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Thread started 02/02/07 6:17pm


Rare Patrice Rushen Interview

*One of the interesting things about this interview is the music education that Patrice Rushen got at inner-city LA Locke High School. Hers was the last generation of inner-city youngsters in America to receive this sort of mass formal musical tutelage. Certainly she made the most of it. Anyhow, a very enjoyable interview, hope you all like it.

An in-depth interview with Patrice, from Piano & Keyboard, March/April 1999. Interview by Marienne Uszler.

A genteel greyhound named after Ella Fitzgerald escorted me past the grand piano in the living room to the studio at the back of Rushen's home nestled close to the San Gabriel mountains. The minute I stepped across the threshold, I knew I was in the heart of Rushen's professional world. There were at least five keyboards, a mixing board, a bank of shelves with umpteen machines such as VCRs and tape decks, high-powered speakers built into the walls, an architect's desk for working on scores (she's currently writing a symphony), and a large corner of the room set up for recording (the drum-set was already in place). We went back to examine her roots...

You began as a pianist, I assume.

I began in a eurhythmics program, when I was three. Then I took classical piano lessons, with Dorothy Bishop, in the USC preparatory department, and I stayed in the program right up through high school. Then I went to college, also at USC.

You majored in music ed, though.

As liberal and open as my parents are, they are from the generation that was still a little spooked by the idea of "performer." How are you going to make a living? So we had a pact. I was to stay in music ed, and they'd be happy. If I wanted to play in concerts, orchestras, and bands, I could still do that. But I would come out of college with the ability to get a job.

When did you get involved with pop music, jazz?

It had always been part of my life. At home we listened to everything. It was not unusual that Beethoven would be followed by Ella Fitzgerald, followed by Miles Davis, followed by Perry Como. So I always heard all kinds of music. The categories didn't define for me what I liked, or didn't like. That's been my life experience. To be able to go comfortably from one musical world to the other and feel that it is just one big thing--especially in terms of enjoyment.

Did you ever have any formal training in arranging?

It was a trial by fire that started when I was in high school. At Locke High School, we had probably one of the finest music programs that existed in the L.A. area. The teachers who were there-Reggie Andrews, Don Dustin, Frank Harris-insisted that the kids get a well-rounded background. So we had orchestra, symphonic band, chorus, marching band, jazz band. But the kids in the marching band wanted to play new music, not just marches. So I used to experiment with doing arrangements of popular tunes for the marching band.

You just learned on the job?

They gave me books to read-here are the ranges of the instruments, and so on. I would come in with these arrangements, and they would actually let me stand there and conduct them! Some of them probably sounded hideous. But a few of them sounded pretty good. We played them. And I got better and better. That was the first inkling I had that there was something I could do with music.

Locke also gave me my exposure to Jazz, and that really meant something to me. I had heard it at home, all my life. But in terms of how it's put together, what it's about, the history of it, and its importance in the history of American music-those were things I learned during my high school years.

You were fortunate!

It was a unique situation. Remember that by the time I got to high school, I had been playing piano since age five. The emphasis had always been on classical music, technique, structure, and things like that. So I was able to apply some of that to help with my understanding of what jazz was. That was an explosion of excitement for me.

Did you always improvise? Even as a kid?

I always had a good ear, and I was always able to pick out stuff and make up certain types of things. I think I had probably the greatest foundation ever because my teachers stressed technique and musicality. If I had written a little piece, Dorothy Bishop would encourage me to play it-and to play it well! And she would tell me how it related to this Haydn we were going to be playing in my lesson.

What was Your first real job?

It was during my sophomore year at college. I got called to do a record date with Jean-Luc Ponty.

That's pretty spectacular for a first job!

Ponty said, "I've heard about you, and I would like to hear you play some of my stuff. I'm getting ready to record, and I'm trying out some different people! Now this was after I had already recorded an album myself, for Prestige records in 1972, an album called Prelusions. So I think Ponty had heard that.

What was your audition with Ponty like?

We played through germs and ideas that he put together for his album. Perfect for me, because he wrote everything out. There weren't even any chord symbols on the page. With my background, this was not a prob-lem. I was very nervous, but I was enjoying it. I said to myself, "Whether I get this job or not, this is just a gas. I love it." He liked the way I played because I always had strong tech-nique. And I always had a good sound, good tone (I was playing on an acoustic piano). He liked that. And when it came to the improvising parts of his music, I was equally comfort-able (he thought). I was shaking in my boots. I recorded two albums with Ponty. He wanted me to go out on the road, but I was in school. My parents said, "School first, road second.'

Pianist, arranger, improviser. You don't have a career. You have careers.

Things just evolved. From that situation with Ponty, other people began to call me for sessions. I met people. Most of them came to our school because Dustin and Harris were very proactive in getting professionals who were appearing in town to come down to Locke and talk to the kids. At the time that was innovative.

