Jane Fair is a Toronto-based saxophonist, composer, and jazz educator. This interview was conducted on the occasion of the release of Jane's CD, Chances Are on the Cellar Live label. Samples and ordering information for the CD are here.
Guy MacPherson: You're becoming a semi-regular out here in Vancouver.
Jane Fair: (laughs) Yes and no. I had to come out here in the last couple of years because of Music Fest. I teach some kids who come out and participate in that.
What is that exactly?
It's a big festival for music students who are in every imaginable ensemble: choirs, bands, orchestras. They have a section for jazz ensemble for kids as young as ten.
They have a whole bunch of them that are high school age but some of the ones I teach are as young as ten. Over the last few years they've had it alternating between Ottawa and Vancouver.
How can a ten-year-old play jazz?
(Laughs) The beginnings of jazz. They learn the songs and they try to solo. And the thing is, those kids start very young in music classes. They all do piano then they go on to another instrument. So they're very highly motivated and gifted kids.
That's amazing. How many years have you been doing that?
About six years I've been doing that.
Do they stick with it?
A lot of them go on with it at least through high school. And a lot of them get really serious and go on and go to the University of Toronto and Humber and stuff.
Are you ever blown away by any ten-year-olds?
No . . . you can't tell. You can just tell they're really good musicians and they can hear really well, and that kind of thing. There's no real predictability about how serious they'll become . . . because if they don't become serious, the development won't happen.
Is this through the school system?
Humber College has sponsored what they call a community music school for about twenty years. It started about 24 years ago by now. So it's supported by Humber. And then of course people have to pay to come but the facility is the same one where the music school is, so they have nice rooms and pianos and drums and stuff.
Does this happen all across the country?
That particular thing that I teach, they only do that in Toronto. There's nothing else like it anywhere else, apparently. But the Music Fest is for kids up through high school and it's huge. Thousands of kids go to Music Fest every year.
In all styles of music?
They have stage bands and concert bands and orchestras and choirs.
You've played The Cellar now how many times?
This will be the third time. The first time was an accident. I was invited to go and play with Mother of Pearl. They were doing a special concert where they were having various Canadian women songwriters come and perform with them. Songs written by Canadian women was the theme. So I was in touch with Brian [Nation] at that time and he said, "If you're coming out to do that, why don't you play at The Cellar? I'll see if I can set it up." And he did. That was March of 2003.
So he set up the sidemen?
Yeah, he obviously knew everybody. I didn't know people. I think Brian had a sense of what would work. I didn't know the musicians out here. Bill Coon was the guitarist, and Nancy Walker, who I do a lot of work with in Toronto, knew him. And she said, "Oh, you'll love Bill!" So I thought, well, it sounds good. I'll just jump in. And I did.
And you meshed right away?
They were really great. They just gave 110 percent. Obviously we had a lot of stuff in common and we did some originals. They had no problems reading stuff and coping with stuff they haven't seen so we did some standards and some originals. And that's what we'll do again. And their musicianship is extremely high. They were really great.
So they're your west coast group now.
(Laughs) For the sliver of time, yes. I mean, it's not ideal in the sense that it would be great to work frequently. But it's not realistic. I don't have the resources to do anything about that.
Have you toured much in your career?
Uh, I wouldn't say much at all but there have been a few little ones. I really haven't pursued it. But the quintet that I have been working with for the last five or six years [the Jane Fair/Rosemary Galloway Quintet] has done a couple of mini tours. I call them mini tours because they were very brief. But no, I haven't done a lot.
Would you like to have done more or to do more?
I'll tell you, when I was younger I think I would have wanted to, in the sense of having the energy to do more of it. But at this point, I think I'd just be happier having the opportunity to play with people consistently. And then if you get to do something here or there, something special, fine. But the enjoyment comes from, I feel, the consistency of playing with people and being able to grow that way.
You mean more than once a year!
Yes. The quintet doesn't play all the time but we do do a few things and every once in a while we get a flurry of things and we get together in between and I find that's satisfying.
When you came to jazz as a kid, from what I've read, you jumped in at the bebop era and worked backwards to dixieland.
I would say not bebop because bebop is too intimidatingly difficult. I think the way to put it is when I first started listening, I was in high school, and the records that were coming out at that time, hot off the press, were... Kind of Blue came out and all those subsequent Miles ones, and Bill Evans was putting stuff out, and Coltrane was putting stuff out on Blue Note and Impulse. So that was sort of the blast I got when I first started listening. So when I first started to play, without having any sort of elaborate teachers or anything like that, you're just swinging in the dark. You know what I mean? You just go, "Duh, I'd like to play the saxophone." I remember trying to play some bebop and the melodies – just the melodies! – were so intricate. It was very difficult. And to improvise that way? Hello? It didn't happen! Anyway, I just mean that we would just try to learn songs. I remember learning some of the Chick Corea songs like Tones for Jones Bones and Lisa and stuff like that. It was a potpourri of things that we thought we could play.
