Give A Note board member Renier Fee sat down with Roxy Coss, Musician, Composer, Bandleader, Recording Artist, Educator and Activist. They talk about her path as a musician and how she evolved into an activist and powerhouse for women and non-binary people in Jazz.
Give A Note Foundation (GAN) and I are excited to have you on our blog. Thank you! Can you tell us about how you started in music?
I started studying piano and composition at age 5, but my family always valued art and music and played lots of music, including jazz, around the house. I started playing the alto saxophone at age 9 in fourth grade instrumental music and switched to tenor sax in 6th grade when I joined the jazz band at Washington Middle School. My director, Robert Knatt, handed me my first tenor, and I never looked back! It felt like home the first time I played it.
When you reflect upon your music education, is there someone that played a special role in motivating and inspiring you?
Definitely Mr. Knatt and Clarence Acox, the jazz band director at my high school, Garfield HS in Seattle. Acox brought me to places like NYC and Europe, which showed me a career path that inspired me to pursue music professionally.
Also, my first piano teacher Nan Beth Walton, who provided a strong musical foundation – with a focus on ear training, composition, and music theory that helped immensely when I started learning jazz.
Tina Richerson, Jessica Lurie, Jill Drummond, Anne Drummond, and later Ingrid Jensen, were all female teachers of mine who inspired me immensely, because I could see myself in them, and saw a path for myself in music as a woman.
In terms of improvisation, I had so many great teachers along the way!
You are a musician, composer, bandleader, recording artist, and educator. What sparked you to add “activist” to that list?
It wasn’t a choice so much as a necessity for me. As a woman in jazz, every day I face situations that challenge me and make me realize I am different than most of my colleagues. I finally decided to do something about these challenges, instead of letting them define me and my successes or failures. Also, after the 2016 presidential election, I wanted to try to create change, and contribute to society in more of a hands-on way, and I thought the best way would be to take my musical participation and combine that with activism to create more powerful music, messages, and social movement.
In 2017, you founded the Women In Jazz Organization, a collective of over 400 professional performing jazz musicians, who identify as Women or gender Non-Binary. What is the mission of your organization?
Women In Jazz Organization (WIJO) intends to help level the playing field in Jazz, so that women and non-binary people have equal opportunity to participate in and contribute to Jazz, leading to an improved and more rich, diverse, and successful art form.
WIJO aims to improve the experience of women and non-binary people in Jazz through focusing our work on three main goals: to empower and educate individuals within the organization; to create an inclusive environment that fosters solidarity, connects, and strengthens the intersectional community of women and non-binary people in Jazz; and to address inequalities in the Jazz profession.
Ultimately, GAN and WIJO are both trying to ensure that everyone has a place in music. I think most people can agree on that but they don’t take action because they don’t know where to start. What is your advice to our readers about how to support music programs?
Start asking the tough questions. Does the local program near me look representative of the local population near me? If not, why is that? Are there ways I could contribute to changing that? Start having the conversations where you feel pushed past your comfort zone! We need to start having more face-to-face dialogue and calling each other out. This will help lead to solution-based work, but we can’t solve anything that we don’t first acknowledge as problems.
Also, support music education by supporting professional musicians:
- Go out and hear live music (and pay the ticket price or more)!
- Purchase music (including CDs or digital downloads) directly from the artist!
- Also, donate! You can sponsor a student to attend a program directly, or ask the program if they take donations specific to students in need. See if you can help with equipment needs, too! Donate an instrument.
You have an impressive career track with a long future still ahead of you. What do you think is your biggest accomplishment to date? And what are your goals in 2020?
I think the biggest accomplishment is that I’m still here, being a musician. Every day is a new commitment to pursuing this dream, and every day presents a new challenge or journey!
More specifically, I am proud of the trajectory my band is on – the Roxy Coss Quintet just completed our first week-long tour to the Pacific Northwest in November. I’ve released 5 albums as a bandleader, and most of those releases featured primarily original compositions. I’m proud of the list of amazing musicians I’ve worked with, including Clark Terry, Rufus Reid, Sherrie Maricle, Louis Hayes, Billy Kaye, Claudio Roditi, Ken Peplowski, Maurice Hines, and more. I’m proud to be on faculty at Juilliard, and to work with so many students around the world doing Guest Artist work.
I’m extremely proud to be the Founder and President of Women in Jazz Organization, which now includes almost 500 members, and works with dozens of students. I’m honored that I’ve become a role model to young women and girls out there interested in music, offering something to them that I didn’t have at their age.
My goals are to just keep on doing what I’m doing, and growing in those capacities!
Keep learning, keep reaching more people, and keep being inspired.