Camille Thurman: Breaking Barriers.

Written by | Artists, Interviews, News

Artists like Camille Thurman don’t come along all that often. We often speak of the Jazz greats, the heroes, the trail blazers but we rarely see a legend developing in front of our very eyes. As a saxophonist she is regularly compared with Dexter Gordon and Joe Henderson. As a vocalist, Ella and Betty Carter. Even the mighty Al Jarreau said, ‘I’m scared of this lady’s scatting!’.

As a composer she won the Herb Alpert Young Composer award twice and had her music featured at the Kennedy Centres ‘Songwriters: the next generation’. She is the first woman to work an entire session with Jazz at the Lincoln centre Orchestra and in fact she has now completed two. She has worked with an incredible array of musicians – Alicia Keys, Harry Connick Jr, Terri Lynne Carrington, Jack DeJohnette, Chaka Kahn, Louis Hayes, Jill Scott, Wynton Marsalis, Jon Hendricks – the list goes on and on. Her ‘Haven Hang’ advice series, that she designed to mentor and support young women pursuing careers in music had guests including Dee Dee Bridgewater and Regina Carter. She is unstoppable.

One of the many beautiful facets of Camille, as an artist, as a human being, is of course, her journey. I asked Camille about her start in music and why the saxophone was the instrument for her.

CT: It was my mother. She would sing in a choir and she directed the children’s choir. She always had me sit right underneath her and I would learn all the parts. She would have to play piano too so, whenever she put me to sleep, I would hear her practice and one day I just got up and started plucking at the piano and I played the exact same thing she played. She was like, how did you do that?! She got me on the violin right after that and had me learn the Suzuki method but because there were a lot of budget cuts going on in my community, they cut the music programme – they literally just cut it and I was about 6/7 at the time. We still had a lot of music, but we just didn’t have the Arts programmes in the community. So, when I was about 12/13, she had me go to school across town where they had a band and that’s where I met Peter Archer who gave me my first official instrument – which was a flute. I begged him to play saxophone and he was reluctant, but I convinced him, and I gave up my lunch period to just sit in the band room and study fingering charts, learn how to blow and I taught myself to play the saxophone. I remember hearing a song and I was really intrigued by the saxophone part. It was beautiful and moving. I just remember that line and how it made me feel when I heard it. It made me ask – can I play saxophone? And it just took off after that!

Camille Thurman with the Jazz at the Lincoln Center Orchestra | Photo by Frank Stewart

Camille’s educational journey was not easy. She already had fought battles – community music programmes being cut, fighting to play her instrument of choice – and although her first two years at LaGuardia High School were inspiring, things changed.

CT: My first two years at LaGuardia were amazing, I had the tutor Bob Stewart and he had a way with students of getting them encouraged about the music, like lighting a fire in all of us – whether you were a music major or not. I remember kids cutting class just to come to his class. Unfortunately, due the administration, they had to shift things around, and he ended up having to leave. Once that happened, the shift in dynamic – the interaction of the guys with the ladies – there was no one there to balance it. He was great at balancing it. The next teacher that came in, was more concerned about having the band sound great and when we finally told him about the issues going on, he was like, ok guys just stop, but it’s like no, you have to discipline them. But he just wasn’t taking it seriously. He would leave it to us to decide on who would rotate the parts and every time, the guys just took whatever parts they wanted and a lot of times we would sit there for the whole period, waiting to take our turn to play and we probably wouldn’t play until the last 10 mins. Sometimes, if they didn’t feel like playing, they would be, ‘I don’t’ feel like playing today – you play it’. It was really discouraging because there was nobody to regulate that and even when it came to improvising, they would laugh at us, saying it was terrible…

I didn’t ask Camille, but you do wonder what those guys are thinking now. No one is laughing now – so far from laughing. Sadly, this and other experiences did lead to Camille giving up on her music career, albeit – and thank goodness – for a short time.

CT: I quit, because when it came to my senior year, I was just well, traumatised and so discouraged. I got into some of the schools I wanted to, but I couldn’t afford it. There was another incident that happened where I had a teacher who was on the panel of an audition and he pulled me aside and he said, I’m not supposed to do this but I ‘ve got to talk to you. Everyone else on the panel was cool, but this one person, who happened to be a woman, she didn’t want you. I was like, ok…they were like why don’t you take the flute chair instead of the sax. I was just heartbroken after that. School is supposed to be a place where you learn and after that I was just like, I’m done. A big point was I was frustrated because I felt that for three/four years of my experience at high school, instead of learning, it was about making us sound great, making us look great.

Camille and I talked about whether there were any underlying issues to the barriers she had experienced in her education up to that point.

