Monika Herzig and Both Side of Joni

Written by | Interviews, News, Women in Jazz Media

Women in Jazz Media will present a series of unmissable events for the EFG London Jazz Festival this year. Among these events there will be a presentation of the project Both Sides of Joni by the pianist and composer Monika Herzig on November 18th at the Toulouse Lautrec Jazz Club. The artist, also an author and professor of artistic research at the private Jam Music Lab University of Vienna, will be presenting her book ‘The Routledge Companion To Jazz And Gender’ in the afternoon of the same day. Two events not to be missed. I had the pleasure of speaking with Monika Herzig about these projects and her career.

DT: Can you tell us a little about yourself? I know that you’re German born and that you moved to USA where you built up your career in jazz music.

MH: I was born in the South of Germany but I left in 88, to complete a one year scholarship at the University of Alabama but it turned out to be a 35 year long stay. I’ve got my Masters at the University of Alabama and my doctorate at Indiana University and I also taught for many years everything you can imagine! And then of course, over the years I built my jazz career. Probably one of the largest groups is the Sheroe‘s group that I started 10 years ago and we will have our 10th anniversary next year. It’s an All-Star group mostly based out of New York and we’ve just recorded our fourth album this Fall with Lenny White producing. It’s something I’m very proud of, especially the longevity that we have had and the many, many tours we completed all over the world. The other project that I’ll present for this year is Both Sides of Joni, which is arrangements of Joni Mitchell songs. This has a kind of a bittersweet connotation because one of the first friends that I met in 91 when I moved to Indiana was Janiece Jaffe, a great jazz vocalist and we became long-term friends. It was her idea and her dream to do this album and it’s actually going to be the one year anniversary from when she passed away, November 23rd last year, after heart surgery. So we made this her legacy album, and Alexis Cole jumped it and we’ve been touring this album. So, this is going to be performance number 32 I think this year of the project, since its release which was March 31st.

DT:  Let’s talk about the album that you’ll present on November the 18th. I’ve listened to it and I enjoyed it a lot. It is beautiful, I really loved it. Can you tell us more about it? Also, what are Both Sides of Joni?

MH: When Janiece came over, the summer of 2020, when she had the idea, we were all thinking about what to do with our lives. She said, you know I’ve been listening with my son last night to this album and I took this to Paris when I was a teenager on exchange programme when it came out. I think it was The Hissing of Summer Lawns and I just realised that we heard it but we didn’t really listen, and we need these words right now to get us out of this slump. So that was her inspiration to do this project and that’s how we started getting together, Monday nights in the barn and work on the arrangements. So, it was her you know? It was her idea, it was her legacy and her selection of the tunes and I would arrange them. It is a very important project.

DT:  To arrange songs and music from a different composer and in this case a Joni Mitchell from a musical point of view is a big challenge. What kind of approach did you use in creating, building and realising in this project?

MH:  Yes, it’s really tricky. I was actually at a conference, and I met  Samara Joy’s manager, and he was just talking about things you do and he ended with the phrase “and the last thing you want to do is arrange Joni Mitchell’s music”!

DT: Yes, that’s what I mean!

Joni Mitchell (1998) Photo by Mark Hanauer

MH: I asked him what did he mean? He said the reason is because people who love Joni Mitchell have a very specific way of how the songs sound in their mind and they want it this way and don’t want you to meddle with it. I know Joni Mitchell but I wasn’t one of these like super die hard Joni Mitchell fans, that was Janiece’s part. But when I took the songs that she picked, I realised, ok, first of all her words and the melodies are ingredients that you can’t mess with. You’ve got to take the melody and the words in the way she said it. Then when you add things to it, it’s got to be in a way that elevates those. You can’t just put a 7/4 metre on it and groove on something just because you want to be fancy. But if you add an odd metre or chord it’s got to be in a way that underscores something that’s in the music. For example you know Sweet Bird where she talks about the fleeting time?

DT:  I love that one actually, one of my favourites of the album…

MH: Yeah, and that was the first one that Janiece picked. The whole theme is that you can’t hang onto time, time is fleeting and so that’s why I came up with this 5 eights rhythm thing but also in a way that it changes in the three measure way. So, the time gets all mingled up in the repeats and comes in different cycles and finally meets. So in that way it made sense, but if I would have just put another 5/8 pattern on it, it wouldn’t have worked but with the meaning and taking the theme of time, it does. It’s the same when you listen to ‘River’ – sentimentally thinking about floating away on that river. So you know I did something that sounded like a river.

DT: It is nice because my impression – and I’ve listened to that a few times –  I could hear Joni Mitchell’s idea and identity. However, I could also hear the transformation into something which was different but which included her in some way. Which is not easy, because when you do a homage to another composer and another singer, especially such a famous one, the risk is just to do a copy of her. So being able to elaborate something and to add something new while including the original is very challenging work.

MH: We had to model a few things too, so you come up with something, but then the vocalist comes in and sings.  Janiece said that doesn’t work. I can’t get the words in. So it was good to have that direct collaboration and adapt things so they also are singable in a good way.