So I met Tom Scott, Quincy Jones, Gerald Wilson, and Herbie Hancock. And these people stayed in touch! Sometimes I would get a call from a musician that would be working on a session. "Come with me and check it out. See what we do, and see how it goes." Tom Scott was so incredibly gracious. When he was scoring the TV show, Baretta, he had me sit on the podium with him and watch. I know now what a big thing that was. There were people like that in my life. I would just soak it up with no real idea of what I was going to do with all of it later.

Do you think they did that for a lot of people?

No. In my case they picked up on something. And took me seriously.

I'm sure they realized-here's a sponge! How did you meet Quincy Jones?

He came to our school. He used to send arrangements to the high school.

Quincy Jones?

We got arrangements from Quincy, from Thad Jones, from Gerald Wilson. Wilson was right here in town, so he would come over to the school and conduct. He would even pull some of us out to play gigs when some of his main guys couldn't make the date. This gave us the chance to really see what it takes to make it to the professional ranks.

You said that Quincy Jones became a mentor.

After I had finished my last album for Prestige, Elektra Asylum was interested in signing me. They were starting what they were calling the pop/jazz division--meaning that the music would be derivative of jazz, but have elements of pop music. Quincy heard some of the records I made. He remembered me from all these other contacts.

But he really saw that I needed to develop business acumen. Another friend was doing some work for Quincy, and Quincy clued us both in. How do you get the records to start working? How do you get the record companies to focus on you? He told us about promotion and dropped little hints. But he didnt write it out for us.

And we stayed in touch. I got invited to play at his daughter's wedding. I walked in the door. There was Cannonball Adderley, Sarah Vaughan -I'm like freaking out! What Quincy remembers most is that Sarah Vaughan decided to sing impromptu. She could have accompanied herself. But she said, "Do you know such and such in the key of such and such?" I said I did. So she sang, and I played along. I almost died! But Quincy remembered that I got through it. From that point on, I would just hear from him periodically. When I would run into him, he would take me aside and ask how things were going. He really became a sort of guide, although there were others ...


Herbie Hancock. Gerald Wilson.

It's like an apprentice system.

Yes, in a way. But it's not blind devotion. My attitude is, I let you tell me what it is you want to tell me, and then I'll go off and do what I want or need with that information. Maybe we'll have an opportunity to meet again, and I'll come back to you with a little question about something."

I mentioned Herbie Hancock as a big influence. Now I have probably had only six conversations with him since I was 15. That's not a lot. They were short, and they weren't necessarily about something at the piano or a composition. But when I would go to hear him play or have an opportunity to ask him something, those were like lessons!

It's those special people who take it beyond what you can do in a classroom. I remember when we were in the jazz band at Locke, Reggie Andrews would say, "On Friday night, I'll pick you up, and we're going to the dub. We'll sit in the back and drink fruit punch-and we will be quiet!" He would arrange everything with the dub owner. (We were all under age.) We would go as a class to hear the music. Andrews spent his own time and energy to schlep us kids so that we could hear jazz music in context. We learned what the environment was, and we learned what was expected in that environment. And it made a difference.

Do you think some of these folks helped you because you're a woman?

It was hard for me to tell. That's the good thing. I think that if I had had the feeling early in my life that the extra attention was based on gender, it probably would have turned me off.

I remember when I was studying orchestration with Albert Harris at Quincy's recommendation. Harris was a studio orchestrator. I saw him looking up and down. "This little girl is coming for orchestration lessons? Has she really done the things Quincy says she's done?" It was moments like that. But no one ever said out loud, "Oh, you're a girl." Everyone was very gracious. And when they saw that I was serious, they got serious.

I assume there are big differences between the classical and pop worlds?

I hear different kinds of music, and like different kinds of music. But as I get older, I'm starting to feel myself becoming more narrow-not in my appreciation for all the other kinds of music, but in how I want to spend my time learning to communicate my own voice.

Twenty years ago I had hit records-bona fide, top-of-the-chart, off the hook, hit records. Which now are being resampled! "Men in Black," for instance is my song, "Forget Me Nots." That's probably the highest compliment I could ever be paid that 20 years later, something of mine in a "pop arena" is still valid.

What happened to that tune? Did you make a new arrangement?

I didn't do anything. They took the exact recording and did new vocals. They looped a part of it--a part that was just music, without my singing. They put new words to the original melody with the same musical style that was on the original recording. And it exploded. I'm thrilled with that kind of validation.

What about keyboards themselves? You switch easily from keyboard to keyboard. Anything in your background, in your classical training, that stands you in good stead?


Many people say you can't use classical keyboard technique when you play keyboards.

When I say technique, I mean the kind that gives you the ability to choose how much pressure, when to do what.

But pressure doesn't count for much on most keyboards.

