IMPROVIJAZZATION Nation - Issue # 93
INTERVIEW with Mimi Jones
From the opening bar of Mimi's debut CD, "A New Day", reviewed in issue #92, I knew this was someone we HAD to interview for this magazine... not only an extremely gifted & talented composer/player, but a real "person" as well. I've a feeling we will all be hearing a LOT more from Mimi - I know I will! I want to thank her, too, for taking the time to write up a very revealing & personable interview for us!
Zzaj: Your bio explained that you grew up in NYC, Bronx. Where do you live now? Still there, or in another section of the city? Please give us, in your own words, an update to your bio… like, in addition to the geographic of it all, how did you get where you are “right now” & who helped you get here?
Mimi: Well, geographically I am located on the same block to which I grew up as child, but fortunately due to the powers that be, I'm nowhere near where I was even as far back as 10 years. I always say "Had i known back then what I know now, whoosh, it would be a wrap.", but then I remind myself to appreciate the point where I am and the road that was given to me on which to travel.
I basically spent most of my adult life with NYC as a base residence, mainly because of convenience since I chose to go to Manhattan school of music, and financially staying with my folks made things possible. I had a scholarship & the living expenses would definitely have fallen on me.
i also had a large respect for what was happening in NYC at the time... the most exciting music was happening in this dive called Augies, which has now been remodeled and renamed to be what you may know as "Smoke". Wallace Roney, Antoine Roney, Jeff Kezure, Junko Onishi, Christian McBride, Abraham Burton, Jesse Davis, Eric McPherson, I mean the cream of the crop would be there from week to week - how could I leave NYC... I remember too because I lived a ways from the train and would walk with my bass 7 long blocks, no wheels, with my boyfriend at the time who was playing sax. Too bad for him actually because he always felt bad for me carrying this gigantic instrument to the train and volunteered to help. I would then have to carry like 2 horns and a bag, which was still a lot, but that never seemed to stop us. Also Jazz Mobile was going on weekly on Saturday afternoons, as well as Barry Harris' workshops... I mean there really was a lot going on and so NYC definitely seemed like a cool place to be. I was also playing in the subway, parks and busy NYC intersections as many musicians do for exposure, money, a chop builder, and a chance to play... I definitely did my share of this, and actually still see people who may remember me from one of these locations.... skipping ahead, right after college I began touring, & actually missed my graduation because I left a few days prior on my first trip to Japan... I was a side man along side the great Drummer Denis Charles. Truly interesting trip...
Skipping ahead again, decades later, after spending time in Italy on a long tour (Pino Daniele)and then back in New Jersey house sitting for friends, I began to question my life and my happiness and yearned for a better understanding of myself. (right around the time of 9/11). With the help of a good friend and psychologist Carmen Robles, who taught me how to value and preserve myself and good friend Michael TA Thompson, the Sound Rhythium, who showed me how to trust my instincts, take responsibility for my actions, attain desired direction and learn to invest.
I have to mention that with Mike's encouragement, watchful eye, & Carmen's love, along with my family's trust, I was able to purchase my very first home and so yes I live on the same block that I grew up on but in a completely different setting and state of mind. Choosing to purchase the house in this neighborhood was pretty unexpected, whereas before i was definitely trying to escape the life of the urban streets/hood I had a desire to give back... I wanted to better the neighborhood and always inspire folks (young and old). Beauty, intellect and talent is not subject to location... you can find a diamond in worst place... So I basically took this abandoned dilapidated building and brought it back to life. I give jobs to the kids in the neighborhood around the house and help them with numbers or spelling when I can, and also started my girls group there, which was formed to educate young girls, avoid some of the unnecessary crap on the streets and give them a place to safely express themselves. This neighborhood will always have a place in my heart.
Carmen and Mike played a key role in helping me to look at myself and to learn to love what I see. The character Mimi Jones was actually born out of this self journey. I must also acknowledge the countless assistance from so many people like my parents, teachers, and many of the well established musicians on the scene...Everyone has always encouraged me to continue, and so I am grateful to all.
Zzaj: One of the things that amazed me the most about the music on your newly released CD was your ability to weave various styles of music together without it sounding like you were “borrowing” anything – what (musical) culture in your environment influenced you the most in what Mimi Jones plays now?
Mimi: You know it's funny because I used to throw out a lot of my compositions, for the very reason that they were not cohesive with one another or sounded too much like something else I heard on the radio.
A good friend suggested I stop throwing away these "gifts" , and that they would eventually manifest into something even if it didn't logically make sense in terms of "jazz".
A lot of it was coming out folksy, bluesy and groovy. I began to realize that these were good elements to have... and so as my mind works a little out of the box anyway, I began to realize that it is the essence of sincerity that would link all of these songs together. There's some everyday stuff that if you live long enough it will eventually happen to you, or the person sitting next you...
