Interview with Patrice Rushen
To describe Patrice Rushen as versatile is an understatement. The legendary pianist, R&B singer, composer, record producer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and music director has been a wanderer between styles throughout her life. In the late 70s and early 80s she merged jazz finesse with disco elements, soul and funk to a higher level of sophisticated R&B. With the new compilation "Remind Me" Strut Records presents the first definitive retrospective of her career at Elektra / Asylum, which made her an R&B star with unforgettable hits like "Forget Me Nots", "Haven't You Heard" or "Settle For My Love". LATE NIGHT DREAM talked with the California based artist about her early beginnings, her love for jazz, Quincy Jones, her legendary Elektra albums, her role as a pioneer in music business and future plans.
* Patrice, in the beginning there was the piano. How old were you when you started playing?
I was aged five when I started piano lessons. It gave me something to do that was directly connected to sound. If my parents had picked violin or trumpet, it would have been more difficult, I think. With piano you get more immediate gratification through your involvement and in producing a tone. I warmed to it very quickly and I innately wanted to play music so that connection was a very fast process for me.
* What role did music play in your parents' home?
We were never without music at home. It was part of the atmosphere of our household. We listened to pop stations, jazz stations, the news, what was happening in the city. My parents had a mixed music taste; they belonged to the Columbia Record Club and received an album every month. We had Mahalia Jackson one week, Sinatra the next, then Miles, Coltrane, Andy Williams, Perry Como, Ella Fitzgerald, then Barbra Streisand. They also liked classical music so we would occasionally get Mozart or Bach. I heard a lot of different kinds of music and artistic expression.
Television too – I was attracted to variety shows and The Ed Sullivan Show was the most famous of them. That was where I first saw The Beatles, Chuck Berry, then the dance shows like American Bandstand, Shindig, Hullabaloo, programmes where artists came on and performed and you could see people moving to the music. Later, of course, there was Soul Train. That became a real force. That was the first time that there had been a show that projected the African American perspective in terms of dress and music. On other shows, you would occasionally see black artists but, with Soul Train, it was a celebration of African American sensibilities in pop culture in a way in which we appreciated it. As kids, it gave us a more balanced idea of what pop culture was about.
* What fascinated you about jazz in your youth?
I had heard it but didn’t appreciate the improvisational aspects of it when I was younger. As I grew in learning harmony, composition and structure, it began to make more sense, I realised that these amazing musicians were playing solos like spontaneous compositions. I found it amazing that they could utilise the form of the song and then create something entirely improvised around that structure, which was the cornerstone of jazz.
* Who were your musical role models at that time?
It was Motown, big time! Stevie, Smokey Robinson, then Sam & Dave, the Stax artists, Aretha of course. Marvin Gaye, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Sly Stone, James Brown. It was partly because my peer group were all listening to the radio so we learned the new dances and shared the information together. That too became a part of my natural vocabulary – we loved to dance together.
* Patrice, one of your early musical mentors was Quincy Jones. How did you meet Quincy and what advice did he give you at the beginning of your career?
We met during my high school years when I was in my high school jazz band. We had Battle Of The Bands competitions and Quincy was very often an adjudicator at those contests. One time, my band played one of my arrangements and he asked to see me afterwards. He asked me what I wanted to do. I said I wanted to write for film and TV, orchestrate and arrange music. He said, “first of all, you’re going to have to very, very good.” I thought that was an interesting thing to say – wouldn’t I want to be good anyway? But he was suggesting that there could be some hurdles, probably related to me being female, being black and having few role models who I could ask things from. I would have to be good and taken seriously, solely because of the quality of my work. He also said, “Don’t be afraid to diversify. This is not a short race, this is long term so you want to know everything you can about the different aspects of music if you want to do it and succeed.” His words have served me well over time.
* In 1972, with only 18, you won a competition to perform at the Monterrey Jazz Festival. This honor earned you a contract with the legendary jazz label Prestige Records, where you worked amongst others with saxophonist Joe Henderson. How do you remember this time as a young artist at Prestige?
It was a mixed feeling of being excited about the possibilities but a bit fearful. I was resistant to a label deal at the time because I didn’t feel quite ready and didn’t think I knew enough; I felt that people who made records had to be worthy of documentation and I didn’t yet see myself in that group. On the other hand, I needed money for school and college and the idea of working with the people I felt most comfortable with was great. The Executive Producer, Orin Keepnews, was very kind. He agreed to give me a certain amount of creative control and he kept his word. He allowed me to have Reggie Andrews, one of my teachers at USC, as first producer, he introduced me to other people on the label including Joe Henderson and I could bring in other musicians too like Ndugu Chancler, Lee Ritenour and Harvey Mason. Those Fantasy / Prestige years definitely opened doors because people started calling me for sessions – Jean Luc Ponty, James Gadson, my friends from EWF like Al McKay and others. It helped me to make a name for myself. I ran into John McLaughlin who came to my recent gig with Christian McBride in Nice – he called me during those years too and invited me on the road. It taught me that there is always more happening than the music you play on a certain day. It speaks louder and always has ripples.