DT: You told me before about your friend Janiece.  I already knew the story about that and I was quite impressed about all the happenings behind the projects. I sensed that this was a very special bond, a real deep friendship. For me relationships with others are the most important things in the world and is the foundation of human life, from any point of view. It is just part of human nature. However, in these complex times in which individualism, isolation, and competition are present (and I am not talking just about the music industry but everywhere), I found something rather precious in this relationship. What did this relationship mean for you, which then also developed in the professional field?

MH: This finally answers the previous question you asked what are Both Sides of Joni? You know of course there is the famous song ‘Both Sides Now‘? Janiece and I represented two heads for this project.  Then also both of us are are geminis, where she was born June 9, I’m June 12 and so you know we both have two heads.  I knew her so well and she was one of the people I always talked to, come rain or come shine. She went through some tough times, and you know we would hang on to each other and do things. I think that relationship can be heard. And also, as weird as it was, that gift of time that we had during that year of just working on this for a year, by the time we got to the studio we had really worked on this.

DT:  Thank you for sharing your personal story about this beautiful friendship with us.  As a psychologist I collaborate within WiJM in the well-being team. We realised over time that sharing some experience is so important to women that follow our initiatives and activities. For instance, in the last few years, we’ve found out that many female musicians felt lonely and isolated. So, we started sharing stories related to many topics like personal experiences, discrimination, mental issues, or stereotypes. It is very helpful for many women to know that we can share this information and that they are not alone.

MH: Oh yes, well in response to your thoughts on the loneliness. And it’s also a response to this whole post feminism thing where we women were kind of pitted against each other, saying those who are strong enough and powerful enough will rise to the top, and there is a place for one or two that can make it! And the problem is, all this competition! And then you have to work with your elbows to be the one rising to the top making up that spot and that’s not healthy. So, the healthy way is what you guys do with WiJM organisation, saying we’re providing a community and we’re supporting each other and lifting each other up.

DT: Thank you for saying that! That is the power of a community. It is just doing what you wish to do and it is something that should be allowed for everybody not just a few – it is just realising your identity and expressing yourself!

I would like to go back to the 18th of November. In addition to the concert, in the afternoon, there will be a presentation of the book The Routledge Companion to Jazz and Gender to which you collaborated with a contribution. You are current professor of artistic research at the JAM MUSIC LAB at the University of Vienna and many of your activities and initiatives in both artistic and educational roles are focused on promoting equality for women in jazz industry. Can you tell us more about this book and what it represents?

MH: This is actually a volume of 38 chapters. We had contributions from four continents and I’m one of the three Co-editors who put the project together with  James Reddan and Michael Kahr. It looks at everything from the history, from social perspective and cultural perspectives and then also on advocacy where should we go and what are some of the barriers. It’s just a really good collection of all the aspects and it’s ‘jazz and gender’ so it looks at gender you know from all perspectives. It’s not just about women, it’s also the queer community. Jennifer Leitham, who is a transgender bassist, tells her story and some others are in there. The thing is, it’s a really expensive book so it’s something for the libraries. Hopefully in a few months there will be a paperback edition and an e-book is also possible. But what I’ll do is share all the different aspects and barriers and I can kind of show where we are and what things we still need to overcome. So, it’s this vicious cycle, you know, starting from the bottom, when you pick instruments and the trumpets and  trombones are for the boys and the girls get the flutes in the violins. And then when you get into puberty in school, and they introduce improvisation, the girls go in hiding because they don’t do that when they’re in puberty and they could look foolish in front of their peers. And then still on with role models. So, it’s this cycle and hopefully at the presentation, a really great outcome is to have everybody think about a way where they can cut into this cycle to turn it towards a different pathway. So, to cut that cyclic thing.

DT:  I also read an interesting article you wrote ‘Equal access. Women in jazz come together’, and I was curious about a few things. I stated that “Research has made it clear now that it’s not biological factors but social and psychological factors that influence female participation in jazz” and is so true. However, was this confirmation by research necessary? I agree with you, this is just a provocation, but why do we need to confirm this gender equality? Should it not be granted for everyone regardless of the nature of any diversity? From my point of view the identity that I recognise is the human identity. Then if you are a female or a male, black or white, tall or short and so going on, it shouldn’t be relevant really?

MH: Well, there were bunch of really deep myths about the playing aspect. For example, brass instruments for a long time you had to steep myths not only for women but in general you had to have big lips and you had to have enough power. So one part of all these myths that may be female is that you don’t have enough muscle power. Same thing for drumming. You had these articles on Downbeat in the 50s where they say oh you can’t do this! And you know even for me in 2016, I was at a club and I gave the club owner my CD of all females and he said: ‘you know that it couldn’t happen in Vienna, because I’ve been told that the girls in puberty between 10 and 15 they don’t have enough muscle and energy to practise at that level!’.  Myths are really deep and lingering! So having some studies to say no, we could not find anything there that’s really important. It finally busts the myths because it’s so deep, and you can’t just get it off by saying no, you’re wrong you have to tell. You have to provide some evidence that you know this is this is just a myth.

DT:  Thank you for that Monika. The second quote is “We need education that reaches all of our women and all of our students – and all of our men too”. What do you think men must do? I mean what’s the role of men in all of this?

