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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Jaleel Shaw (Lafiya Watson) & Elena Pinderhughes

Jaleel Shaw (Lafiya Watson) & Elena Pinderhughes

First impressions make a real difference, so when veteran saxophonist Jaleel Shaw (Roy Haynes, Tom Harrell) met flutist Elena Pinderhughes at The Jazz Standard, he had an intuition that something would come of their introduction.

“Elena came down to a gig I was playing with Nate Smith at the Jazz Standard—I think her brother [Samora Pinderhughes] was on the gig—and we met. She seemed like a really nice person and to me that’s one of the most important things, a person you have a good vibe with,” says Shaw.

“I think before that I had listened to some of her stuff on YouTube, and I was like, “Wow!” So after meeting her it kind of made it easier to say, “Yeah,” [regarding the Mentoring Program] because she was really cool and had a really positive vibe.”

Pinderhughes is only in her second semester at The Manhattan School of Music, but has already recorded and/or performed with the likes of Ambrose Akinmusire and Vijay Iyer and led her own band on our stage. We’re pleased to announce that Jaleel and Elena will be the first artists participating in The Jazz Gallery Mentoring Program, with performances on Wednesday, April 23rd & 30th, plus two additional performances to be announced. We spoke with Jaleel and Elena separately by phone to get their thoughts about mentorship in jazz and their upcoming performances.

The Jazz Gallery: How do you define a “mentor?”

Jaleel Shaw: A mentor is usually someone that is on a similar track to the one that you’re on, on a similar path. Maybe they’ve experienced some things that you’d like to experience or have yet to experience; maybe it’s someone that you can share information with, who shares information with you and shows you things from their experiences based on that similar path that you’re on.

Elena Pinderhughes: I think a mentor is someone who both supports you and pushes you to be the best artist, musician, person that you can be. I think a mentor has a really special role especially in a young artist’s life because they have the opportunity to not only nurture, but really push in a way that can sustain a young artist. Oftentimes a mentor’s role is one where they have to be hard on you sometimes and tell you what’s going on. A mentor helps you understand your flaws and what you need to work on, but also is someone that you can turn to for advice or help and for support, because it is a long journey.

It’s really great to have people to look up to and turn to and look at their careers to understand how they got to be where they are. The mentoring cycle is an important and special one—our mentors had mentors, and their mentors had mentors—so it’s a really big way, especially in jazz, that the tradition is being passed on from one generation to the next.

TJG: When you were coming up, what was the scene like in terms of older players working with younger players? Do you feel like this has changed since then?

JS: It’s definitely changed because even before me there was more apprenticeship going on in the jazz scene where young musicians were playing with their elders. A lot of the older guys are passing away and there’s not much mentorship. A lot of great musicians are moving out of this town. If you think about it, a lot of the great guys that we look up to—the Wayne Shorters and Herbie Hancocks and Branford Marsalises—they’re not even in town. But when I was coming up in Philadelphia, I was always surrounded by older musicians who’d take me under their wing and have me on their gigs, and I’d learn their music.

When I got here, it didn’t happen so much and I had realized that things had changed. People came through Art Blakey’s band and Elvin Jones was still going, but these guys were just passing away, so now it’s not really happening. I think it’s important because as much as it’s great for young musicians to get jobs as leaders, I feel as though a connection is sometimes lost when they don’t spend time with the masters. And not that I’m a master—I’m not talking about me—but just in general: spending time with someone who’s been out there for a little bit, their perspective changes.

They don’t see the same way; they don’t learn how the older people learn. I mean, that’s something that I still wish I had. I’ve learned it a lot from being with Roy Haynes, and he’s definitely been a mentor and I’m thankful for that. He showed me the importance of things that maybe a younger musician would disregard or ignore.  I’m talking about learning standards, lyrics. A lot of young people just want to get out there and play originals—which I think is great, too—but for me I’ve learned that there are so many other angles.

TJG: Elena, could you talk a bit about the scene or scenes that you came up in, musically? Did you have the chance to work with and learn from older musicians?

EP: I feel incredibly blessed to have had the opportunities and the relationships with older musicians that I’ve had. I grew up in the Bay Area and, growing up there, there’s a huge scene of musicians: a big community of both Latin jazz and jazz that I grew up in. Because my parents don’t play music, I was adopted by a community of musicians who took me under their wing and pushed me and took me out after their gigs and had me sit in and things like that.

