Caroline Davis: Jazz Saxophonist
An Interview with:
Caroline Davis Jazz Saxophonist - Brooklyn, NY
ALBUM RELEASE: Heart Tonic -- March 23, 2018 on Sunnyside Records
RELEASE PARTY: April 13th at the Jazz Gallery
I AM: Thanks for joining us Caroline! I read that you were born in Singapore. That really caught my eye. Tell me about that.
Caroline: Yes. My dad is British and my mother is Swedish. They both came to the U.S. to go to college and they met here. Then my dad got a job in Singapore and we moved there. We lived there for about six years. Then they moved back to the U.S. so I lived here from then on.
I AM: Do you remember living in Singapore?
Caroline: Yes, I do. When we lived there it was a British colony so I feel like most of our friends and family were British. It was a bit weird when I was living there from 1981-1986. It was really strict and there was an overwhelming feeling of the British people being...well, it was an apartheid kind of thing, where we had a maid and she was Chinese and she took care of everything. Looking back on that I feel really uncomfortable about all of that. Now I do, but back then, I didn’t really think about it too much. I went to a Montessori school and there was a lot of freedom in my upbringing. It was like a “do whatever you want” kind of unstructured environment. I think that contributed a lot to the way I feel about life in general and the way I handle my life.
I AM: Do you think your unstructured schooling might have influenced your interest in jazz?
Caroline: Yes. I think my mind...it’s funny because I was just on tour and I heard this band that was on before us. It was one of these bands, I’m not saying this is a bad thing, where everything they played was definitely figured out beforehand. I was thinking to myself, “Wow. That is actually an amazing skill to have -- to remember all of that stuff!” I can remember the basic foundations of things but I do a lot of improvising in every part of my life, like cooking and traveling. Most of the things I do I don’t do the same way repeatedly. I feel like that comes from that kind
of Montessori, unstructured earlier environment and that definitely influenced my choice to be a jazz musician.
I AM: I wonder which came first... the chicken or the egg? Maybe your brain is wired that way and the Montessori school was a good fit.
Caroline: You’re right because I’ve really tried to practice the saxophone in a structured way -- where I just practice the same thing for hours. I’ll think, “OK, I want to incorporate this idea in my playing when I’m improvising.” A lot of the time, especially if we’re playing in faster tempos, we have to have things that we’ve worked out previously. I’ve never been very good at that but I still work on that all the time. I still have to really practice that. It doesn’t come naturally to me.
I AM: You do it so you have the muscle memory if you need it?
Caroline: Exactly. But sometimes I go out and hear musicians and they have a lot of that in their playing but for me it’s more of a stream of consciousness. I honestly don’t have a lot of things figured out before I’m going to play a solo. That can be a detriment sometimes. It’s funny that you said the chicken or the egg because sometimes I feel like my brain is not wired for that kind of practicing. It’s really a struggle.
I AM: That’s so interesting to me. My parents were trained musicians and I played classical piano growing up and I don’t have that improvisational gene. I watch jazz musicians and I just don’t understand how they step out on a limb like that. Do you sometimes just sit in with groups and jam?
Caroline: When I first moved to New York about 4 1⁄2 years ago, I was doing a lot of that because I was trying to get to know people. I need to do that again because New York is one of those places where there are constantly new waves coming in and suddenly, I don’t know anybody. I don’t do a lot of that though. For me, someone will call me and I’ll play their music or I’ll play my original music. I do go to some jam sessions, especially the ones that are close by in my neighborhood and I do play a lot of sessions that I’ll organize at my house. That’s kind of like a jam session but it’s private.
I AM: I know this is probably a question you get all the time, but I’m curious about why and how you picked up the saxophone. What happened there?