* After three jazz-oriented albums for Prestige you moved to Elektra. Was the jazz corset too tight for you after a few years?
Haha, no, I wouldn’t say that – I would say that the jazz corset redefined itself and I didn’t get the message! Jazz was always representative of expansion and new ideas and utilising the tradition to inform other possibilities. But somewhere along the line, that definition got mixed up or, at least, I didn’t get it. Each of the Elektra albums was like a snapshot of that moment in time. Looking back now, the difference between the albums was just reflective of the other colours I was allowed to play with. I had never changed my intentions or my desire for excellence.
* Patrice, your Elektra years mark a major transition from recording jazz material to chart oriented R&B. This was a development that artists like George Duke and George Benson went through at the same time. What excited you about R&B?
Well, it was a natural progression – it involved the idea of maintaining a certain kind of aesthetic and, at the same time, celebrating sensibilities that happened to be more commercially accessible.
* Through your background as a classically trained pianist and your deep roots in jazz, you had a different approach to R&B as artists coming from soul or pop. The result was that you patented your own jazz-infused take on R&B. How would you describe your approach?
I would say again that it was just this idea of having so many colours to play with – I tell my students that. I had the desire to develop a skill set that would give me the ability to paint in that way, add different kinds of layers and experiment in different directions to address those basic needs of entertaining, bringing a certain depth and celebrating the recording sciences. If the music is designed to make someone move, then do that – move their body! These are things that music does, it offers people ways to consider different points of view. I wanted to be articulate in that way and I think having the knowledge and at least a general understanding of the lineage from which pop music came gave me a strong identity that maintained elements of the traditions, celebrated the present and wasn’t afraid of the future.
* How was that change received in the jazz world at that time?
At first, I think there was a little bit of hesitation and push back. The jazz purists rejected fusion. They saw it as artists abandoning jazz as opposed to pushing the envelope, growing the appreciation of what jazz could be. It was a difficult time but I wasn’t alone. Others were much more established than me – George Duke, Herbie, Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea. I really respected them and saw how they handled it so elegantly and didn’t allow it to stand in their way. They had nothing to prove to anyone but themselves. I didn’t worry about it because I hadn’t been around long enough for people to take that kind of ownership. There was an assumption that, because I had done something well, that was where I was going to stay. I was allowed to make the music I wanted to make. The biggest issue ended up being on the business side – which bin would my music go in at the record store? You’re going to confuse the audience! There were all of these rules established through the music industry’s marketing practices. If there was any direct negative, it was that the label didn’t understand my music and didn’t understand me. Rather than creating new rules to accommodate a new generation of artists coming with a multi-faceted approach, it was easier for them not to do anything. In the end, the public took care of my music. In retrospect, that’s far better. At least I know for sure that me being my best self and the fun of making those records (and the lack of interference) allowed for people to accept my music on its own terms. When people tell me that they love particular tracks or that they played a song at their wedding, that means so much to me. They got the music without it being pushed down their throat.
* With the transfer to Elektra your development from jazz instrumentalist to R&B vocalist took place. Early classics like “Music Of The Earth” and “Let's Sing A Song Of Love” were among your first as a lead vocalist. Was it an easy step for you to switch from piano to microphone?
I didn’t make a switch as such – I was still playing keys on all of those tracks. The vocals were the last elements to record. I was never completely comfortable as a singer– the vocals had been colours in my box and I used them to enhance certain aspects of my compositions but I would always laugh when people referred to me as a vocalist. I love to sing but, when I think of vocalists, I don’t think of my voice.
* In 1979 you released "Pizzazz". With "Haven't You Heard" you have risen to the top of R&B radio playlists. "Settle for My Love" is one of the greatest ballads of that era. During the recording you were supported by some of L.A.'s leading musicians of that time, such as saxophonist Gerald Albright, drummer Leon "Ndugu" Chancler and bassist Freddie Washington. How do you remember working on this album? Did you have the freedom to live out your creativity in the studio?
Absolutely. Those top session musicians became great musicians in their own right. We all came up together through high school. Freddie grew up in Northern California and most of the studios were in Southern California so he slept on my mum’s couch and we played every day while he tried to get his name around. These were my mates so were really just doing what we did all the time. We created music that felt good to us; I was led by my instincts and I could trust these people to interpret perfectly what I wanted because we grew up together; we could be of one mind and make the music feel great.
