by Ed Bride, The Artful Mind, April 2006
The key to success in the Jazz world can open the doors of life in general: have a direction, but know how to improvise. Growing up, our parents probably told us that direction is essential for any career; we later learned the importance of improvisation, also known as spontaneous, unscripted action (or in the musical world, performance. Indeed, a Jazz purist might define improvisation as "spontaneous composition").
As a composer of choral works, interpreter of Brazilian music for duo and other configurations, creator of energetic piano trio numbers, and more recently leader of a salsa and samba group of varying sizes, Peggy Stern maintains a Jazz orientation by always holding that one definition. "Jazz is improvised music, so within that umbrella, I consider what I do to be Jazz. When people think of Jazz, they often think of bebop, and while I do that for fun, that's not really what my focus is, what will be my legacy."
Solidly grounded in classical music, Stern's legacy is likely to include a commitment to melody, something that is missing in some performers who try to impress audiences with finger acrobatics, technique and scales, in lieu of melody and harmony. Her technique is as varied as one can describe, from delicate to powerful, beautiful to angry. But always with a memorable melody, and usually with a solid beat. Audiences at her recent appearances at Castle Street Café in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, have described her as a "monster pianist," which is a major compliment in the music world.
Stern's music has a particularly broad ethnic base. In addition to European and American classical music, it draws from Brazilian, African, Jewish, Irish, Cuban, and traditional jazz influences, all known for enchanting melodies and/or strong rhythms. She grew up in Philadelphia, moved to Rochester to study at the Eastman School of Music; to Boston for further study at the New England Conservatory, and then entered the world of the occasionally migrant working musician.
After a stint on Cape Cod, she moved to San Francisco, a location that probably was the first to have a major influence on her adoption of Jazz: she took up improvisation, and it suited her well. She moved back East to New York, to become immersed in the essence of personal performance and Jazz. She became a frequent visitor to Bradley's, where the likes of Jimmy Rowles, Charlie Mingus, Hank Jones, and Tommy Flanagan would routinely play and/or hang out.
In the 1980s, she moved to Seattle with her new daughter Sarka Mraz, and stayed for eight years, returning to New York in 1990. She lived in Irvington, West Chester, and then on the upper West Side of NYC, and part of that time was teaching at SUNY Purchase.
Among the places with the greatest musical influences, or inspirations, Stern says "they all served their purpose." San Francisco was encouraging of improvisation; New York was great for intense learning; Seattle encouraged new music, and it was a supportive, nurturing environment for what she was doing. She attracted a following there, something which many musicians never achieve.
"I have consistently found that the West Coast is much more open to new ideas, much more supportive of new music." The East Coast, she finds, is more parochial. The Jazz community on the East Coast might not be very welcoming to something that they're not quite sure how to characterize, she suggests, but hastens to add that the quality of musicianship on the East coast outweighs the downside of the discipline.
Why leave that accepting, nurturing environment? In a way, she was at the top of the Seattle creative music scene, "whatever that meant." In New York, it was easier to disappear and continue exploring and developing. "I could be really (BE) nobody." Now, she is "re-inspired" musically, and excited about making original piano trio music that leans heavily on salsa and samba.
It makes sense to back up a bit, and explore what got her into Salsa in the first place. She traces it back to San Francisco, where one of her first gigs after switching from classical piano was to fill an empty chair in the band called SuperCombo, in the mid-1970s. She did that for a year, six nights a week. The rhythm section was entirely Cuban, and "they were putting up with none of my nonsense." They were pure-enough Cuban that she couldn't even get away with playing something in McCoy Tyner's mainstream modal Jazz vein. "Don't do that," they'd tell her. So, "I learned the real essence of Salsa, I had to fit into that group, do things certain ways, or it just wouldn't work."
As a cog of the rhythm section, the piano player didn't have the freedom to wander, or dabble in other genres during solo time, because then the wheel wouldn't turn. "I could see the whole room dancing. I would look out there, and it was just so beautiful." The combination of music and visual appeal sparked an interest that is today's flame.
But as to the SuperCombo gig itself, she relates, Eddie Henderson came into the club, invited her into his band, "and that was that," she joined the jazz trumpeter's band.
Once she came to New York, she also worked in the legacy band of the late Cuban percussionist Machito. Four months pregnant, coming home from work around dawn didn't really fit a safe, healthy lifestyle. So, after Sarka arrived, it was off to Seattle.
