To gain a foothold in the new York jazz scene, Renee Rosnes followed in giants’ steps. Now she’s making tracks of her own.

Saturday Night, April 1993   

Between sets at a small supper club in lower Manhattan, Renee Rosnes is recalling one of her first breaks in the New York jazz scene: being tapped some six years ago to play piano in saxophonist Joe Henderson’s band. “It was an all-girl rhythm section. Don’t ask me why. I don’t know why. It’s still a mystery.


“Joe cracked me up, because he would never refer to it as the all-woman quartet. And if anybody pointed that out or tried to get him to make a political statement about what he was trying to prove, he’d just say, ‘No. This is the Joe Henderson quartet.’ We got called some really ridiculous things. When we played in town, they were calling us Joe Hen & His Chicks. Some other place they called us Joe Henderson & His Rhythm Sweethearts. The New York Times critic came down to the Village Vanguard and his first sentence was ‘As one fan commented, “I’m not sure about the music, but I think I’m in love.’” Jeez . . . The New York Times — I was kind of disappointed.”


The woman standing at the bar relating this disappointment does not look like a jazz musician. She’s chicly dressed, small — at five foot four inches, she has to weave back and forth on the piano stool to reach the high and low notes — and composed. Her hair is pulled back from her pale, fine-featured face. She has large, dark eyes that seem to take in a great deal, but that never look as though they’re staring. She could be an associate editor at a publishing house, or a television producer, or a lawyer, or doing any number of other things a person with a college education who just turned thirty might be expected to be toiling at. Rosnes does not look like a jazz pianist who’s running her own band, composing, arranging, and conducting her work, who has just completed her third album, Without Words, and who showcases her talent on tours throughout Europe and Asia and in the highly competitive New York jazz scene.


Jazz players have been saddled with a caricatured stereotype: lonely, insular, weird characters so far gone in pursuit of their music they’re almost autistic. The popular conception of a jazz musician is something that combines equal parts abstruse musical ideas, elliptical speech patterns, heavy doses of cool, and regal contempt for everybody, it seems, but the musician’s own side players — and sometimes for them as well.


Some of that notion is based on fact. Two of the greatest bop pianists of the past forty years, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, are not remembered — even by people who worked with them daily — as easy guys to get along with. Powell fused lush chords and sheets of glorious harmony with technical virtuosity and a keen sense of melodic beauty. The rest of the time he bounced in and out of psychiatric hospitals, finally dying in New York in 1966 at the age of forty-one.


Thelonious Monk pulled old standards apart, reducing each melody to a handful of notes. He played them with a fractured phrasing and a rock-solid internal metronome set ticking by the rhythmic authority of the great stride players of the twentieth century’s first three decades. Monk also went through periods of profound depression, and his wife, Nellie, had to manage every aspect of his life — including getting him dressed — when he wasn’t at the keyboard.


By temperament and background, Rosnes doesn’t fit any of the tortured-jazz-artiste stereotypes. She was born in Regina in 1962, adopted by the Rosneses in Vancouver. She’s one of three sisters, each adopted, and all of them musically talented. “I guess I wanted to be like them,” Rosnes says. “I would get up on the [piano] bench and smash away. That’s what my mom says, anyway. She figured that if I was trying to play, she might as well start me on lessons.”


The Rosnes sisters showed something more than just enthusiasm; each, born to a different set of biological parents, has perfect pitch. “Isn’t that odd? I think it proves it’s not necessarily hereditary. It’s like seeing a color. When I hear a D, I hear a D, just the way you see the color green and know it’s green without thinking about it. I grew up thinking everybody could hear music that way. I didn’t even know it was ‘perfect pitch.’ I just knew ‘that’s a C triad, that’s an E-minor seventh.’ I guess if I ever have children, it’ll be like this” — she mimes striking a tuning fork and holding it to her midsection — “is an A.”


