Multitalented Amina Claudine Myers talks about the Blues & Jazz music, Sonny Stitt, Archie Shepp, and Arthur Blythe

"This music has influenced people all over the world because you have the freedom of self-expression through improvisation. This allows the performer to delve deep into their souls to bring out their upmost feeling which enables them to touch someone. No words are needed. As the world change, so does the music."

Amina Claudine Myers:

The Art of Music, The Music of Art

Amina Claudine Myers, Pianist, Organist, Vocalist, Composer, Master Improvisationalist, Actress and Educator. Ms. Myers has performed nationally and internationally throughout Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and North America. She is well known for her work involving voice choirs, voice and instrumental ensembles. Ms. Myers’ career in music began in her preteens and throughout high school directing church choirs, singing and playing gospel and rhythm and blues. She began playing and singing jazz in college in and around Arkansas. Myers studied concert music at Philander Smith College, Little Rock, Arkansas and received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Music Education.

After moving to Chicago, Ill. in the 1960’s Ms. Myers taught in the public school system for six years.  She attended Roosevelt University briefly and became a member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in 1966. As an AACM member she started composing for voice and instruments. In 1975 she organized her very first choir for a musical she wrote called I DREAM. In 1976 Ms. Myers moved to New York City where her career became even more multifaceted. In 1977 she moved into the theater realm, writing pieces for this medium. She acted and composed music for a number of Off-Broadway productions. Ms. Myers was the assistant musical director for AIN’T MISBEHAVIN' prior to it’s Broadway production. In 1978 she was choral director at SUNY at Old Westbury for a year. Ms. Myers has recorded and/or performed with Archie Shepp, Charlie Haden’s Liberation Orchestra, James Blood Ulmer, Lester Bowie, Bob Stewart, Joey Baron, Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt,  Muhal Richard Abrams, Bill Laswell, Eddie Harris, Von Freeman, Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, Frank Lowe, Rahsaan Roland Kirk  and other well known artists. Myers conducts workshops, seminar and residencies at colleges and universities, nationally and internationally. There are eleven recordings released under Ms. Myers’ name. Most recently Ms. Myers has been performing original works of jazz, blues, gospel, spirituals and improvisations for the pipe organ. Ms. Myers has received many grants and awards, including National Endowment for the Arts, Meet The Composer, and The New York Foundation for the Arts. She was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame 2001 and the Arkansas Jazz Hall of Fame 2010. Ms. Myers resides and teaches privately in New York City.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the Jazz and Gospel music? What does the blues mean to you?

What I have learned about myself from Jazz and Gospel music is that all of the music came from my ancestors. It has been spiritually passed down through the ages into my soul. This enables me to touch audiences in many ways. The blues is so spiritual to me because it expresses the life experiences of the artist and relates to many people.

How do you describe Amina Claudine Myers sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

My sound and songbook consist of everything that I have experienced during my life so far. The music is a combination of Gospel, which I first performed while studying European classical piano, Jazz, Blues and extended forms including European studies. The characteristics of my musical philosophy are complete freedom in expressing my feeling, focusing in telling the story in a way that the audience can see and/or feel it and touching people in some positive way.

"I hope that more possibilities open up for musicians to express themselves by communicating and make a great living having the music performed in concert halls, clubs, festivals, theaters, scoring for film, available on more TV and radio stations. The history of music should be a part of music education. Creative and traditional music of all kinds including blues and jazz should start in elementary schools through high school."

How has the Afro-American music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

The Afro-American music has shown me that this music touches people all over the world in all forms and styles. It delivers love and in some cases expresses life in the Afro-American community and beyond. The music is con-stantly changing and moving ahead as the world changes… keeping one informed for future references.

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

The acquaintances most important to me was my great uncle by marriage, Buford Thomas who started me on rhythms when I was around four years old. I would march around the room counting one, two, three, four. I also did alternate heel and toe to the count of four as I sat in my little chair. He sang hymns with rhythm with lots of “soul” and I digested all of this. Female gospel groups of the classical gospel period (1950’s). The Davis Sisters, Clara Ward and The Gospel Harmonettes, At the age of 13, my piano teacher Mr. Robert Mitchell who introduced me to Chopin’s Etudes. Dr. Carl Harris in college where I learned about choral music, directing and a few times playing the pipe organ. I loved those experiences and developed an appreciation for Mozart, Beethoven and other great European choral musicians. Mr. A.R. Whaley, head of the music department placed me in the jazz band where I learned to play the blues and perform music of the day for high school prom seasons and studying various reed and brass instruments etc. AACM Composer, pianist Muhal Richard Abrams inspired me in many ways and AACM drummer Ajaramu whom I performed with for many years on organ with the “Jerold Donavan Trio”. He brought me into “The Gene Ammons” Quartet and “The Sonny Stitt Trio. Ajaramu, Stitt and Ammons taught me (unbeknown to them) so much about playing Jazz.

