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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by Harrison Weinstein, courtesy of the artist.

From conservatory students to seasoned road veterans, everyone across the jazz community is grappling with the same questions right now: How to maintain our mental health, how to keep writing and practicing, how to take care of ourselves and our families, how to make up lost income, how to stay safe and sane. Last week, we spoke about these issues with saxophonist and composer Melissa Aldana. As a core member of The Jazz Gallery community, Aldana had wonderful thoughts on how to develop a routine amidst this crisis, as well as fond memories of the Gallery looking ahead to the ongoing 25th Anniversary celebration.

The Jazz Gallery: Hi Melissa. How are you doing?

Melissa Aldana: I’m in New York. Right now, it feels like everything is so fragile… It’s hard to accept everything that’s happening. But somehow… [laughs] I’ve been able to do about five, six hours of practicing a day. My purpose right now is to take care of myself, practice, and stay calm and positive. Everyone is having those same feelings.

TJG: Did you lose a huge amount of work?

MA: Yeah, I did, I lost a lot of work. But I was able to finish out a tour. The hard thing is to stay calm, positive, and try to make the best of this situation. Of course, I’m sad that I can’t play with people right now. I need to do an online concert, or something, but right now I’m working on getting through the quarantine.

TJG: What have you been practicing?

MA: I’ve been working a lot on sound, which I’ve done for years. I do a good hour of long tones, a good hour of time feel, some other various techniques focusing on control. I’ve been working on Bach on piano too, an hour and a half every day. I’m trying to compose a little bit, been transcribing solos, working on claves, standards in all keys, whatever I can do to keep my head busy right now [laughs].

TJG: I like how you start your day with control—it’s really important to practice being in control during this out-of-control time.

MA: Oh yes. To me, that’s the most important. A big part of my practicing can be boring, in a sense. A bit obsessive. But years and experience have proven that if I’m consistent like that, if I am aware of how I practice, I start moving forward. I know that it really works for my sound and helps get things together.

TJG: What have been some important resources for you during this time? People, apps, websites, walks… What’s keeping you held together?

MA: I’m walking a lot, exercising quite a lot, a good hour and a half every day. I’ve been constantly doing yoga, trying to meditate, though it’s really hard. Long walks. I have an elliptical at home. I’m slowly getting it together… I’ve been walking, I’ve been giving myself homework, things to learn, like Bach on piano. Doing basic things, reading books, taking advantage of the time.

At the same time, I’m telling myself that there’s no reason to push myself so hard. Why not learn just how to be? That’s something a lot of us don’t do, just be. We don’t have to be working all the time, running around, writing music. What about just being yourself? It’s been an interesting week, and it’s going to be an interesting couple of months of personal growth.

TJG: It sounds like you’re doing more than all the right stuff. It’s inspiring to hear what you’re doing, and that you’re being kind to yourself.

MA: I’m trying to do those things. The only thing I know I’m doing right is the heavy practicing. It’s my purpose, it makes me feel good. It’s not about wanting to play all these hard things, but just that I can pour my heart, my mind, into one thing in the moment. It’s a good thing, but I’m conscious of other things, and I need to chill out too, not just practice. I need to focus on how to live, and this is an important reminder for that. Over these past few months, I’ve also really been appreciating that I’ve been getting close to some women who I really admire. Some are my same age, some are musicians, and they all make me even more aware of how important my friendships are right now.

TJG: This interview is in part leading up to the celebration of The Jazz Gallery’s upcoming 25th Anniversary, which feels crazy right now… Could you tell me a little about your relationship with The Gallery over the years?

MA: Rio gave me basically my first gig in New York. It meant a lot. I was twenty or twenty-one, and had just moved to New York. She didn’t know me, but she gave me the opportunity. That was something I really appreciated. She didn’t even say, “You have to bring this or that band,” she just gave me the opportunity to play. When the Gallery moved to Broadway and 27th a few years later, I started going a lot. I became very close to Rio, and started really feeling a sense of community there. I started going to more concerts, becoming more familiar with people, feeling welcomed any time.

If I needed a place to rehearse for hours, for days, Rio was the first one to say ‘Yes, use it.’ That is so meaningful. As jazz musicians, rehearsal space is expensive. I feel the support, the friendship, the motivation from the Gallery. The Commission changed a lot of things for me, and it was a big stepping stone toward writing the next album, toward continuing to grow, to push. I’m not sure if Rio realizes it, but that freedom to do what I wanted, with time and without judgement, taught me a lot about myself. It gave me a sense of direction for where I wanted to go after that.

TJG: When you close your eyes, what or who do you see when you think about the Gallery?

MA: I see a big community of musicians. I always remember the New Years’ hang. I see Rio, Johnathan [Blake], all the members, all the musicians, from different places, all united. I feel it very strongly there.

TJG: It’s crazy that you can’t just hop on the subway now and go there.

MA: It’s crazy. But at the same time, there are positive things, at least for someone like me right now. I didn’t even realize how lucky I am, to be able to jump on the subway and see some of the most killing music, any day. To have a place to play. Not just the Gallery, but any venue in New York. I’ve been taking everything for granted. Especially in this world, with everything happening so fast, careers blowing up, so much happening, always more work when I’m home, never having time to reflect, to be like, I’m so lucky, so privileged, I have such great opportunities on the New York scene, I have friends. Those are the important things in my life.

TJG: You’re absolutely right. It’s great to hear it from you too. By the way, Visions is awesome. I’ve been listening all morning. Have you been working out any new music?

MA: I have six or seven tunes for the next album. I’m recording in September with Lage Lund, Sam Harris, Pablo Menares and Kush Abadey, and we’re going to release it at The Vanguard next April, so hopefully things will be fine by then… That’s the biggest honor. It’s a while from now, but it’s more important than the Grammys, to me. The Vanguard is legendary, every jazz musician wants to play there.

The music will be a continuation. I’m not sure yet of the main source of inspiration, but it’s going to be Visions II, or some other continuation of Visions. My vision through different artists, sculptors, South American writers. I have one tune called “The Bluest Eye,” which is my interpretation of a Toni Morrison book. I’m drawing on a number of sources of inspiration. When the recording date comes around, I’ll have an idea for what I want to do, but right now, I’m trying to figure it out.