Rosnes credits her high-school music teacher, Bob Rebagliati, with turning her into a jazz musician, and still thanks him in the liner notes of her albums. The young Rosnes was, in Rebagliati’s words, “a sponge” who applied her ear and her musical curiosity to every record he threw at her: Horace Silver, McCoy Tyner, Oscar Peterson, Herbie Hancock. She could duplicate all of it. “I really had no clue about anything to do with jazz before that,” she says. “My parents didn’t listen to it. They’re music lovers, but not necessarily jazz lovers. I’d always played by ear. I’d hear things on the radio and take them off and play them for my friends: Elton John, Paul McCartney. What intrigued me about jazz was that a lot of it was playing by ear. I just wanted to figure it out.


“It was so free and spontaneous; the art of composing on the spot. Very different from classical music. There you’re taught to play certain composers in certain ways. You know, there’s the definitive way to play Bach, and the definitive way to play Beethoven. Jazz just felt so open. That’s what I really liked: the freedom.” Rosnes’s formal training continued to be classical. She took piano and violin lessons, eventually enrolling in the University of Toronto’s classical performance program. (She also played piano with the college jazz band, under the direction of Phil Nimmons.) Nearing the end of school, she began to have deep reservations about a career as a concert pianist on the international competition circuit.


“I realized that I wasn’t Horowitz, I wasn’t Rubinstein, I wasn’t Ashkenazy, and I didn’t know how I felt about playing for ballet classes for the rest of my life. The competition in the classical field is pretty cutthroat. You’ve got to have nerves of steel. You have to be ready to put everything you’ve got into one piano competition and hope to God you win it so that you might — might — have a career. I just didn’t know if it was worth it.”


After finishing her work at the U. of T., Rosnes went back to the West Coast for a spell of Benjamin Braddock-style reflection and decompression. There were some respected jazz programs at schools scattered around North America, Boston’s Berklee College of Music, to name one. But Rosnes had just finished a bout of music school and wasn’t looking for more. Instead she elected to set up her own graduate program in jazz composition, improvisation, and performance.


At the time, she was working with her boyfriend — also a musician — playing pick-up gigs with local Vancouver jazz artists and running an after-hours club called Basin Street. “Well, he basically ran it,” she says, “but I did all the posters and stuff. That went every Friday and Saturday from two to five in the morning. It was just a dive, in a terrible part of town. There were always drunks and bums hanging out near the door. My mother was always leery about me being down on East Hastings Street at three o’clock in the morning.


“But that little club was a wonderful grounding for me. Those rooms in the hotels had a lot of big international acts coming through every week. I mean, they had Sarah Vaughan in for two weeks, Wynton [Marsalis]’s band for two weeks.” The Rosnes Graduate Jazz Program featured a series of visiting professors: anyone of note who played either of Vancouver’s main jazz venues — a place imaginatively named The Jazz Bar at the Sheraton Landmark Hotel or the Plazazz Room at the International Plaza Hotel. “These guys who were visiting town would get wind that there was this after-hours jazz club in Vancouver, and they would always show up. And inevitably they’d have their horns with them. For us it was just so darn exciting. One night Woody Shaw just walked in, and he played with us. And Branford [Marsalis] and Kenny Kirkland and Jeff [Watts] — all those guys. That enticed me to visit New York.”


By the middle of the 1980s, Rosnes had exhausted the possibilities of the Vancouver jazz scene and the challenge it could offer. She applied for a Canada Council grant to visit New York for twelve months of study and work. It was supposed to be just for 1986. Last summer Rosnes bought a house in West Orange, New Jersey.


Her decision to stay in New York was an improvisation. She had planned to return to Canada after her stint with Joe Henderson’s outfit when she was offered a tour with Wayne Shorter’s band. She took it. She played with trombonist J.J. Johnson’s band. Throughout her years in New York, she had also played with OTB — Out of The Blue — and hooked up with the group again for its final record, Spiral Staircase. That was where she met and eventually fell in love with the drummer Billy Drummond, whom she later married. She recalls the demand for her talent as being “very fortunate. I got a few really nice breaks.” After that spate of work, she realized that her work visa had run out. After several months of legal and bureaucratic wrangling, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service allowed her to stay.


The problem Rosnes didn’t anticipate when she started working in the insular, and very masculine, enclave that can sometimes be more like a shark pool than a refuge, was that, as a young white woman, she had more to prove to her colleagues than some others might.