MH: Well, for men is actually realising some of the ways of interacting and realising that being passive and doing nothing is also a problem. Saying I’m not part of the problem so what should I do?  That part, in terms of educational strategies, just means the way you teach especially improvisation. You have to be conscious about creating exercises, strategies where you always have everybody included and not just the star students. Because there are proven psychological issues, which as a psychologist I’m sure you can realise, that at a certain age there’s just behavioural things that if you don’t encourage participation, you’re going to lose them. And then you’ve lost that opportunity because of course it’s a matter of practise of getting better. And if you start hiding and you just are not doing it, others are volunteering then the difference increases.  So by the time you get to high school or to an age where you are thinking about getting serious, you know you’re already so far behind, you’re saying well I’m just not good enough.

DT: In this article you talk about the need for a safe space to create, experiment and express. I’m quite fascinated about this and I link this to your project Sheroes, that you mentioned before. How do we reach this safe space in the jazz world, which is still oriented by stereotypes and male dominated?

MH:  I mean on the educational side we’ve been doing a lot of these jazz girls days right? Workshop days where you have girls 10 to 18 together and then people asking why do you need to make a special day for all girls? Can you just go into schools and teach? Again, I love studies because studies are good. But there’s actually several that also look at the interactions in bands and you have mixed bands or groups or creative units. You always find that the dynamics don’t work out and that eventually the males will take over and the females will take either the role of just doing what’s needed or disappearing from a group. So, it is an issue with those dynamics. What you can do with an all girls environment, especially like the jazz girls day? You take all these social factors away so they can just experiment and be themselves. You know in the feedback I get every time is that this confidence push – yes I can do it and you know I can experiment and feel free to make mistakes. It is one of the most important aspects. I have surveys every time afterwards, asking what was the most important thing?  a) playing with peers and b) this ability to experiment and build my confidence that I can do this. So that’s why these environments are important to the safe spaces where you take these social factors that interfere, away. In terms of bands, I love my Sheroes and I think one of the most important aspects of that band is just to change the stereotyping on stage. When you see this band enter a stage, you change the picture of how people imagine a jazz band should look like. I love that we get more and more involvement and changes. But in most of the bands I see of my peers even now, is that you have the female leader and it’s still an all-male band. I think that’s still an issue. We must be a bit more conscious on how these bands look like on stage because otherwise it will never change this stereotyping effect.

DT: I agree with you, and thanks for talking about the pressures which is a big issue for professionals as well as for the new generations. What are the challenges that professional female musicians face today? What has changed in the last years (or decades maybe)? And what remains to be done to get to a safe space for women in jazz?

MH: We see a lot of positive changes. Obviously just having the topic more and more in front of our consciousness opens up a lot of doors. But a lot of the issues with those barriers is that they are so deeply rooted that it won’t change from one day to the next one, just like that the stereotyping effect that I was talking about. These expectations that we unconsciously have of how a typical jazz band looks like, you know, that’s something that will take a while to change. And it is something that needs that conscious effort of saying, well I just have to change that picture on the stage. It’s also a lot in hiring. If you look at full-time instrumental jazz faculties that’s probably the saddest picture of the whole. I think there’s one female professor in Germany and there’s a maybe one or two in Austria, female instrumental professors. So that’s ok if you have a position and if you’re hiring the first batch of applications that will come in, automatically will probably look the same. But you have to actually reach out and ask somebody in a different network, ask a female colleague to say, please can you encourage your friends to apply? And then you might have to make the effort a few times of saying: ok I have a few equal applicants, I’ll just go for the sake of diversity and hire female until we reach that equilibrium. So right now we have a lot of good intentions, we have a lot of attention but it needs a few really directed action items to get that change.

DT: Yes, and that is a slow process. I know that you know both American and Austrian realities and environments. Do you think that there’s any difference related to that?

MH:  I think the sad pictures are the same sad picture everywhere. Austria is a very conservative country in a lot of ways. I imagine that the change is a little harder, because to get something moving takes a lot more effort and time. In the States you can still, you know, if you’re like Terri Lyne Carrington and you have this idea and you start this centre for jazz and gender justice and you put the book out, you just do it and it works. And I started similar initiatives here. I want to put a book together for Europe eventually. So, it’s a slower process but we’re pushing!

DT: Thanks, and my last question is what are your plans for the future?

MH: One thing hopefully is the 101 Lead Sheets for European women composers eventually, then actually working with an Italian organisation MIDJ on it too. And the 10th anniversary of the Sheroes will be next year and will be releasing our fourth album, so big European Tour in October for sure. We’ll have to come back next year and bring the Sheroes. And we’re also looking at this stereotyping and these effects are going to put my research skills on that, to really find out how deep is it.

DT: Great Monika, thank you so much for this chat. We look forward to seeing and listening to you soon in London!

MH: Thanks!

Tickets: In Conversation with Monika Herzig, Saturday Nov 18th, Toulouse Lautrec, London

Tickets: Monika Herzig and Alexis Cole: Both Side of Joni, Saturday, Nov 18th, Toulouse Lautrec, London

Last modified: November 13, 2023