CT: It’s multiple things. When you get to high school, particularly for children of colour, it’s like you’re on your own. Socially, economically…for you to have an instrument in your hand is a miracle. To get that far, is a miracle. And at high school, your other counterparts who may be well off, they’re taking lessons. For me, I was just trying to take as many free classes as possible and I was trying to play as much as I could, as my mother, she couldn’t afford it. So instead of school being the place where it prepares you – prepare you for this and that – it was let’s just prepare you for band and the concert, rather than let’s teach you how to be strong musicians. And there’s the other thing of race as well. It was one of things – undertones. Is it there? Is it not? I’m sure lots of students of colour go through those challenges that were there, not quite there, …it’s difficult when your young because you don’t know. You don’t have the right support to guide you in situations.

Camille Thurman live at the Atlanta Jazz Festival | Photo by Joe Allen

It is difficult to explain the calm but raw emotion coming from Camille’s words while we talk about her educational experience. To hear the word trauma so many times, is heartbreaking. We now see the incredible artist Camille has become and to develop into that from such a negative environment, shows such incredible strength and resilience. She gave up music and went to college to study Geology, which she loved. But music was never going to leave her alone.

CT: The environment was completely different, and it gave me a chance to look at what I liked to do, and it was weird because the chair of my department – and in fact most of the professors were musicians too. We would find ourselves have conversations about music too it was like, I can’t get away from music at all! There was a teacher there who ran the Jazz band and first I was like you don’t want me I’m terrible… he said come to audition. I sat in my dorm and I missed the audition because I was literally sat for 3 hours contemplating whether I should go. I was just in shock…I just can’t do it. He saw me the next day and he said he was expecting me, and I told him you don’t want me, I suck, people tell me to my face. So, he was like, come tomorrow to improv class and I thought fine, ok, and I went. He was looking at his papers facing away and when I started playing, he dropped his papers and turned around and he was like you can play. I was all, no I can’t I’m terrible, I’m making the band sound terrible. He said all you need to place to learn. he gave me a key to a room and said if you want practice, you need anything – records – I’m here for you. you’re safe to learn here. We will not judge you. We will not criticise you. We just want to help you. It was the first time I ever felt safe to learn. I was about 21/22.

I must admit, it was very emotional to hear those words. Camille did not feel she had a safe space to learn until she was 21. Heartbreaking. The impact of her experiences are not to be underestimated and have shaped the incredible artist – and woman – she has become. Camille understands the importance and power of role models and significantly, she has become one herself. A defining moment was when Camille was chosen as the first woman to play a full season with the Jazz at the Lincoln Centre. We spoke about the importance of this and if this significance was overwhelming.

CT: Once we started going on the road, the impact was just surreal. I remember when we were in Australia and we were doing a concert for young people and this young lady came with her school of all girls. I didn’t know, as I was already on stage, but someone told me that someone was calling my name – and I was like, stop joking with me but I went out and this girl had a huge poster with my name and picture with women in jazz on top. She told me I was her hero. It just shows you that this is the first time on an international level, that young children, particularly girls, are seeing a woman actively get a role they can identify with and also understand that, ok, I can do this.

For me at one end, it’s like wow, as a musician to make that accomplishment is huge, especially knowing my personal story. It’s an honour. That band is internationally known but then also, at the same time for me, my mum taught me the history of the International Sweethearts and I understand the struggle many women have gone through just to be taken seriously as instrumentalist; to be respected and still that’s a fight; so, for me, this is an honour that doesn’t come lightly. When I sit in that chair, every time, I have a huge responsibility to make sure I represent them and play at a level that makes people respect the upcoming generation too and say hey, we belong here too.

Camille is surrounded by the rich legacy of Jazz through some incredible relationships she has formed. Maxine Gordon and Dee Dee Bridgewater famously said that ‘they got your back’. Being compared to Dexter Gordon and Ella Fitzgerald is wonderful and having such inspirational role models in your corner is inspiring and poignant but with that comes, I imagine, an amount of pressure.

CT: It’s really mind-blowing because it’s such a rich legacy. It’s funny because Dexter was an inspiration for me when I was learning tenor sax – he was the reason I wanted to play tenor. And Horace Silver, I ended up doing a project a tribute to him and during that time we were kind of wrapping it up and wow, this was so serendipitous that I meet the two people who I love and admire musically and here they are, not just I happen to know them, they are playing a critical part in my career and development – mentorship – which is amazing. It’s just beautiful because you feel like you are that much closer to the history and the lineage. It also lets you know, not just as a woman or as a musician, but as a community the pillars that made this music, what is was and they’re still here and absolutely making sure that you are being set up in the right direction. I mean this is a completely different era of time – it’s very humbling to know that they are actively making an impact on the development of this career.

I spoke to Camille about so many things and it’d hard to just leave it here. I hope this has given you a little insight into the wonder that is Camille Thurman. She is the role model so many young girls have been longing for. Not just because she is a female instrumentalist. Not just because she is a beautiful, elegant black woman. Not just because she is intelligent, talented and wants to give something to the world. It is because all of those things together symbolize hope, dreams and love. She is quite simply remarkable.

For more information on Camille Thurman visit her website.

Interview conducted in 2020

Last modified: July 31, 2022