The best advice ever given to me was from AACM member Wadada Leo Smith a creative composer and trumpeter who said to me once “Do your own thing”.

Are there any memories from Sonny Stitt, Archie Shepp, and Arthur Blythe which you’d like to share with us?

Memories: Stitt never had any music and always said “use your ears. One night we played four blues in a row. That was a BIG lesson. Be able to play in all keys and improvise differently was my conclusion. Composer, reed’s man, pianist, vocalist Archie Shepp is a knowledgable artist who can sing the blues and play any style of music. He knows and understands the history of music and is happy to share his information. I enjoy our duets singing the blues and gospel songs that we have composed. He is one of the most beautiful persons I know. Arthur Blythe is another great artist who was open to any music we played. Wherever the music went, he was there. Great fun playing with him.

"What I have learned about myself from Jazz and Gospel music is that all of the music came from my ancestors. It has been spiritually passed down through the ages into my soul. This enables me to touch audiences in many ways. The blues is so spiritual to me because it expresses the life experiences of the artist and relates to many people." (Photo: The Art Ensemble Of Chicago meets the Chicago Blues Tradition 1993)

What has made you laugh and what touched (emotionally) you from the Art Ensemble of Chicago?

I have been touched by the Art Ensemble Of Chicago by their spirituality. I feel the music deep inside me. The beauty of their performances with ordinary to extraordinary instruments, theater, clothing and love cannot be duplicated. I have laughed at the wonder of it all. Each time that I have seen or heard them has always been stimulating to me.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I do not miss music of the past because it is still with me. The music I play today is an extension of what I have heard and played.  I have no fears. The music will continue to grow and expand. I hope that more possibilities open up for musicians to express themselves by communicating and make a great living having the music performed in concert halls, clubs, festivals, theaters, scoring for film, available on more TV and radio stations. The history of music should be a part of music education. Creative and traditional music of all kinds including blues and jazz should start in elementary schools through high school.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

If I could change one thing in the musical world to become a reality would be to involve people young and old in some kind of musical activity because music is definitely a healing force.

What does to be a female artist in a “Man’s World” as James Brown says? What is the status of women in music?

To be a female in a “Man’s World”? I have not felt isolated. I believe that since I started singing and playing the piano at a young age (Gospel and R&B) it was common to see female performers. Later in jazz, I went with the flow although it was others that put me in positions of playing in clubs. Actually, I was shy and did not think of looking for “gigs” but I took them. I seem to have had nerves of steel on organ and piano. Sometimes I look back and think “what nerve”

The status of women in music? In early years women played in the parlors of their homes or in church. Fast forward: We have women doing all that the men do. There should be more exposure of women composing, performing and so on. Cab Calloway’s sister Blanch Calloway conducted a jazz orchestra and did the split while directing!!

What is the impact of Blues and Jazz music on the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

The impact of Blues and Jazz music on the racial, political and social-cultural implications: The Blues came from the shouts, Field Hollers, Work Songs/Chain Gangs from prison in the Afro-American Community. It is a personal experience of one’s life whether it’s about a love or working conditions with emphasis on the minor third and dominant seventh of a major scale. This music was usually vocal and a person hearing the blues can feel the trials and tribulations one sang about. Jazz came from the blues with emphasis on instrumental music with improvisation from the melodies. Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith were the first to develop these styles. This music has influenced people all over the world because you have the freedom of self-expression through improvisation. This allows the performer to delve deep into their souls to bring out their upmost feeling which enables them to touch someone. No words are needed. As the world change, so does the music. Composers are writing about environmental issues as well as social and political situations bringing awareness to those who listen.  These efforts of awareness can make a difference. Music can heal.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

It’s been difficult to choose a place to go to for a day. Maybe to Fiji or Boro Boro or Tahiti… somewhere in the South Pacific on a beach at a resort where I can sit and meditate and to feel that part of the world. It seems very calming.

Amina Claudine Myers - Home

Photo by Markus Lackinger

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