On some more than others. But I use piano technique to be able to evaluate what I need to adjust in order to play other keyboards as separate instruments. I never adopted the mindset that because it has keys, it's like the piano. It is not. It feels different, and you make adjustments. That's what I mean by using my classical technique. Like a harpsichord feels different from an organ, from a piano.

But as I get older and become more sensitive to nuance, I'm finding that as much as I enjoy electronic keyboards, I'm returning more and more to the piano.

Nuance is one of the reasons that so many classical pianists are turned off by keyboards because nuance does not come from touch, as it does on a piano.

No, but some of the weighted keyboards give you a bit of a window, so you can have some nuance within that window.

How do you get nuance?

You do it with the sounds, with the balance of the sounds. I come from an orchestral background in terms of the way I hear things. So even when I'm using electronic instruments, I'm still looking for balance between tones and sounds, still looking for depth. On electronic instruments, you hit the key, and that's what you get. But there are ways to shade it, ways to be able to combine sounds to give you a hybrid that helps you create illusions.

I don't think that I could have begun to consider those things had it not been for the fact that in my life, before electronics, I had heard a symphony orchestra. I heard that first heard what it's like to be in a band. I played flute all through junior high. You sit in the middle of the band or orchestra, and you feel all that stuff moving around you. All of that counts. And it's in my psyche now.

What about pedaling?

I really, really miss it. But on no instrument do you have everything you want. That's why there are different instruments. When I play the piano, it goes all up my arms. When I play these keyboards, I feel absolutely nothing. And that's really OK. Because thats what allows me to be able to make certain kinds of adjustments.

Do you feel that your gender has made any difference negatively, especially in the music-business side?

Yes, I would have to say that was a factor. A lot of record companies didn't bother to read who was doing the writing, the orchestrating, who was playing, I was just the girl vocalist. But I don't think they were consciously stopping me from doing anything that I wanted to do.

What are some of the negative business things?

The assumption that you don't know your stuff. And it comes in this form-it comes as a big surprise when you do everything well! I'm really happy for the praise. But sometimes I was doing things that I would have thought, at that level, simply were expected.

But when I started composing and working in film and TV, I was not working with music people. To film and TV people, music is just something you need to accompany the visuals. When I would go into meetings regarding TV shows or films, you soon got the feeling that the music was just something they were going to have to deal with because they knew they needed it. But they don't spend a lot of time talking about it. In the meetings you see them fidgeting, not really paying attention. And when you're a woman, you get the "surprised look.' They double-check your name. "So do you actually do what it says you do here?"

Is that one of the reasons you became a producer, a director?

Exactly. I had the ability to do it. And without any fanfare. I just wanted to get the music out there.

Do you think there's disparity moneywise. Do they pay female composers or arrangers equal wages?

It's hard for me to know. If it's like everything else, the answer is most probably yes. But I don't know. This aspect is so new for me. And I think it's relatively new for the industry, too.

Are there many female studio arrangers and composers?

Very few. But the numbers will grow.

How did you get into musical directing?

Just like everything else. Somebody called me and asked me to do something. I was involved in a series of comedy specials for Robert Townsend. He was doing his first movie, Hollywood Shuffle. I did the music for his film, and the film was highly acclaimed. He got three HBO specials out of it. And he asked me to be music director for these specials. I'd never done anything like that before, but I knew what to do.

People saw the specials, liked them, and called me to do the NAACP Image awards. Another producer saw that, and asked me to do the Emmys. I did Emmys two years in a row. And after that I did Comic Relief. As each thing came up, I would find out what I would need to do, and just do it.

Are you also playing multiple female roles ... wife, mother ... ?

I've been a wife for 13 years. I've had the wife role. Other things will follow. My husband is super supportive.

Any pluses or minuses relative to your race?

I was so fortunate. By the time I was born, a lot of the initial issues were being worked out. The impact is there, but I've seen us come out of it to a certain degree, at least in the world in which I function.

What's your advice to those seeking a career today?

Whatever it is, give it your best shot. Allow yourself to be open to possibilities. Music makes it possible for us to travel, see different parts of the country, meet very interesting people, have the kind of life-style that allows us to do what we love as our work. That's a privilege and a blessing.

Do you think that the education of musicians ought to change?

I think that classical educators have to monitor carefully that they create an awareness for the student to understand that, although classical music was at one time the pop music of its time, it isnt any more. Its relevance now is only as good as the people who can make it current by performances that encompass tradition, but are also in tune with the present and the future. And that's musicianship.

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Reply #1 posted 02/02/07 9:18pm



merci cool
"be who you are and say what you feel
because those who mind don't matter
and those who matter don't mind."
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Reply #2 posted 02/03/07 1:27am


Thank U for posting that wink
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Reply #3 posted 02/03/07 3:20am


Is that from her official site?
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