All that Jazz

Piano student carries on her family’s musical legacy

“Jazz connects to almost everything in my life,” says Naomi Anthony. “That’s why I really enjoy it.”

It goes back to her great-grandparents, who sang church songs and the blues, passing the traditional music down to Anthony’s grandparents, who passed them down to her.

But Anthony, a second-year jazz piano and music education double-major at Mason Gross, wasn’t aware of how those works gave birth to her beloved jazz, which came from an oral tradition based in hymns and work songs.

“When I came to Rutgers and found out in more detail the history of jazz, I realized that my family was a part of that piece of history that resulted in something bigger than what it started with,” says Anthony. Listening to recordings from the 1930s and ’40s of her great-grandparents singing, she felt an immediate connection to her ancestors.

The links to this “rich history,” says Anthony, were made clear by her professors, especially Bill O’Connell and Mark Stasio. They also helped her to understand all the ways that jazz influenced the music that came after it, including the R&B and hip-hop that she grew up on.

During her first year at Rutgers, Anthony took Stasio’s “Jazz Survey” class, which broadly covers the history of jazz in one semester. The course, Stasio says, ensures that jazz students are better grounded in the music they wish to pursue.

“It most certainly influences a student’s playing in the sense that if they like to emulate a certain artist, they can trace that artist’s roots and see the lineage more clearly,” says Stasio, the managing area coordinator of jazz studies at Mason Gross. Not knowing the roots and evolution of jazz, he says, “greatly limits one’s musical scope.”

Anthony isn't interested in limitations. She says that jazz has given her musical freedom and the means to develop her own sound—avenues that she couldn’t find playing pop tunes or even classical music.

“Before I started playing jazz, I just played what was given to me—I couldn’t really explore anything further because it wasn’t complex,” says Anthony, who has been playing the piano since was 10 years old. “But with jazz, you can always find the complexity within the music and interpret it your own way.”

Anthony says that she feels “at home” in jazz, even though the medium’s female musicians don’t always get the credit or exposure that they deserve.

“People jump to singers like Ella [Fitzgerald] and Sarah [Vaughan], and it’s sad to see that not a lot of other women get acknowledged,” says Anthony, who has immersed herself in works by early jazz pianists Sweet Emma Barrett and Mary Lou Williams as well as modern-day musicians like Esperanza Spalding. “They’re out there—you just have to look.”

When Anthony arrived at Mason Gross after studying jazz piano at the Rockland Conservatory of Music in Pearl River, New York, she was surprised to find that she was one of only a handful of women in the Music Department who were studying jazz.  

But she’s mostly unfazed by it, and takes advantage of being so close to New York City to regularly catch performances by female musicians. Plus, Anthony says she’s made a lot of good friends in the Music Department—and, being one of the only women challenges her to make her musical voice heard.

“Even though I may feel isolated sometimes, that encourages me to say, ‘Hey, I’m here too,’” Anthony says. “It’s a mixture of doing my own thing but also being a pioneer.”

Doing her own thing in jazz has not always come easily for Anthony, who, during her first year on campus, was utterly confused by the timidity that took over her usual outgoing personality during performances.

“Sometimes music can open up an aspect of your personality that you didn’t know was there,” Anthony says. “I didn’t know that I could ever be shy.”

After consulting Stasio, O’Connell, and her mother, she realized the problem: “You have to let your guard down. You have to be an open book, share your talent and see how [listeners] respond to it. It took me a while to get used to that.”

Resistance to vulnerability is understandable, especially when students first enter the collegiate setting, says Stasio.

“No one wants to be laughed at or judged,” Stasio says. “I always try to relate to students that all artists, even top pros, can feel inadequate and struggle with inferiorities.”

A confidence booster came Anthony’s way last year when she participated in The Mingus Project, a program that brings jazz musicians and scholars to campus for intensive master classes. Among the “really funky personalities” who showed up was jazz pianist and composer Helen Sung, who Anthony says encouraged her to be more aggressive in her performance.

“You’re constantly learning every time you play and practice,” Anthony says. “That’s what I like about it—it’s an ongoing process.”

Back on campus this fall for her second year, Anthony says she’s “really excited” to continue that process—even if she’s the only woman around.

“Sometimes I don’t even notice that I’m the only girl in the classroom,” says Anthony. “It’s only a big deal if you make it a big deal.”

Posted September 2015