Caroline: In Junior H.S., I think I was 12 or 13, I always had a little thing for horns because my dad was one of those people who would infectiously sing along with the bass line and the horn line. He especially loved funk tunes and R&B from the 70’s or 80’s like Michael Jackson, Chicago, Earth Wind and Fire and Stevie Wonder. He was always like “bah da bah bah”, you know, all the horn lines. So I feel like I got that from my dad. That was a big thing for me. I wasn’t really interested in playing brass. I don’t know why. I just didn’t want to do it. Also, I’m kind of a taller person so I feel like maybe the band director thought, “OK, we’ll put you on saxophone because it’s a bigger instrument than the clarinet or flute.”
I AM: You could hold onto it!
Caroline: Yes, exactly.
I AM: I was reading in your bio that you have a Ph.D. in Music Cognition. I have to admit, I had never heard of that before as a type of degree. Has it been around for a long time and I’m just out of it?
Caroline: No. It’s definitely not common. You’re one of many who don’t know what it is.
I AM: I know people get degrees in Theory and in Performance. But I was reading that this degree is an interdisciplinary field that includes music, psychology, neuroscience, music therapy, music theory, musicology, computer science and linguistics. I was floored!
Caroline: A lot of people who study Music Cognition or Music Psychology will be housed within the departments of Psychology or Music. I was housed in the department of Music at Northwestern but I took a lot of neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and cognitive ethno-musicology classes. My undergraduate degree is a B.S. in Psychology. I was applying for a Master’s program and Northwestern said, “We have a Ph.D. program and we think you’d be a really good fit and you just need to do one extra year of course work.” So I went for it.
I AM: And what are you trying to get at...how people interpret music or what goes on in the brain when listening to music?
Caroline: That’s one part of it. I call them “rooms.” There are a bunch of “rooms” in the house of music cognition. Some of the “rooms” are more socially based. The social cognition of music is how people listen to music that their peers listen to or how certain stores or restaurants can influence the way you listen to music and the type of music you listen to. There’s also the neuro-cognitive aspect of how music affects your brain. Where does the cerebral blood flow when you interpret music? Does it go to the frontal, temporal, occipital lobes? It turns out, that for musicians, cerebral blood flows more often between the two hemispheres and multiple lobes than for non-musicians. People also study the aspect of timing within neuro-cognition. You’ve probably seen those EEG caps with electrodes. If you play someone a piece of music, how long does it take the brain to respond to the stimulus and where is it being processed? But those EEG experiments are not as good at deciphering where the response is happening. They’re better at showing when it’s happening. One of the other “rooms” of music cognition that I was interested in involves how we think about music or how we organize music in our lives. If you hear a song on the radio, how is it that you can say, “Oh, this sounds like Justin Timberlake to me”, when it’s actually not him? So, how is all of the information in your mind organized to be able to say that? That’s my specialty. I’ve actually studied social groups to see how who you socialize with influences the way you organize and think about music.
I AM: That is fascinating. Is your work published?
Caroline: My dissertation is published and I’ve published papers that I’ve presented at conferences but I haven’t published in a major journal yet.
I AM: Do you teach music cognition?
Caroline: I moved to New York from Chicago where I used to teach a lot more. Here in New York, I’m just trying to play music right now.
I AM: What’s it like being a woman in jazz in New York right now?
Caroline: One of the biggest reasons that I moved here was because there are so many people playing jazz here and many of them are women and it’s really wonderful to see that.
I AM: Do you see an increase in women jazz musicians? Historically, there were more men playing jazz, wouldn’t you say?
Caroline: Yes. Here in New York, it’s becoming more and more equal. It’s not quite there yet. I do very well if I’m in an environment that is stimulating to me. And what is stimulating is seeing more successful women around me, making their own music.
I AM: Historically, I think it wasn’t socially acceptable for women to be out playing in clubs late at night.
Caroline: Yes. Throughout history, there have been so many more women vocalists and pianists, but saxophone players?
I AM: I wonder if it was also deemed unfeminine or risky or dangerous?
