The Future is Female: An Interview with Saxophonist Roxy Coss

Interview conducted by Alison Evans


How and when did you begin playing jazz?

I have been playing music my whole life, and jazz since age 11. I knew I wanted to be a professional jazz musician by age 15, when I first visited NYC, for the Essentially Ellington Competition and Festival. I could really see what it would look like to be a jazz musician, to make a living making music full time, and for that life path. I loved the city and the idea of making music full time. I decided to go to school for jazz, and wanted to be as close to NYC as possible. So, I attended William Paterson University for college. I moved to NYC in 2007 and have been performing professionally since then. My first professional gig in New York was with the Clark Terry Big Band at the Blue Note Jazz Club. I had met CT during my studies at WPU.

 

Who have been your biggest inspirations throughout your musical career?

I was inspired from a young age by my mother, Mary Coss, who is a visual artist, to follow my artistic vision and live the lifestyle of a freelance artist. I have had countless inspirations along my journey, including all of my teachers and mentors. Some critical figures for me in terms of music, performance, and life have been Mark Taylor, Anne Drummond, Clark Terry, Ingrid Jensen, Rich Perry, Sherrie Maricle, Jeremy Pelt, Rufus Reid, Sharel Cassity, Harold Mabern, John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson, Hank Mobley, Art Blakely, and Sonny Rollins.

 

Could you explain the motivation behind your new album “The Future is Female”?

My participation in the January 2017 Women’s March inspired the concept for this project. After the presidential election, I felt hopeless and confused, but I came together with millions of women around the globe to reclaim our voices. I carried a protest sign to the march that read, “The Future is Female.” This phrase stuck out more to me as a concept we as a community need to reflect on. I think we will only move forward as a culture when women and all underrepresented people are included in the conversation, and able to lead in equal and meaningful ways. All of the tunes on the album are related to this theme and other ideas in feminism and sexism that have become prevalent in our society these days. The album is my contribution to the political and social voice. I think it’s important for artists to take a stand and be a part of the landscape of forming culture, and bringing social justice issues to light. I also enjoy the process of making music that has a message, and is based in real-life concepts and themes – it makes the music more meaningful to me.

 

What, in your opinion, is the biggest obstacle for women pursuing a career in jazz?

There isn’t one single biggest obstacle, unless you count the fact itself of being a woman! These issues run extremely deep in our society, culture, and in the jazz community. The art form of jazz has a long history of misogyny and exclusion. This affects a girl’s and woman’s experience at every step of the process, from her first moment hearing the music, to becoming a professional recording artist, and everything in between. The experience of someone pursuing a career in jazz is always going to be experienced through their own personal lens, and for women that lens is primarily being a woman – it tints each and every element of the process. This fact is the biggest obstacle in itself. There are tiny microaggressions and subtle exclusions, discouragements, dismissals, or acts of violence she may experience on a daily basis, and there are deeply rooted acts of institutional discrimination and sexual misconduct that are encouraged, condoned, and ignored that may happen at times, even if it is less frequently. As I get older, and the longer I am on this scene, the more things I notice that have affected my own experience throughout my journey, and continue to do so. So, the impact that being a woman has on your pursuit of a jazz career can’t be boiled down into one issue, nor should it. The fact of being a woman affects your experience entirely, and the specific ways it affects one’s pursuit are often unnoticed, even by the woman herself.

 

What are some obstacles you’ve encountered and how have you faced them?

My biggest challenge is one I think is pretty universal to jazz musicians in general – the challenge to keep doing what we do. On a daily basis, despite any challenges, to keep committing to the music every day. I couldn’t tell you how I do that, but I do know that I have to continue to push myself to find inspiration, to practice discipline, and to have faith. These things make it possible to recommit myself to music on a regular basis. At the end of the day, I am my biggest obstacle for myself – I am the only one who can allow boundaries to be placed on me, or to allow someone to tell me I can or can’t do something (including myself). Only I can really determine my own truth and reality, so it is up to me to remove internal or external blocks and barriers. That allows me to continue on, to continue to succeed and grow.

Seek out peers and mentors who you identify with, who you can see yourself in. Create your own community, your own world. Don’t be afraid to let your life experiences influence your music, your musical voice, and concept. Be you! The world needs you. - Roxy Coss

What is the Women In Jazz Organization (WIJO) and what is its mission?

The Women in Jazz Organization is designed to provide support for those of us who are already a part of the community, and to make sure the community and environment itself is one worth being a part of. The ultimate goal is that this work will benefit everyone in the community, not only the women. Hopefully as a nice side effect to the organization existing, maybe more women and girls will start to see jazz as an option for their own lives. Because when it comes down to it, we as people only pursue realities that we see as viable options for our futures.

As we as an organization gain more recognition and visibility, more women and girls will hopefully see that there are in fact women out there doing it professionally, so they will grow to see it more commonly as an option for themselves. Also, for the members who are involved already, the organization has become an inspirational and encouraging resource, to help with the challenges I mentioned above, that can be common experience – the challenge to continue to be jazz musicians and recommit ourselves, despite any challenges we face. So, in this way, the organization’s usefulness will grow as a tool for more women to utilize, to help them continue to be a part of the jazz community, in the sense of the continuation (not quitting!), rather than as a resource to find more women to join the community in the first place.

 

Currently the WIJO is largely based in NYC, do you have any plans to broaden the organization’s reach?

WIJO is not designed to be exclusive to any specific location. Because I started it, and I am based in NYC, that is where we are currently running operations from. Also, NYC is (arguably) the jazz capital of the world. So, there are more jazz musicians living here than a lot of other places, meaning there are going to be more women in jazz here, therefore potential WIJO members, based here. But we have many current members living around the US, and even some internationally located. There are talks of having other “branches,” or segments of the organization, where people could meet in other cities. Our goals are certainly not limited to NYC. By nature, jazz musicians travel, tour, and are part of an international community. We want our mission to be universal. And, I have done work on “women in jazz” with students in places as far-reaching as Seattle, Manitoba, and Texas, so by no means is our work limited to NYC.

 

 

Any advice for female jazz musicians who want to become professionals such as yourself?

Don’t ever stop playing, don’t ever take the horn out of your mouth (so to speak). All the work you do with music, no matter what it is, will pay off eventually – there is no right or wrong way to do this. Focus on the music, and you’ll be ok. Know that you aren’t alone, that you aren’t the only one out there doing this, and that your experience isn’t the only one like it – you are not crazy. You are valid. Your voice as a musician and human is valid. Don’t let anyone else tell you who you are or aren’t, what you can or can’t do. Seek out peers and mentors who you identify with, who you can see yourself in. Create your own community, your own world. Don’t be afraid to let your life experiences influence your music, your musical voice, and concept. Be you! The world needs you. 

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