Fast forward to today, where she calls upon all those past experiences, especially learning the Cuban rhythms, in the salsa and dance and funk music of her group, Estrella Salsa and Samba. Listeners to her group wonder where all the music comes from, suspecting her of hiding an additional pianist behind the curtain; upon close examination, it can be verified that she only has two hands, each equipped with only ten fingers. But all that training, the work with the Latin groups, and the solid classical education, obviously gave her a solid grounding in melody, harmony, and rhythm.
She has been concentrating on salsa and samba for a couple of years now, and it is no temporary orientation for the next album, "This is what I really want to do, where I live rhythmically. I like making heads bob up and down, it means a lot to me. Music should dance, at least my music should. It's just another form of swinging. Everything should swing; even classical music should swing."
Among her musical influences, Stern names Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, and Bill Evans. "I listened to Bill every day...I must have picked up a lot, there. And Horace Silver, his music dances. He is not the greatest technically, but I love his composing. He's great, and composing is so hard."
A musician makes a living in two or three principal ways, one feeding on the other: performing, recording, and for some, composing. Performances in concerts and clubs provide energy that nurtures creativity, and helps sell the recordings. Hard, lonesome work is also necessary for any recording of original music: creating the material that will be recorded and performed. Towards this end, there are at least three Stern projects in various stages of gestation.
She has an idea that draws on her classical training: a solo album of classical themes. An unusual approach for most Jazz artists, someone who has heard her a dozen or more times is convinced she can do it. A trio album of Salsa and Latin-flavored original music is first, however, and she will be in the studio on that project this month.
Perhaps most ambitious on the "maybe" list is a work for chamber orchestra that she will compose. The idea came after one of her small-group concerts, after which the French Horn player suggested that the material could be expanded to a full orchestral version, and the rest will be history. Not a symphony, but a few woodwinds, a chorus, strings, a couple of brass instruments and, of course the piano.
Peggy believes in making a contribution to the community; it bothers me that the Jazz community spends a little too much time navel-gazing; we can tend to be a little ego-based and not community-based. A few years ago, Stern became interested in jazz chorus. Having been raised singing in choirs, she began writing for vocal groups, both standards and originals. One of her compositions, "Lunasea" is featured both in choral form on Konitz' album Brazilian Rhapsody, as well as being the title tune of her own 1992 quintet album with Lee Konitz. A couple of years later, "New Rain" and "Sunbath" (first recorded by Woody Shaw) were featured with chorus and sextet on her album Actual Size. A writer suggested to Stern that the process of composing music is the most original form of art, starting from nothing and finishing with a work that can be appreciated, if not understood, by all. "I don't think of it that way, but it's an interesting theory. I just know it's hard, and it's frustrating." Where does that inspiration come from, then?
"Usually it comes to me when I'm not thinking specifically about it. All of the really great moments come when I'm in a semi-conscious state, at the piano. I may just be playing, with the idea that I would like a new tune to come out. I may be under a deadline, then I'm playing, and all of a sudden there's a germ of a motive a little bit, a piece; I can hear it...it's the truth. That is a trip.
"But how do I make that into a composition," she continues. "Where does it go from here? And then you have all these veins of possibilities, going every which way. If you're intelligent, you can make anything work. But then you might come back to it a couple of hours later and recognize that while it works, it isn't good. Or, it doesn't work, after all."
The inspiration could also happen while shopping, or sleeping, even. But when that happens, "usually it's gone when I wake up. Some things just escape into the air, and maybe they'll appear in my next life...or next week."
Besides being frustrating, the process of writing is delicate, she asserts. "The piece I'm working on now is called 'Precious Little.' I'm fighting for every measure; each measure has a whole bunch of possibilities, and then when I land on it, how do I get to the next measure?" The very next day, she wrote "Sonnet," and "it just fell out of the sky, perfect, nothing needed to be done to it." That's "the best kind of moment" she knows.
Sometimes, she may know how a composition is supposed to finish, and she might work backwards. Unlike a symphony, there is no blueprint for the structure of a Jazz composition. But there is a process. Once she has that germ of the melody, the next step is to "getting it into some form where I can improvise with it."
Even her Jazz compositions display her classical underpinnings. One of her best, she feels, was the aforementioned "New Rain," from the CD Actual Size. The music was the result of her trying to figure out an interesting way to introduce "Here's that Rainy Day." Hence the title, which actually has nothing to do with the lyrics, an original poem of lost love.
Peggy Stern is the artistic director of the Wall Street Jazz Festival, currently in their 11th year, in Kingston's uptown business district. Featuring female-led bands, a rarity in the Jazz world, the free festival is sponsored by the not-for-profit Ritenuto Foundation, and is supported by underwriting grants.