So you were learning the contemporary jazz of the day.
We were trying to. You'd listen to it and you'd go, "Oh, that sounds amazing!"
Were you in your high school band or did you just pick it up yourself?
You know what happened? I took band at high school and I started to do saxophone lessons throughout high school and progressed quite quickly. I was listening [to jazz] in high school but I didn't try to play until I went off to university and then I just flailed away. And I met some people who were trying to play also. So it was very hit and miss, believe me! It was not scientific; it was not systematic.
When did it hit? When did you go, "I can play this music!"?
(Laughs) It took a long time! I flailed around. I started in 1971 or so. Very old by today's standards. Everybody starts when they're eight, you know? So I struggled away and I felt like it sort of started coming together by '76, somewhere in there. Just starting, right? It felt like, "Well, I think I can almost get through some stuff." And the opportunity to play with people and do different projects, you improve. But it certainly was not, as I say, systematic. It wasn't like, "Okay, I'm going to go study with so-and-so and they're going to get me from Point A to Point B."
At a certain point did it become systematic?
For me, I would say it was never systematic but I get closer to understanding how it might be. I wish it had been at some point. Like I could have signed up and said I was going to study with Lee Konitz for five years, but I didn't. I took some lessons with him but then I got married and had a child (laughs) and no more lessons! So you keep sort of practicing and trying to piece things together according to what you've gleaned and that's what you roll with. So that's why you have what you have now. (laughs)
Which is what?
You know, this person who sort of plays and writes. But it's not like the mastery is all there, you know? I wish it were otherwise.
You played dixieland, too, didn't you?
I did for a little while. But that's a huge area that's specialized. I feel in hindsight I learned a lot from being exposed to it but I didn't do it real justice. I really enjoyed it.
Do you think it's important to go back to the roots of jazz?
A lot of young players start out in that 1950s era and later, as if that's the beginning, don't they?
I think that's largely true. Definitely. And I think for every person coming up they kind of click into what is compelling at the time, what really grabs them to get them going. And then they figure it out: "I'm going to gravitate this way or that way." And fewer people go to early stuff, although you probably find specialists in pockets who just love it.
I don't necessarily mean play that style, but to have as a foundation. Does it add anything to your playing to be exposed to it and know it?
I think it gives you a window into how intricate those early areas were. Let's say if you're a pianist, that's a whole amazing planet. You get into Fats Waller and stuff and you get great tunes. There's some great, great tunes. I just think in various dimensions if you try to learn some of the music and listen to how it was played, it gives you some kind of perspective. And in certain instruments you can kind of get a sense of the influences that happened. Like how did they play clarinet? And the clarinet players were crazy! All that can be really interesting. But ultimately people just gravitate to stuff they like. And you don't necessarily hear those influences, I don't think, in an obvious way.
You've only got a few recordings under your own name.
Under my own name I don't have very many at all. The CBC did one really early on. And I did some with Rosemary. We had a couple of different groups. She got things going and we did a few recordings. But under my own name? I don't have any.
Up to now.
This would be the first one. But it's not something I'm worried about because that quintet has actually been quite satisfying. We've got some new material. I'm hoping we can do another one if we get organized.
How do you feel about this Cellar recording?
I feel it's quite an amazing thing because when I did that gig it was just to do the gig. There was no intention to have it become a recording. So in a way it's kinda neat because it's a very honest kind of... this is what we did. There was minimal rehearsal. I got together with Bill Coon, then we just got together and we just played. And like I say, they jumped in with some originals I brought. It's very different from when you do an album and you plan it. It's a real different feel and a whole different ball park. So I'm very happy that it's happening. I tend to be quite modest so I would never have said... I didn't even think about recording it. Brian just said, "Maybe we should, you know? They've got the equipment there. Let's just do it, then you have it as a document or whatever."
You need someone like that in your career!
(Laughs) I'm flattered that it's happening. As I say it's a very honest, unpremeditated kind of performance.
Where's the Jane Fair/Frank Falco CD?
(Laughs) If we're lucky, it'll happen! Frank is a completely retiring person. I know he would do something wonderful. He still sounds great, even when he's rusty. He really does. He's sort of been hinting that he'd like to do something but he's been real busy and blah, blah, blah. So I'm sort of hoping that he will. And if I'm on it, that would be good (laughs). He plays so beautifully, he makes you sound good.
Do you play together at home often?
