A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo via New York Rag.

The purpose of the Jazz Gallery’s Mentoring Program is to provide aspiring musicians with the chance to learn under the guidance of their contemporary heroes. What they learn, and how they learn it, becomes a unique product of the relationship cultivated over a series of collaborative performances and workshops.

This Tuesday, the second mentor/mentee pair of our sixth Mentoring season—mentor drummer Kendrick Scott and mentee bassist Kanoa Mendenhall—kick off their experience with a performance at The Jazz Museum in Harlem. But before you head uptown to hear Scott & Mendenhall, check out our conversation with drummer Savannah Harris about her experience with mentor bassist Harish Raghavan.

Over the course of four performances, the focus of Raghavan’s mentorship became the discussion of freedom within the musical roles dined by your instrument. In our first interview with Harris and Raghavan, topics that arose were performance anxiety, preoccupation while on the bandstand, and the paradox of providing supportive accompaniment while maintaining expressive freedom.

After performances at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, Owl Music Parlor in Brooklyn, and Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, we spoke with Harris again to discover how her thoughts had expanded and evolved throughout the performance and workshopping experience. According to Harris, the final gig at Dartmouth (which culminating in a full day of teaching and performance) encouraged her to ask some challenging yet exciting questions about what’s next for her own career.

The Jazz Gallery: You did four shows over the course of this mentorship at The Jazz Gallery, the Jazz Museum, the Owl, and Dartmouth. The Jazz Gallery space is such an incubator, a little laboratory of discovery: Did the Jazz Museum feel a little more real-world? Did those shows feel different to you?

Savannah Harris: I’ve played at The Jazz Museum a bunch of times, so it was interesting to play this kind of music at The Jazz Museum. Usually, the times I’ve played there, the music has been much more traditional, if I can use that word, or at least coming from that language. It was interesting to play the out shit there, and it was really fun. In terms of my own performance, that show felt the worst for me… I was least at ease at that show than at any of the other four.

It had to do with something useful that Harish told me. Basically, whatever energy you’re bringing in to the gig, you need to discover how to neutralize it, so that you can be musically open. To be honest, I felt a bit closed off at that show. I got in my head. That space is an interesting room. You can’t play loudly in that space, because the instruments are already so loud, so you have to navigate your volume control while maintaining intensity, which is a lot to consider. So if you’re also coming into it with a personal blockage, it makes it hard to let loose at the gig.

TJG: That plays into a lot of the things we were talking about after the first gig, in terms of preoccupation. Seems like it all came out that second show.

SH: It did. So we worked through it. The shows after that were killing. The third and fourth shows were the real shit. Everyone was on point, the listening opened up, it gelled. We figured out how to play together on this music. The Dartmouth show, for me… I’ve been excited about it since it happened. It was a strong performance, and in terms of interpreting the music, I felt like we were able to create the most.

TJG: Tell me about that day leading up to the show.

SH: We drove to New Hampshire the night before our big teaching day: In the morning, Harish and I went to Dartmouth and met with their director, a super cool guy, cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum. He’s awesome. After, Harish took two bass players and I took two drummers, and we did a 90-minute lesson with them, which was killing. The improvement for the students in that one day was deep.

TJG: What were you working on?

SH: I had two students, economics and engineering majors of some kind, totally in that other world, but love to play drums, love to play jazz, so they’re in this band as a way of staying connected to the music. I got my bachelors in something outside of music, and it was important for me to still be playing, so I can relate. We worked on some fundamental stuff around the kit, then worked on the two of them playing together. I didn’t know this beforehand, but in the music that they’re currently performing, a bunch of Carla Bley’s big band music, they’re doing it with two drummers! I had no idea that they were playing together in the ensemble. I had them working on getting their sound together and blending: It’s so rare that you play with another drummer at the same time. We rarely work on blend, articulation, things like that, and it turned out that they were going to be doing it in the band.

By the time we got to the band rehearsal–which was a rehearsal/masterclass–Morgan and Eden had joined us, so we played a little for them. They started rehearsing, and we offered notes on what we were hearing. In that rehearsal, there were so many things that were shared, and I feel like everyone perked up and got into the vibe. At the concert that evening, the big band played, we did a 45 minute set, then the big band played again. It was night and day. Honestly. And it wasn’t about us at all: It was so interesting to watch how they received all this new information, absorbed it, and were able to execute it like that. That was tight. It was such a gratifying experience. I have a little teaching experience, but not much with collegiate-level students, and I felt great.

TJG: You’ve been doing a lot of your own growing, overcoming your own stuff, opening up in new ways: Did you hear some of that language and advice coming out when you were teaching these students?

SH: Definitely. Plus, Kendrick Scott is Kanoa Mendenhall’s mentor this season, but Kendrick has been my teacher for the last two years: There was so much from my lessons with Kendrick that was coming out in my teaching with these students, and that was tripping me out for sure. Harish and I have talked about so much over this process, which also came out.

When you’re teaching people you’ve never heard before, first you listen to them play, so I had them trade on a blues. I could hear so much! It was surprising for me to feel like I knew what specifically to help them with, because both Harish and Kendrick have been helping me understand what are really the most important components to making something sound and feel good, no matter what it is you’re playing. What must be there? From that place, I was able to tap into that and help them with that. That was something beautiful. These Dartmouth students might not be interested in being professional musicians, but they are interested in playing the drums, and they love music. They want to sound good and feel good about what they’re doing. I felt like I could help them reach that goal.

TJG: You said this Dartmouth show gave you a lot of your own excitement in general. Going forward, what does that mean for you? Any ideas about your direction going forward?

SH: There are two things coming up for me right now. I have to learn how to stay focused on being a great sideman, and simultaneously conquer my own doubt about my own ability to lead a project, or to put out the ideas that are coming to fruition in my head.

TJG: What are some of those ideas that you may now have a leg up on?

SH: A lot of stuff. Interdisciplinary projects that I want to do, stuff that combines music in journalism, stuff that’s simply me putting out music that I’ve written and worked on. There are a few things that I want to prioritize in 2020, alongside continuing to grow and become a better drummer. This fall, have this great opportunity where I’m going to be on the road for the next few months. It’s great to have a big chance to develop as a sideman, to turn it up a notch in these different playing environments. As I’m doing that, I want to be thinking deeply about the projects I’d like to launch next year. I feel more focused, more organized, and a little more clear.

The Jazz Gallery Mentoring Series, vol. 6, continues at The Jazz Museum in Harlem on Tuesday, October 29, 2019. The group features Kendrick Scott on drums, Kanoa Mendenhall on bass, Dayna Stephens on on saxophones, and Marquis Hill on trumpet. One set at 7 P.M.