I mean honestly I do struggle to decide which genre I belong, and I think the music is going to continue to bend and morph as I continue to study and live life... I definitely feel that this music is inspired by sounds that I heard growing up....(Wayne Shorter, Miles, Trane, Nina Simone, Duke Ellington, Steely Dan, Michael Jackson, Earth , Wind and Fire, Beatles, Donny Hathaway, Stevie Wonder, Chuck Mangione, Peter Paul and Mary, Sade, Bob Marley, just to name a few) to experiencing music and life throughout my travels to Democratic Republic of Congo, life in Mauritania and Haiti, and seeing some places so beautiful as Cape Town, for example. I look forward to exploring more and including sounds, scales, instruments and perhaps including players from these regions to the Mimi Jones Show. There were so many things that I was hearing in the time period of recording this CD that I just couldn't for the sake of time and money add, like percussion. I guess this is why there's usually a #2 album.
Zzaj: You’ve shared stages with some big names, like Lionel Hampton, Joshua Redman & (one of my favorite players) Onaje Allan Gumbs… tell us a bit more about your tours… what was exciting, what wasn’t & what sticks out as most memorable for you from those times?
Mimi: Well my first tour to Japan was like just jumping into the big pool, without really knowing how to swim...
..of course when people talk about their travels there are just some things you just would have to be there to understand, like the smells of a particular area. Japan to me has this particular pungent fish or seaweed scent that just seems to be everywhere... I was sick for days. In order to save on food i would go to the convenience store and buy these rice balls for lunch, my body wasn't used to the sticky rice and I was constipated for 1 month and it didn't help that I wasn't quite accustomed to using the traditional Japanese toilets which were in most of the places that we stayed. They actually took me to several holistic doctors while I was there, so i learned not to overdose on the white rice. Also on the first adventure, the band leader (I will not mention a name) had us staying in this office above a market, we each had a rollout mat which is common in Japanese culture and slept in the same room on the floor. The drummer and I protested after a couple of days of this and were sent to stay in a friend's townhouse. The owner was a Dr. and was out pretty much all day, but each morning I remember waking up to his youngest son coming into the room to wake me up to play, 9am... luckily he was cute, or else... One of the gigs included the band playing for a political prisoner which quickly turned into a riot, and almost led to our arrest, imagine I'm just trying to play bass, what the...
The best part of the trip was that when i got to the airport in NYC upon our departure I happened to notice that the drummer had sort of a familiar look that I recognized growing up in an instant...he looked kind of off, and was dressed a little on the hobo side of things...
I studied him as we arrived to Japan and went thru our first days trying to get adjusted. When he hit the stage he came alive, I looked forward to playing with him each nite, and he began sharing his stories with me, about how he used to be drug dealer and would sell to Miles and Art Blakey, and he eventually became a drummer and went on to play with just about every living musician in his era. He became like my best friend and I now looked forward to playing and listening to more of his firsthand encounters with these musicians whom I could only read about in the history books. That drummer turned out to be the amazing Denis Charles, go figure. A trip that seemed to be destined for doom became such a great experience. I went on to travel to Japan for about 8 times more with different artists since then. I have also never seen such a culture that truly adores and preserves Jazz the way the Japanese do, they treat it like folks treat classical music in America...I do appreciate that.
I would have to say that going to the Congolese village to buy a traditional drum was heartfelt.... I was on a good will tour, and there were chosen students attending the workshops. Among some of the high school students there were these 2 boys like 6 and seven - they traveled far each day to make it to the workshop with their father, who was a traditional flutist and a drum maker...you could tell they were on the undernourished side of things but so enthusiastic and talented that no one ever questioned their status. We took a trip in these Embassy buses, bullet- proofed and all-terrain... as we began to enter their area the road started to narrow and the pavement stopped, & the mud road began. The bus had a bit of a hard time making the turns, we were pretty much surrounded by shacks without lights or running water, tons of little kids with raggedy clothing, and here was this family with the biggest smile on their faces, that we had come to see them. Man it was like a scene from one of those "Feed the Children" commercials... but they were not asking of anything from us, just the price of the drums, they were so happy... it was then that it had really hit me that happiness is a state of mind and is not determined by the items on your back. I mean, don't get me wrong we have to have money to survive but it was different perspective. I also wondered - it took us like 20 min to get there by car, and they walked to the workshop everyday, that's dedication!