We've played several different kinds of gigs and stuff. He's very kind. He's done a few projects for people where he's done all the arranging and he always gets me to play on them. So we've done a lot of gigs but we haven't done any jazz gigs recently at all. But I'm pestering him to do something. I don't have to be on it.
Do you play piano, too?
I do, but I couldn't perform on piano. But I certainly work on it all the time. I've learned so much from having the piano. I can't survive without it, actually.
You work on it for composing, or you work on your piano technique?
Actually, I really enjoy playing it, but I have to play it at a very low level. I can't play fast. But I just love it. But I do use it when I'm composing stuff and learning stuff and understanding what's going on harmonically. It's been a mainstay for me.
When you were starting out, did you think about the gender issue or were you so immersed in the music that you were oblivious to the fact that you were the only woman on all your gigs?
Um... I mean, obviously you think about it, but I was quite thrilled to be learning and thrilled to be able to get it together, to some extent. And I found that the players with whom I was playing in Montreal and then subsequently in Toronto were sympathetic and helpful and encouraging. You can always sort of reflect on it but ultimately it seemed to be a combination of your colleagues who you ended up playing with. You would pursue those people and say, "Would you play this gig with me?" In the larger picture, over the years I reflect on the dimension of competitiveness and the degree to which you should aggressive and that kind of thing. You know, masculine-ish things. I do reflect on that sometimes. But then it gets very confusing because it has to do with people's personalities and characters and stuff. You know what I mean? Like, you can have retiring people who are male and who don't want to go out and get a bunch of gigs. Look at Frank. He did it for a while. He was playing all the time for several years there. He was asked to play and accompany people and everything and then he just said, "I don't want to do this. The pianos are always rotten. And sometimes these mafia guys come in and I don't like them..." (laughs) And he just said, "I want to live a quiet life." He loved his teaching, and he's spectacular at the teaching. And he loves the music, and he's very serious about it. He listens and he grows and he reads. He's quite amazing. But you know what I mean: that aspect of it where you just go, "I am gonna promote myself", he just doesn't want to do it.
So it's not just a male-female thing.
Right. You could argue that it is on some level but it's not really.
Do you ever feel that being a woman held you back?
There are so many things I feel like. Like, okay, it's my self-discipline that held me back. Or you could argue a bunch of things like I should have been studying more seriously with somebody, right? Why didn't I do that? Well, it's because you're out to lunch or something. So I feel it's not per se that because I'm a female. I don't have examples of, "Well, I went and applied for a job and they said, 'No, you're just this female so we don't want you.'" And yet you could argue if I go to Rob McConnell and he doesn't want me in his band... The thing is, he wants the best players, who he considers the best virtuosic players. And he's going to get guys who are like him, who are really funny and they like to drink, which I understand. So he's had a whole bunch of people of the younger guard – people who are my age who were in the younger guard – like Alex Dean. That guy is the funniest guy and he's so hyper and a great guy. He's a great saxophone player. He's like Rob: totally funny and speedy. And then he had Mike Murley. Let's say I was the most amazing saxophone player. Let's say I was more amazing than Alex. Well, he might have asked me. (laughs) I don't think it's being female. It could be. I'm sure there are examples of people saying, "I don't want any women in my band." But I have to say on the other side, that working with the quintet, working with Nancy and Rosemary and Lina [Allemano] has been very satisfying. And not just because we're female but there's a certain supportiveness and loyalty, but you could get that with different people.
Does your son play?
Yes. He grew up immersed in all this craft going on all the time and he played great trumpet for a while (laughs) and then guess what happened?
The big monster instruments, the guitar and the drums, moved into his life. He switched to playing guitar for a long time in a couple of punk bands. He plays drums now in one band. He finished his undergrad at U. of T. not in music, in philosophy and literature, but he's still playing. Not jazz, though. But he's got it in there. If he wanted to retrieve it he probably could.
He probably will.
I keep sort of hoping! But he's definitely got lots of gifts.
Your website says "Jazz saxophonist, Composer, Educator". If you had to choose just one...
If someone said you have to choose? It's not really a fair question.
I know it's not.
Because they're linked. The composing just grows out of that experience of trying to play and putting things together and trying to understand how things can work. So if I were a composer and I couldn't play, I don't think I'd be happy. And I don't think I could do it satisfactorily. And if I was just an educator, I'd be depressed, too, if I couldn't play. I wouldn't feel right because part of what I do hinges on being a player.
So your answer is "player". It all comes back to player.
(Laughs) Yeah. I suppose you could argue that.
I've made your choice for you.
Very good deduction. Very good. Very tricky.
Visit Jane Fair's web site.
Photo of Jane Fair by Brian Nation