“When I first came to New York, I was very naïve about all of that. I didn’t ever think about it. I knew, obviously, that there aren’t a lot of women playing jazz, but I didn’t give it much thought. I was a musician when I was playing. I was thinking about the music. Now that I’ve been here a bit longer and I know some of the politics of what goes on and what the scene’s like, I realize I was just so naive in thinking there was no prejudice about the fact I’m a white woman. Those issues do come up, and it just disappoints me. I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining. I’m just going to keep on doing what I’m doing, and if somebody has a problem with that, well, screw ’em.”


A couple of companies offered Rosnes recording contracts, but she turned them down. She didn’t feel ready and didn’t have a working band of her own. And she detected the same nasty prodigy fetish that infects the classical world creeping into jazz. “There’s always some twelve-year-old genius from somewhere. It’s almost like [being younger] is more important than whether you can play or not,” she says.


When Rosnes did feel ready, she recruited some impressive name-brand players: pianist Herbie Hancock, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, bassist Ron Carter, and Tonight Show band leader Branford Marsalis. These were just people whose work she admired and with whom she knew she was musically compatible as a result of having worked with them before. “Blue Note [her record label] said I could have anybody, so the way I thought about it was, I’d just make a record of good music, rather than worrying about making a record showcasing The Amazing Renee Rosnes.”


She’s continued to challenge herself with each new recording project. Her first, self-titled, LP, with the all-star talent providing support, was a tour through her wide musical range. (One track, called “I.A. [Illegal Alien] Blues,” is a tribute to her immigration troubles.) Her second record, For the Moment, showed how well she worked with her steady quintet. Her most recent release is a trio performance with a full orchestral string section. Each of her recordings has featured established standards by which jazz players are judged. The first two records also boast a number of Rosnes’s original compositions, which hold their own in some heavy company.


Ernest Hemingway said that great writing was having the courage of one’s convictions and knowing what to leave out. So it is with Renee Rosnes’s piano playing. Her improvisations are suffused with an authority that would lead any listener to believe that Rosnes already knows exactly what will be happening twenty-four bars later. You hear echoes of the tender yet unsentimentally heartbreaking melodics of Bill Evans. There are the dense, full chords of McCoy Tyner at some points. And there are bluesy veins from Herbie Hancock’s keyboard explorations, as well as traces of more obscure stylists such as Jess Stacy, Lennie Tristano, and Phineas Newborn, Jr. But each of these is one shade on an incredibly wide palette.


The only truly consistent element in Rosnes’s playing is a commitment to sheer beauty, a commitment that leaves no room for being deliberately, self-consciously “arty.” Rosnes also has an unfailing instinct for embellishing the melody and highlighting it in new ways, but without obscuring it behind what Holden Caulfield derided as “dumb, showoffy ripples in the high notes, and a lot of other very tricky stuff that gives me a pain in the ass.”


Take, for example, what Rosnes does with the Thelonious Monk standard “Four in One.” Where Monk’s tempo is skewed and contemplative, Rosnes makes it swing. She strips down his already sparse arrangement (which often sounds as though Monk played wearing mittens), and voices the original chromatic runs differently, sometimes starting a run, stopping halfway through, then starting it again to give her version a kind of “broken record” feeling, as though she’s saying to the listener, “Did you get it?”


“When we’re playing, the music is the music, and where the music leads us is where we go,” Rosnes says, trying to explain her role as leader of her own quintet. “Sure, I’ve chosen the material, I’ve composed a lot of the material, and I’ve chosen the players, and basically I’m directing it, but it’s not like being a conductor in front of an orchestra. That’s not what jazz is about. You have to remember that when you’ve got five people on stage, and they’re all taking solos, that there are other people who are going to be making statements on this tune, so don’t hog it. Take however long you need to say what you’re going to say. But say it once.”


She hasn’t had time to say anything more than once. Somehow Renee Rosnes, at the age of thirty and three records into her career, has managed to avoid getting hyped too early, weirding out, or turning into one of a dozen possible sad jazz clichés — apparently because of her unerring ear for what sounds right. “Miles once said there’s no such thing as a wrong note,” she says, recalling a favorite quote. “It’s what you do with it.”