I’ve been really fortunate also because my brother has played a huge part since I came up here. We’ll go out together to different sessions and performances and check out the different musicians that are playing, and he often knows them and brings me into the scene. So yeah, that’s been my experience: just being curious and wanting to learn from as many people as I can and hopefully continue to get those opportunities.

TJG: Jaleel, you teach at the New School, don’t you? In your experience, what are the pros and cons of music school versus learning outside of school, on the scene?

JS: I think it’s just the experience of being on the bandstand. And another thing: just playing with the Mingus Band and Roy Haynes, I’ve always felt like I played from my heart and that I play with emotion, but I realized that sometimes when you’re in school, the focus tends to not be on that, you know. The focus tends to be on not expressing yourself, but maybe the technical aspects of the music.

Actually, when I was finishing up school, even though I’d been playing a lot, I realized that was something I wanted to get back to once I finished. I was like, “I’ve learned all this stuff,” and I turned around and looked at my playing and thought, “What do I need to think about? What is missing from my playing now?” And I realized that it was something I had had. Being in school and working on technicalities, I didn’t forget about emotion, but I had to remind myself that when I was playing, it was for people who didn’t necessarily care about my technique as much as what I had to say and how that was going to move them. People were coming home from a hard day’s work and they don’t necessarily care how fast I can play *laughs*.

They want to have an experience that’s emotional. I think that’s the thing with school that kids don’t realize maybe when they come out. I don’t know, I think there are a lot of great students: Elena’s only a freshman, but she’s got it. She’s playing on an emotional level and is very lyrical and melodic, and she’s there.

TJG: Elena, how does the experience of studying in school compare to other educational experiences you’ve had: playing with more experienced musicians, informal conversations, etc.?

EP: I think the experience at school and of playing with older musicians are very different. I think they both have a lot of very important things: in school, I’m with peers my own age, which is amazing because they’re at the same place I am and we’re learning and growing together. Also this year I’ve been able to study with an incredible classical teacher as well as studying with Gretchen Parlato, which is the greatest. Experience in school in terms of teachers has been so beneficial to me and has inspired me a lot, and I’m playing with my peers who inspire me and everybody has different things to bring to the table, so playing with people your age who’ve gone through the same things you have is really inspiring.

Playing on the bandstand with older musicians, I don’t necessarily compare them, but they’re both great. I love playing with older musicians because they bring you wisdom, and a lot of times I find that I’ll be playing things that I didn’t know I could play because they bring you up to their level. They put the fire on you and you need that fire. Younger musicians do that as well, but I think in great playing relationships it’ll be there—no matter what age. If everybody’s going for it, that’s when things really happen.

TJG: Could you say a few words about the music you’ll be performing in the coming weeks?

JS: We haven’t rehearsed yet, but I’m playing all of my music from my last three records. I sent her my music and asked her about any songs she wanted to play and I told her some songs that I would want to play. I’m also going to try to have her bring in a couple of her songs so we can work on them too.

TJG: What are you most excited about in participating in the new Mentoring Program?

JS: Honestly, I feel like I learn a lot from these situations, too. We actually got together and played my music, just me and her, and it was good for me to hear how the melodies sounded on flute because I never thought about that before. So while we were rehearsing, a lot of ideas came to mind and I started thinking of new things, so I’m more excited. I’m not thinking of this as a mentorship, but more as an addition, as an experiment to add a different instrument. Flute is a rare instrument, and to have somebody playing on her level—we rehearsed and she had them down, and some of them are very challenging. I’m excited to see where we take the music. She seems really into it and she’s worked on it and it’s going to be fine.

I’m hoping for every gig to have a different theme or to play different music. If not, we’ll just work on developing the music throughout the four performances, which I think will be good since she has more than one chance to play it.

EP: I’m really excited about…I think I’m excited about the whole thing! Wow. Working with Jaleel is so great: he’s one of the best saxophone players out here and his music is amazing and different than some of the music that I’m doing now. I think the fact that we’re doing four shows is really great; each will be very different and we have the opportunity to grow. The first show will be comfortable, but it’ll be like a band situation. A band has the chance to play together multiple times and craft the band’s sound, which is the ultimate goal.

Jaleel Shaw and Elena Pinderhughes will perform together at The Jazz Gallery on Wednesday, April 23rd & 30th, 2014, in Volume 1, Edition 1 of The Jazz Gallery Mentoring Series. The band will feature Shaw on alto saxophone, Pinderhughes on flute and vocals, Lawrence Fields on piano, Linda Oh on bass, and Obed Calvaire on drums. $15 general admission and $10 for members (first set), $10 general admission and $5 for members (second set). Purchase tickets here.