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Doing Her Own Thing – Audrey Ochoa on Jazz, Musicianship, and Her Upcoming ‘Selfish’ Second Album (Part 2/2)

by Monika Viktorova

Audrey Ochoa is the first jazz musician I have had the pleasure of interviewing. She is also one of only a few female jazz musicians I have ever met, despite my longtime love of live jazz. I confessed to Ochoa that I jumped at the chance to interview her because I had so rarely seen women jazz musicians grace a stage. She laughed knowingly and recounted her own disappointment at their scarcity, musing about its potential origins. After booking her first gig at the Yardbird Suite at 19, in an euphoric state she went through the online archives to find out how many women had taken the stage in the decade prior. She found only two. “So what I had to settle on was,” concluded Ochoa, “[either] everyone is getting sexually assaulted or one day we all woke up and thought ‘This music’s kind of dumb, I’m just going to do my own thing’. But purists won’t call it jazz, they’ll call it something else.” The following is the second part of my conversation with Ochoa, where she graciously answered all the burning questions I had for her as a female musician, in addition to all the typical ones that I have seen get asked of artists interviewed at popular online music blogs. We touch on Ochoa’s views on jazz music’s place in the historical and current sense, why women in jazz are so rare, and the evolution of the Edmonton jazz scene. She also discussed the process of recording her second album, Afterthought, and bringing in new sounds with an electronic artist collaboration.

The following is Part 2 of the interview. You can find Part 1 here.

[Edited for length and clarity]

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M: I did some research on you and you are a classically trained trombonist, but you ended up in jazz. I thought this was an interesting transition but I didn’t find anything [in previous interviews that you’d done] to explain how that happened so my question is what brought you to jazz?

A: I always played jazz. I think it’s fair to say that jazz is something that should be learned in a practical situation – on stages. You don’t have to go to jazz school to be a jazz musician. There’s a lot of community opportunities in Edmonton to study and play jazz.

M: What do you like about the Edmonton jazz scene?

A: It has a really strong history. It’s been around for decades. It has the Yardbird. It has a million avenues for professional development. I used to just play music- that’s rare. You can’t do that in Victoria or Vancouver or Calgary. You can maybe to it in Toronto or in Montreal. But the fact that you can make it as a freelance musician in Edmonton speaks to the audience appreciating it, I hope.

M: How long have you been playing jazz music?

A: I have been a professional jazz musician for 13 years- that’s when I started getting paid for it [but I’ve been a jazz musician for my whole life]. Most commercial music is a derivative of jazz anyway.

M: I’ve been listening to jazz my whole life because my parents are big fans of jazz but I don’t have any formal musical training. So I come at jazz from a deep love of it – I know if I like something or not when I hear it, but not necessarily why [on a technical level].

A: You shouldn’t need a degree or extensive study to understand whether you do or don’t like jazz. [Jazz] is just music! I feel that jazz has been ‘academized’ – people are intimidated by it but I don’t think it needs to be [intimidating]. You either like it or you don’t like it. I like to describe what I play as something accessible – not because I’ve ‘dumbed it down’ but because most of my influences are pop music and accessible classical music. I find it odd when people describe jazz as something they haven’t experienced before – you’ve experienced it. We’re listening to Bill Withers right now. There’s a case to be made that this is derived from or co-opted by a lot of jazz musicians. [There’s a perception] that jazz has to be complicated and austere, which is stupid.

M: I know that there’s been public discussion about jazz purism recently because of the movie La La Land. Have you seen it?

A: I didn’t see it. And not even out of protest, though a lot of jazz musicians [spoke out against it]. The argument was that most jazz standards come from old musicals. [But] they weren’t written as jazz standards for the musicals- jazz musicians stole pop songs from these musicals and made them into standards that we improvise around.

M: What are jazz standards?

A: Jazz standards are pieces that every jazz musician should know – there’s hundreds. The more [of them] you know the better a jazz musician you are. It’s something you have to know – it’s like basic language. One of the most famous is ‘I Got Rhythm’, which is a song from by George Gershwin written for [the musical] an American In Paris. That song had no improvisation in it, which is central to jazz. But jazz musicians took those chord changes and the melody and [became a jazz standard]. But it came from a Broadway musical! It’s a ridiculous argument to make that [the songs in La La Land] aren’t good enough to be called jazz because there are some horrible standards that everyone knows. It’s an arbitrary thing to say.