I have tons of these stories, but I have to say playing on the big stage with Pino Daniele (Italian pop Icon), Rachel Z, and Allison Miller, was a great experience too. On this tour everything was of the best caliber - the hotels, the food, the Venues, I mean I played in some of the ancient ruins of our history like the Coliseum, the square famous for Romeo and Juliet, or on the beautiful Mediterranean sea - amazing! But the best part was playing for 10 to 20 thousand screaming fans, with lights and effects - this was the first time I had experienced such a big show, and my favorite part was when Pino did his solo encore and you could hear a pin drop, i thought to myself I will do that one day too. :-)
Zzaj: I’ve spent (at least) 25 years out of 50 in my working life in other countries, & noticed that you have spent significant time abroad, too… how important do you think that time spent in other cultures was to the development of your own musical voice?
Mimi: I believe that the surroundings you grow up in have a major influence on one's creativity and open up the possibilities. In Mali I made friends with a Cora player and maker - he had a voice that would completely penetrate your soul when he sang, singing off the pentatonic scale, but his tone wasn't the traditional sound that we associate with being a good singer.
It had a certain resonance that can only be found in that region...It had to do with his fast vibrato too. Since music is a form of expression it's a natural tendency for people take on the everyday sounds of their surroundings. Anyway after hearing for myself...that you could be just as effective moving people, even if its a little unusual, I began to feel more confident about my own voice, being that it is dark and little unusual too...because it is just sounds.
Also I look forward to incorporating more scales into my music like the Arabic scale that I fell in love with while traveling through North Africa as well as the scale used in Greece, and of course more of the beloved soulful pentatonic.
Zzaj: I (for one) am extremely happy to hear the integration of soulful vocals into your jazz and blues compositions (especially with the degree of creativity you express through them); did you have formal voice training, or is your shining vocal talent/spirit pretty much a “natural”? What, or who, has influenced you most strongly when it comes to vocal work?
Mimi: Well i always wanted to sing, but what came out was not your a typical sound and so for years i only sang to myself.
After making a conscious decision to sing at... 34 years old, I began searching for a coach and I decided on Dr Richard Harper 0 he's a professor and teaches everything from opera to jazz, and has a residency at the New School for social research. Anyway he helped me to realize that there actually was a voice hidden deep inside of me and taught me how to bring it out. I also took some coaching from Vocalist JD Walter, he has a very strong instrument. But i can relate because my range kind of falls in with the men, believe it or not.
Mala Waldron has showed me a some vocal techniques, new artist Pauline Jean has showed me how to emphasize my syllables and implement expression of pronunciation. Clarissa Sinceno has showed me how to use my diaphragm and sing to the back of the room like a laser. I guess I take some from everyone, but I'm in awe of folks like the late/great Betty Carter, Sarah Vaughn, Nina Simone, Carmen McCrae, Joni Mitchell, Chet Baker, Cassandra Wilson, Andy Bey, Donny Hathaway, Phillip Bailey, El Debarge, Michelle Ndegeo Cello, James Brown and Al Green ...to name a few.
Zzaj: The very first time I listened to your album, I made comparisons to other artists who have helped us move on past barriers to new paradigms (my immediate thought was of Joni Mitchell, who I believe was one of these landmark creators); what (again, in your own words) is your musical vision for the world?
Mimi: Hmm... hard to say, for one thing the world is definitely a smaller place like 2 degrees instead of the usual 6 degrees of separation with all this cutting edge technology available to us today. The young musicians are sounding great, like they are able to have access to more stuff than ever was possible in the past, and they seem to be playing strong in many different styles too. I think it's great, there are so many interesting sounding crossover musics happening too... the whole world is transitioning, I just hope folks continue to support and appreciate the benefits of live music, there's nothing like it.
I'm thrilled to be in this time musically though because it's free to go in any direction. Miles Davis definitely changed it up a few times, I aspire to be like him and shake it up a bit too... :-)
Zzaj: If you had the chance to play with one of your musical heroes that you’ve not played with before – who would it be? Why?
Mimi: Wayne Shorter, I really love his music and his use of sound. I'm very attracted to players that play with dynamics and know how to manipulate that one note with different inflections, depending on the moment.
Earth, Wind, and Fire, Sade... have so much fun on stage and the arrangements are amazing!
Benny Golson, I just love his spirit, sound and compositions, Sonny Rollins, Grady Tate, Kim Burrell, Cassandra Wilson and Roy Haynes, whoosh!
...this would be the list of groups still in existence, I wont begin listing groups from the past.
...well let's just say my dream was to be in betty carter's band when she was alive... :-)
Zzaj: I believe that everyone who “understands” jazz (as a force that moves the world) will be asking this same question… when is your next release? Can you give us any hints about who will play on it, what the theme will be, or other “gossipy tidbits”?