Caroline: I don’t like to think in dichotomies, but I guess some people say that being in a jam session or being in a jazz club is masculine. These days I honestly don’t see the dichotomy as clearly anymore. I did when I was younger but now I feel like I’m kind of masculine too. That fulfills my nature of taking chances. There are old school beliefs that women are not brave enough to do what this is. I never really believed that because I wasn’t raised that way. Some people think in terms of those dichotomies...men vs. women. My mom was a single mother and I saw how strong she was and I didn’t think twice about anything. There are so many insanely talented musicians that are women here in New York.
I AM: Can you tell me about your album Chicago Storylines? You call it a musical documentary.
Caroline: Yes. I came out with that in 2015 because I was leaving Chicago to live in New York. I wanted to honor the mentors that I had by interviewing them. I wrote music that would intersperse with the dialogue. I know it’s kind of a nerdy, podcast- y thing. But I wanted to paint a story. The stories were really personal and meaningful. I wanted to use my music as a vehicle to understand those stories. I was really thankful to interview all of those people and they were really generous with their time. Now I’m about to release an album on March 23rd. It’s all my original music and I’m really excited about it.
I AM: What’s the album called?
Caroline: This album is called Heart Tonic. It’s coming out on Sunnyside Records which is a wonderful label based here in New York. I’ve been following them for a long time and I’m really happy that they’re releasing it for me. I’m playing with some of my favorite musicians on it.
I AM: Who are some of your favorite musicians playing on it?
Caroline: The trumpet player is someone I met in Chicago. His name is Marquis Hill. He’s sensitive and beautiful. Julian Shore on piano, is someone who I’ve known for over a decade and who I’ve been secretly admiring because he writes beautiful music and is such a great person. Also, my best friend Jay Sawyer, who lives down the street, is on drums. He’s awesome. He’s just a giving human and always cares so much about my music. Also, my friend Rogerio Boccato is playing percussion. He’s played with Danilo Perez and Kenny Garrett.
I AM: I’m very happy for you!
I AM: Any upcoming gigs?
Caroline: Well, the album release party is in New York on April 13th at the Jazz Gallery.
I AM: That’s exciting! We’ll be sure to spread the word. Caroline, thank you so much for letting us get to know you a bit.
Caroline: You’re welcome. I’m just so thrilled that I can do this for a living and put out my music. It’s always an honor and I’m so happy to do that in New York. It’s an incredibly inspiring place to be. It’s so ripe.
I AM: You feel like you’re in the right place.
Caroline: Yes, I do. It’s so exciting, even though there are so many hardships living here. It’s definitely the right place and I’m very grateful to be here.
Mobile since her birth in Singapore, composer, saxophonist, and educator Caroline Davis now lives in Brooklyn, New York. After making her mark on the Chicago jazz community during her 8-year stint, she moved to New York in 2013, and has proven to be an active leader and sidewoman in the national jazz scene. She has shared musical moments with a diverse group of musicians, from jazz to mainstream, including Matt Wilson, Ellis Marsalis, Matt Mitchell, Randy Brecker, Victor Goines, Bobby Broom, Greg Saunier, Ron Miles, Dennis Carroll, Erin McKeown, Allison Miller, Jenny Owen Youngs, and Billy Kaye. Aside from her own quintet, she collaborates regularly with R&B indie band, Maitri, and has been a regular member of many outfits including Whirlpool, Fatbook, Deep Fayed, Matt Mitchell’s Sprees, Billy Kaye Quintet, Paul Bedal Quintet, Orso, Chicago Jazz Orchestra, Caili O’Doherty Group, Dion Kerr Group, Elliot Ross, and Materials and Their Destiny. Her debut album, Live Work & Play, was featured on All About Jazz’s best releases, and she was named one of JazzTimes’ Best New Artists in the 2012 Expanded Critics’ Poll. Her second album, Doors: Chicago Storylines, was just released as an audio documentary that uniquely sets stories from Chicago's jazz scene from the 80s and 90s alongside her original music. This year, she was named one of DownBeat’s “rising stars” in the alto saxophone category.