M: One of the things about the purism that comes into the movie is that the reason that [Gosling’s character] has this idea of a ‘pure’ jazz club is because he feels pressured by society and the current music scene to bring in electronic music fusion in order to appeal to a mass audience and to him this is ‘selling out’.

A: I hope I don’t start to sound super preachy but that’s a variation on “Kids today!” Jazz is a fusion music and its origins – and I don’t want to go on the record saying ‘These are its origins’ because I wasn’t there. And I’ve only taken two jazz history courses and those text books were written by white men – but it’s safe to say that [jazz comes from] a cultural milieu. Every canonically accepted innovation in the genre was bringing in something new anyways. So for a purist to say ‘We need to go back to the good days!’ is like saying ‘Let’s make jazz pure again!’.

M: It was not lost on a lot of critics that [Ryan Gosling’s character] is a white man.

A: And I thought I was having an epiphany!

M: Do you think that his feeling in the movie that he’s being pressured to make his jazz sound a certain way in order to be commercially viable – do you think there is that sort of pressure?

A: I think there is a lot of pressure to make your jazz sound a certain way – but not to be commercially viable. We’ve all let the boat sail on that one. Everyone just assumes if you’re going to be a jazz musician you’re broke and no one likes you. But there’s certainly a pressure to sound as intellectual as possible, as academic as possible – since it’s not [really] popular outside of post secondary institutions I feel like it’s trying to show how ‘smart’ it is. And that alienates a lot of people. You shouldn’t have to study what it is you’re listening to at a [jazz] concert. You should just be able to enjoy it. And I think we’ve gotten to a need to analyze [jazz] instead of [just enjoying it].

M: On your upcoming album you collaborated with an electronic artist [from Victoria] named Battery Poacher. I wanted to ask you about this because I was looking at this [collaboration] and thinking about [La La Land] and wondering if there this pressure that jazz musicians are feeling to collaborate with electronic music artists’?

A: No that was a complete accident in a lot of ways. There are lots of artists who have done [that kind of collaboration] over the last two or three decades. This music was meant to evolve. [The reason for my collaboration] was really simple. I didn’t have a grant for this album, where I had a grant for the last one. So for this one I thought ‘Let’s just not have any rules. Let’s do a bunch of weird stuff and see what happens.’ And I recorded one album that was just trombone, where I multitracked myself, and I thought ‘this is cool, I can put this on’. Then I was hanging out with a friend who has recorded a few of her own albums – and she was showing me apropos of nothing these collaborations she’d done with this guy from Victoria. And I said ‘That sounds so cool – do you think you can give me his number?’  and so I texted him and sent him a track and he asked ‘What do you want me to do with it?’ and I said “ I don’t know, something cool’ and he came back at me with something and I said make it more like this and by the end it was my favorite track on the album. There was no design to it.

M: Having had this experience of collaborating with someone who does electronic music, do you think that you are going to do it again?

A: Yeah we already have it planned. I loved the first track he did so much that I sent him another one, and then I recorded three more that are not on this album because the next [album] because I want the next one I do to be just electronic [remixes] because it’s cool. Not because I’m trying to show everyone how cool it is. I really like it.

M: Do you find that there are similarities between jazz music and electronic music?

A: Yeah of course. They’re both pop, they’re both pulling the same harmony. Largely rhythmic. But also, and I didn’t realize this until I spoke with Battery Poacher – his name is Dallas – there is a huge improvisational approach to electronic music too. There’s improvisation in pretty much every genre [even though jazz musicians sometimes pretend otherwise]. But I really don’t think of [electronic and jazz] as different. There’s harmony, melody, rhythm and improvisation- that’s jazz.

M: I listen to electronic music and there are sometimes 30 remixes of a song – and I like 10 of them, let’s say. Lots of things get remixed and remixed and remixed.

A: That’s basically jazz. One song is going to get replayed and reinterpreted and re-recorded by about a million musicians – it’s a standard. There’s 30 different versions of one guy playing ‘All The Things You Are’.

M: In your downtime, what do you listen to?

A: It’s an embarrassing thing to say that I don’t listen to that much jazz. I did listen to a lot of [traditional] jazz in my teens and university years to be ‘alternative’ when I was growing up but I don’t listen to a lot of it now because I love pop and R&B. You can’t enjoy jazz passively. You have to sort of invest your attention to it. Which you could say about any type of music, but [jazz] is more complex than Katy Perry. And that’s not a diss to Katy Perry – it’s just designed to be more complex than that.