* Patrice, in addition to your solo career, you had become a prolific and in-demand session musician and arranger on the West Coast, appearing on over 80 recordings for other artists. How did you experience the L.A. session scene back then?
It was vibrant and wonderful! Every session was also a teaching moment. I would constantly learn how people would record, the role of the producer, how musicians were instructed and coaxed to get to their best performance and the vital part that the engineer played. They had to catch it at the exact moment when it was happening, Then the different musicians – their dedication and focus in making the music happen. We had fun but everyone’s purpose was very clear.
* In 1982 you released with "Straight From The Heart" your most successful album. With the legendary “Forget Me Nots” you peaked at Number 23 of the Billboard Hot 100, but it almost wasn't released. You had to fund a promo campaign for the single. Why did you receive so little support from your label?
I don’t think the label was ever really aware of what the possibilities were with this music. The idea of achieving this crossover from jazz to commercial radio came down as a corporate mandate but I don’t think they were prepared to follow up what they meant. There was a divide between black radio and pop radio. Some record labels learned how to deal with that when they had black artists that were crossover material. At the time, Elektra was not good at that and it showed. That’s why we took a more pro-active approach with ‘Forget Me Nots’, to get it in front of people and let that energy be one of the determinants for how to go about promoting your record.
* In the following years “Straight From The Heart" became a gold mine for other artists especially from the hip hop scene. In 1997 "Forget Me Nots" celebrated a resurrection as "Men In Black" by Will Smith and became a world hit. Does it annoy you sometimes that people associate other artists with your songs and not you? No, it doesn’t annoy me as long as the important credit of writing and publishing is being addressed correctly so that my music is cleared properly. More and more, people do want to know where a melody or a beat comes from and, because the hip hop audience has now grown up, they are more curious about other music too.
* Patrice, Strut Records’ new compilation "Remind Me" pay tribute to your successful years at Elektra. What significance does your Elektra output have for you as an artist today?
For me, those years represented some of the most fun for me in the studio, It was a very formative time – I was playing, singing and, in many cases, arranging. The fact that the energy, vibrancy and values that we attached to our work resonates today because people want to hear it or turn their children onto these songs – that’s the most amazing compliment.
* Were you involved in the selection of the songs? If so, how was it for you to listen to the old tapes again?
It’s fun – it takes me back to that time and in some cases the particular day about a glitch or moment. It puts a smile on my face. I am probably my worst critic. There’s something in each song that makes me laugh and now I can listen with more educated ears on the contribution of the other great musicians that were involved. Strut compiled the album – I was happy to give them that freedom and I really like the direction they have taken, by bringing in some of the sample sources and selected album tracks. I always think that you learn much more about an artist’s vision when you look beyond the hits.
* During the early '90s, you established yourself as a musical director, guiding amongst others Janet Jackson's world tour “janet.” in 1993. What attracted you to this new direction? Was it a conscious decision to step a little bit out of the limelight?
I always enjoy collaborations. My skill set and ways of planning lent themselves to musical direction so artists began looking to me to bring that to the table. The role is more in the limelight than people may think. The work behind the scenes directly makes a difference to what does and does not happen on stage so the MD has a huge amount of responsibility.
* Patrice, cultural or musical boundaries have never stopped you. You are a pioneer in many fields. Just to name a few examples: you was the first woman who directed the Grammy Awards, the Emmy Awards and People’s Choice Awards. Was it important to you as a musician and a woman to tear down traditional boundaries?
I’m happy that the effect of working on those shows has continued to open the conversation about why there are not more women in this area but I wasn’t thinking of that at the time. I just wanted to do a great job and present the high standard of work that I think that those shows demand.
* You can look back on a varied career spanning more than 40 years. What advice can you give to young musicians and composers who want to succeed in the music business today?
You do this because you love it. To ensure that you take advantage of this amazing platform of music to do what you love, develop skills that give you access to it in multiple ways, if you can. Today, it is more important than ever for artists to be aware of all the different aspects that contribute towards their goal of having music released, to know a little bit about the production side and a bit about the business. I would also recommend building a team of people around you, so that you don’t feel that you have to do it all yourself.
* Patrice, what are your plans for the near future? Can we expect a new album from you in the next time?
I would love to first of all be able to perform some of the music from the compilation live; I haven’t done that under my own name in quite some time. Then, I would certainly love to put out some new music as well. It’s almost like I’m becoming reacquainted with who my audience really is now. I am familiar with my own age group who originally accepted this music with open arms and the next generation who sampled it. Now there is a new generation and they are learning about me too. I am looking forward to coming face to face with them and that will help me to inform my new music in the future.
Thank you very much for the interview!
Listen to our selection HERE