The New Orchestra Workshop Society–Vancouver's premier contemporary jazz ensemble, and a major breeding ground for new talent–celebrates its 30th anniversary this month. To mark the occasion, NOW's artistic director, Coat Cooke, is bringing in a particularly appropriate special guest: singer, pianist, composer, and educator Amina Claudine Myers.
Myers is a good choice because she's been involved with celebratory sounds almost from birth, having grown up in the African-American gospel tradition of her native Arkansas. That in itself represents something to the members of NOW: although these Vancouver improvisers have long cultivated important ties with their European counterparts, the music they play is still deeply rooted in New Orleans–style collective polyphony, the bebop of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and the freer sounds of Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane. As a keyboardist with a classically trained touch and an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz history, Myers is a good conduit to both streams of thought.
But there's more: although the 65-year-old musician was a professional by the time she was in her teens, it wasn't until she moved to Chicago in 1966 that she learned just how big the world of art could be. And she did that as part of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, which is very much to the Windy City what NOW is to our rainy one.
"The AACM was very open for its members," Myers explains from her New York City home, where she's enjoying a restful Saturday morning. "In other words, I was able to play with all the musicians in there. And they were painting and writing poetry and doing anything they wanted to do. So I went 'Oh, oh, oh! Okay, I can do that, too.' I'd been playing with [bop sax virtuosos] Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt, and that was more or less traditional music; you had to play chords within the structure of so-called jazz or whatever. But the AACM really opened me up to just how creative I could be."
Since her Chicago days, Myers has explored her creativity through diverse means, including collaborations with various AACM colleagues, bassist-producer Bill Laswell, and First Nations saxophonist Jim Pepper. Most recently, she's been writing for her own vocal ensembles, most of which combine operatic singers with her own keyboard accompaniment. She notes that it's not always easy for divas and divos to shed their formal training, but it usually proves worthwhile.
"Most of the choral people–in fact, all of them–had never improvised before," she says of the 16-member choir she leads. "But they enjoyed it once they started working on it. It was a challenge for them–but it was also fun, because they could do whatever they wanted within the format."
Myers should have an easier time conducting the six singers Cooke has hired to augment the NOW's rhythm section and horns: with Christine Duncan, DB Boyko, Viviane Houle, and Peter Hurst in the lineup, improvisational brilliance will be assured. In fact, the keyboardist is the one who'll be tested: she's written for large ensemble and for choir, but never for both at the same time. Given her track record, though, the pieces she'll bring to Vancouver will likely be just as much a cause for celebration as NOW's own enduring survival and strength.
Amina Claudine Myers joins the NOW at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre on Friday (November 16).