And that’s why I find pop music enjoyable because I don’t have to analyze what’s going on. There are lyrics telling me how to enjoy this. The best way to experience jazz, for me, is to watch it live, because it’s a different energy. The studio is going to be your best take [of a song] and there may be edits on it or not but there’s a risk factor seeing it live because you get to understand the performer as a person. Because you’re asking ‘Are they risky? Are they going to go for it? Are they going to play it safe? Are they giant nerds with a ton of facility because they practice 9 hours a day?’ There’s a relation that happens when you watch music live [that doesn’t happen when you’re listening to it.]

M: What’s Edmonton’s jazz community like?

A: If you think of who the heros are in this town – Tommy Banks and PJ Perry – [it’s centered] largely around bebop. That’s what they threw down – the foundation they put down. BUt the community now is not around the Yardbird [Suite]- it’s around MacEwan. A lot of the instructors there are the jazz guys in town. The culture is kind of being formed there. The kids at MacEwan are [the tastemakers].

M: I associate jazz in Edmonton with the Yardbird [Suite].

A: Everyone does. It’s historic and it’s an institution. But it has an aging board that has been thinking about jazz the same way [for decades]. And that’s going to catch up. Music evolves quicker now than it ever has- because of the internet. I don’t know that they’ve moved along with the times- they haven’t had to.

M: And institutional inertia is a feature of every institution.

A: When I was coming up, their jams were really well attended and they were really busy on the weekends- this is back when you could smoke. I can’t believe my mother let me volunteer there on weekends because they had smoking on Saturdays. It wasn’t renovated. It still served nachos. It was a little dingier. It’s not like that now- it’s much more sanitized. Which  is awesome because they have more money.

M: Do you think that they’re making efforts to reach out to a younger demographic? I know that I go [to the Yardbird] but I go with my mom – because we both like jazz. I have tried to get friends of mine to go [unsuccessfully].

A: What is their hesitation? I’d love to know

M: Honestly I think it just comes down to – if you don’t listen to a form of music in your downtime you’re going to find better things to do on a Friday night than come to the Yardbird with me. I think that’s really what it is. So I grew up here and then moved to Montreal and lived there for many years-

A: But their jazz culture is different. Their jazz culture is associated with ‘party’. I’ve played the Montreal Jazz Festival and it’s crazy- everyone is drinking and smoking. I’m going to guarantee you 70% of the audience does not really care who’s on the stage. It’s about the experience.

M: In order to be commercially viable as a jazz club, you want to be offering people an atmosphere that’s going to attract them?

A: Yes.

M: That goes beyond perhaps the merits of the artists who are performing.

A: Yes. When I was first teaching in elementary school, I had a principal who asked me to take the class on a music field trip. I thought ‘I’m going to approach the Yardbird and see if they want to have a daytime jazz show for kids’. So I invented this program called ‘Jazz for Kids’ and you just put on a concert that kids could go to the club and listen to a jazz concert as a field trip. It’s still running although I don’t run it anymore. What I thought was hilarious was that my grade 5’s who I took my first year – we listened to the music ahead of time, we studied it so they would know what they’re listening to. And they were really excited to see a trombone. But what they were most excited about across the board was ‘Is it going to be dark in the club? Can we buy food?’ And when we went to [the Yardbird] and it was dark they were like ‘Holy shit! It’s dark and I’m in a club!’ and that’s what affected them. And then they were like ‘Oh the music’s school’. Because it has to be, because my music teacher is here. But who can say what they actually thought of the music. But 9, 10, 11 year olds were [thinking]: ‘Music’s cool and everything – but do I get to pretend to be an adult in the club?’ And I don’t think that sensation goes away for adults. They want to go somewhere cool where people are where they can eat food and clink wine glasses and potentially find a date- so to pretend it’s all about the music? Come on. It’s not even all about the music for me!

M: My experience of jazz in Montreal outside of Jazz Fest has been Upstairs [Bar]. And if I was going to sell you on why you should go to Upstairs- I mean, the jazz, yes – but Montreal has a robust scene of different kinds of music in different venues. The jazz is part of it. But [Upstairs]’ atmosphere is just so cool – they have a bunch of interesting tchotchkes on the wall from the 1930’s.

A: Atmosphere matters! And I’m sold. And who did you see that night?

M: I don’t remember.

A: Of course- because you’re there with friends! I don’t remember who I watched at the Yardbird when I went there last – somebody good but – to tie it all the way back to La La Land: who cares if it’s original swing or not? As long as it’s a holistic experience. I think academics miss the mark on that- they teach people to check out this specific musical characteristic instead of ‘Why did you get into music in the first place? Why did you get into jazz?’