Mimi: Well, I'll say this much...I want to explore some things that i didn't get to do on the last one, highlighting the bass voice more by playing more with the bow...solos and melodies. Take it uptempo but not with a cluttered sound...rhythmically do some odd grooves without sounding like I'm trying too hard, include some percussion different sounds. Overall I want he music to affect the senses of the listener creating virtual visuals, you know like their imagination...crazy huh?
Would love to use the same group, but we'll see... I want to really explore inflections more... I'm really looking forward to #2.
Zzaj: I’m told you want to also move into digital media; are you thinking of video performances only, or more like theme-based features? If I’ve “missed the mark” on where you might be going with that, please give us an idea of what your vision is for multimedia & where you want to go with it?
Mimi: Well I'm a fan of all types of interesting art, especially photography, slide shows and light shows... and so I would like to include this into the show in conjunction with the music, as well as dance, drum troops etc. chorus, bass choir...orchestra it's endless... and exciting!
Zzaj: For all the young (& not so young) players in our readership who are thinking about an actual “career” in music – what are your “words of wisdom” for them? Is a rewarding musical career possible these days, or not really worth all the hard work it takes to do that? On that note, do you do a “day gig” yourself, or is music your sole pursuit?
Mimi: I can't stress enough the benefits of going for what it is you truly desire to do - the reward surpasses all of the practice and hard work that it takes to get better; it will call you in the nite, like a drug and if you never try you will always feel incomplete. So please continue to reach for your dreams!
Okay now that we've spoke about that, let's get down to business... Yes a successful career in music is definitely attainable. I think it's important to explore which voice (instrument) is really your forte/strength/sound... and many musicians play different instruments too, so its not like you can never ever learn another, but you should definitely try to focus on one until it becomes second nature.
With the right amount of focused practicing and playing out, you will begin to see growth and want to continue on. People get really excited when folks they know have a talent so you wont be alone, at some point someone will recommend you, or suggest a new challenge to you. Some key things to remember are:
- having a support system - this is key, whether its your family, friends, mentors or teachers... keep in touch with people and seek help, (funding, referrals) support can be encouragement and love as well, you're going to need this at some point, when things get intense, or stagnant.
- longevity- think about your career being the duration of your life, so take your time and get things right. don't just think about immediate gratification, think about where you see your self 20-40 years ahead, then you can at least have a goal to reach for, instead of burning out going in every direction under the sun and not seeing the results you want. Also imagine how you want to be perceived by the public, where you would like to play, etc., and begin to reach for it, no matter how far-fetched it may seem. You can reach that goal. as we know time goes pretty fast, so you'll be there before you know it, but you have to...
Believe - you're the main one who has to believe the possibilities, after that people will eventually follow.
Be ready and prepared - don't be on time, be early; there's always something going to go down before the moment of truth. People will appreciate your dedication. Really learn the music, and make it so that it is comfortable for you to play on your axe, people will always call you if they feel that you cared enough to get it right. Also you never know from whom and when that break will come around so... just respect everybody and be ready because it will come.
Avoid Judging and comparing yourself, I got stuck in this cortex for ages - came to find out I can never be another in this life time, duh!
Balance- Make sure you take care of your physical self as well, try to eat right and exercise and get enough rest, you will be surprised at how huge a role this plays. Having a great attitude and being flexible come from maintaining the balance that we need as people in order to be able to function in this wild world we live in. Also get out and see and experience new things, this usually inspires you to do better or hear something different. Expand your horizons and you will less be likely to get bored.
Well what I would consider my day job would be playing a gig I don't really prefer but the money is decent. There are always gigs coming thru, depending on how good you are, what instrument you play and how creative you are about "marketing yourself". I've actually been able to limit these situations to just about zero, because of course I have gotten better over time and so I get called for better paying gigs. Also I mentioned earlier that I began learning about investing and business. This really came in handy and allowed me to purchase a home to which I can have a tenant help me pay my bills, so now my day job becomes being my own manager/ booking agent until I can afford to hire a team. I think all musicians should learn some form of business and creative marketing skills, because we will constantly need these tools, even if you have some one working for you, you should be aware of what transactions are being made with your name on it. The whole point is to be able to sustain yourself (longevity) while you get better and better doing what you love, until your craft is able to sustain you, and then even after your doing well, you have to maintain this, once the festival is done, what next? The bills will still be coming in so I recommend investing in something that will work for you while you sleep... be creative, too - a fellow bassist and friend patented a mini real digital real book program... I couldn't have done this, but it worked for him, it could be something hands on like teaching, or even outside in another field of business like a traditional day job, whatever works for you, but think about having money for health insurance as well as pension too. I know its a lot, but it's life, and anything you do will take some effort, let's just make sure we can have some fun while we are here!