in that same year, ’78.

ACM: That was a good experience. Playing with Arthur Blythe, Malachi Favors, Lester Bowie. That was fun then. Yes playing with them was good. We were all young. I was often the only woman, and everybody was respectful. The music was good, we just played. I enjoyed that group, too. We toured Europe with Lester’s NY Organ Ensemble and a blues singer, Chicago Bo.

The main thing is you want to touch and inspire people and give love.

HD: What about your current work?

ACM: Now I’m doing a project with Archie Shepp he’s doing work art songs and spirituals. He’s doing two of my gospel compositions and I’m singing two of his songs that he wrote. Playing with him is interesting… he’s got a big band with strings that he travels with.

HD: I see some symphonic scores here on the table, are you working on these?

ACM: Now I’m working on completing a symphonic piece called “Night”. 

I have about 87 pages for symphony here, too. Its called General Harriet Tubman. I’ve been working on it for years. It opens up with a banjo player. The slaves in the slave houses trying to have a little fun. It was started off as a choreographed piece. I had two people that were interested.  It opens up in the plantation house with a string quartet with people dancing. I wanted to open up in the slave house with the banjo having fun and then they sneak out. One of the choreographers thinks it should open up in the ballroom with Harriet walking around serving people food, white people dancing they’re doing a waltz. And the other person wants to go with my idea. Then this part. Tubman was helping General Sherman. She got hit in the head when she was young by her slave master, so she has these passing out spells throughout the piece. So in here i have the viola as her voice. When she passes out the string quartet comes in and plays then I have piccolos and flutes when they wake up in the morning. They walked by night mostly.

HD: Maybe when the Treasury finally prints the bills with Harriet Tubman on them this work will be commissioned as the score to be played at the unveiling.

ACM: Oh that would be nice!

Amina’s latest album is Sama Rou: Songs from My Soul

Hillary DonnellInterview: Pianist Amina Claudine Myers

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