The Yardbird is the same guys. It’s always the same guys. There’s a great band and there’s one woman. But never more than one. Two weeks ago I was doing a show and someone said ‘Oh it’s nice to have some girls here’. And there were two of us, in a group of 17. [So I pointed it out.] Then he looked at me and he asked ‘What’s it like to be the only girl all the time in bands?’ Because it’s happened for years. And it bothered me because it’s the same guys … not evolving. So when we ask ‘Why isn’t jazz relevant? Because it’s not the face of anything. It’s the face of jaz 70 years ago in Canada. In every picture [of a jazz band] from [every decade] there’s always one [woman]. And it’s been said to me for the last 13 years ‘It’s getting better’. But you’ve been saying that for 13 years!

M: I’m really glad you brought this up because I wanted to ask how you felt as a woman and as a woman of colour in the jazz scene? I don’t have an insider’s view of jazz but it’s not like I don’t notice the demographics of the people I listen to in the jazz scene.

A: They do just assume women don’t like it. I always wondered ‘Why aren’t there more of us?’ I guess [women] quit to have babies was the only thing that made sense to me. I’m not trying to sound bitter but it’s certainly not a welcoming environment. If you can sit around and listen to 16 other dudes stand around and talk like dudes and make sexist jokes – and then say ‘Oh sorry, sorry. Cover your ears, honey!’ I’ve been told to cover my ears at rehearsal while they make some shitty joke – I’m a grown woman. So if you can sit through that [as a woman] I guess you’ll be fine. But that’s not much comfort.

The seedy part is where you’re working in clubs at night and on stage- there’s a danger factor there that’s very real. If you talk to women in music – over a drink and in hushed tones – there are tons of terrible stories. From other musicians, from patrons, from a club and bar owners. That will push people out too. If you’re one woman – and let’s say it’s a 10 to 1 ratio, even though it’s probably much lower – and you don’t’ see those other women to compare notes and it’s those other guys saying ‘He’s just joking’? It’s an intimidating place to be in. Aside from the minor sexist aggressions there’s a danger factor that [men] won’t acknowledge.

M: I think the problem with jokes like that – well one it’s that they’re not funny. But they’re a reminder that women are outsiders to the space.

A: They are outsiders. For example, the one torch women are allowed to carry and that they’re credited for in the jazz scene are as singers. But the pervasive joke is that vocalists don’t know anything. So even that is unwelcoming. It’s assumed that they can’t read a sheet or compose. But you don’t want to bring that up lest some band calls you sensitive.

M: I think that’s changing in terms of our ability to call it out. I think about – who was it that covered Taylor Swift’s album [1989]?

A: Oh Ryan Smith. And everybody said he ‘discovered hidden depths to the music that weren’t there before’.

M: The music was deep before he got to it. But the idea that men innately bring knowledge –

A: Authority.

M: And authority to the music that women don’t – and [Canadian female musician and producer] Grimes has called this out. I see her speaking out really vocally about the fact that when she’s in studios [male engineers] will tell her she can’t touch the equipment because they assume she doesn’t know how to use it – and actually she’s been producing her own music since she started. So I think our ability to call this out has been increasing because it’s hard to shut down the internet.

A: Women can be more vocal about it. But there’s also no incentive for anybody to keep going in jazz period. There’s no money. There’s really only the acclaim of your peers. And when all of your peers are men? There’s very little incentive to keep going [as a woman]. I know women who quit and became singers in cover bands. Because it was more fun – it was less having to constantly prove yourself. Constantly having to prove your facility so nobody would call you a ‘chick player’. Which still happens to this day. The greatest compliment a person in the audience or a fellow musician can give me is ‘You don’t play like a girl’. I don’t know what that means!

M: And I think that will have to change.

A: Well it doesn’t have to change. You can just let the genre die off. It’s already the least popular music behind classical. There’s no question in my mind to why that is: it’s because [it’s] in love with the past and it’s self-referential.

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You can see Audrey Ochoa live in concert at the following upcoming shows, all listed on her website:

Audrey Ochoa Quartet House Concert

Calgary May 5th, 2017 8:00 pm

Maracujah

The Needle Vinyl Tavern, Edmonton May 6th, 2017 8:00 pm

Audrey Ochoa Trio CD Release Party

The Yardbird Suite Edmonton, May 20th, 2017 7:30 pm

Photography by Yuetong Li. 

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