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"I Don't Play Checked"

Profile of Esther Blue, jazz instrumentalist
by Joneve McCormick
(originally published in Art Times)

"A woman has to learn to play aggressively--to really throw down!"

Esther Blue stopped to hand one of her bagels to a homeless man in a wheelchair over a grate.

We were walking to my studio late at night. In the dark I remembered her intensely blue eyes. Esther Blue is her real name. She plays keyboards.

Born in Manhattan at Mt. Sinai Hospital, she is of mixed blood, black and white. Her hair is afro, her skin medium fair. She is 5'2", slender, lithe like a cat. She told me that her eyes change colors--are green when she is happy, blue when she is sad.

Her gestures are sometimes elegant, sometimes like a frisky puppy's. Comfortably settled into my studio, she hugged her chest and knees to herself then, quick as a beat, stretched her chest forth and her arms out as though including the world. Throughout the interview I was dazzled with dichotomies.

I asked her what it was like being a woman in a male-dominated jazz world.

"Well, first, it's hard to be a musician, male or female, then a non-musician -- performing, then coming off stage...that's probably why a lot of musicians get into drugs.

"But female musicians have to forget what they're supposed to be in this society and just be musicians. They have to forget that they're supposed to be submissive, accommodating, and weaker than the male. They have to be aggressive. Take a stand. Then when they get off the stage they have to step back in. I hate it off stage. But I never was the way I was 'supposed to be' anyway."

Her first jazz teacher was Jack Riley, at Turtle Bay Music School in Manhattan.

"He taught me classical piano, but he also played jazz. One day, when I was eleven, I overheard him and asked him if he'd teach me to play jazz. It blew my mind, my asking him. But he did.

"Jazz was more me. I studied classical music in school, but the concert halls of classical music seemed dead, removed from what was happening. I love classical, but it wasn't down and dirty enough. I was a terrible classical musician, too. I wasn't emotionally hooked up to play it."

Jack Riley went to Norway to teach. Esther didn't relate well to his successor, but admits she got some good advice from him.

"He was a control freak. He sought technical perfection over communication and it almost destroyed my confidence. But he told me some things I was able to use. I have small hands...." She put out her strong, delicate hands. Her fingers were short.

"He told me I'd have a hard time, and that alerted me to what I'd have to overcome. He also taught me the importance of being disciplined...coming to practice every day, on time, dressed professionally, with a respectful attitude. That has helped, even though at that time I began to get into drugs...they were all over and musicians used...and I'd get dressed down, then come to practice drunk, or high."

I wondered how musicians could perform high. Didn't it defeat the purpose of rehearsals?

Esther flashed a grin and said, "The rule is 'practice high and play high'-- but it's a downward spiral, and a lot of people have gotten wise."

Esther's mother was an actress, her step father in public relations. "Alcohol was in the house and out in the world. It was the thing to do. I haven't had any alcohol or drugs for over two years, and I play with clean and sober musicians... because I want to play and sooner or later drugs get in the way. Also, using electronics you can't get too'll electrocute yourself!

"I don't drink or drug anymore and I feel better, play better, listen better than I ever did in my life. Drugs turned me on, but in the beginning I got courage from them and I got caught up in something everybody was doing. Now I have the courage."

She doesn't have fond memories of her stepfather. "The last time I saw him he asked me if I was still trying to play piano." Her mother, with whom she was close and who encouraged her, died two years ago.

After Jack left Turtle Bay, Esther began to be aware that she was a female, something she had not considered previously. She wasn't overtly discriminated against in school, "but in this society women musicians generally aren't taken as seriously as men." She received scholarships, though, and was a finalist in the "1987 Hennessey Jazz Competition" -- the only female out of 496 competitors.

After Turtle Bay, she went to Queens College and majored in classical piano. There was no jazz major then. After a couple of years she felt she had learned all she could there and switched to Mannes College of Music and majored in theory.

"I was 18. I became violently ill from a pelvic inflammatory disease caused by an IUD. That slowed me up, but around that time I heard Sir Roland Hanna at My Father's Place. He played next at The Village Vanguard. I went every night. I went up to him and I got down on my knees.

"I said, 'I don't want your money and I don't want to f*** you. I just want your music.' He understood. From then on he took me seriously. I followed him...I did some serious following. In my last year of college I followed him to Cleveland. I was practicing in the auditorium one day. He'd been listening. I was making the same mistakes over and over. He showed me what to do -- and suddenly I was able to do it. I felt I was being given the keys to the kingdom! He became my teacher."

Esther still thinks Sir Hanna's music is the greatest, but she has had problems admiring other musicians and getting involved sexually.

"I'd hear someone play really well, and I wanted to get closer to him and my art. First I like the music, then the musician. I'd sleep with him and find out the man and the music maker weren't the same. I got some rude awakenings... Also, later on stage it made a difference. I wasn't treated as a musician anymore. And I was more likely to hear things like "Do it, baby, yeah! -- with something there that undermined my music. My space as a musician was being violated. I learned to keep my relationships platonic. But it's hard not to want to get close. The music clicks into my hormones."

In her early days she would invite musicians to her place to play and they would think she was inviting them for sex.

"I've never slept with anyone to get a job. People sometimes think musicians are druggies or sex freaks. But we're just people. Some of us have families and two cars in the garage. Some don't." Esther lives with Tim Doyle, the coordinator of special events (conductor of children's programs) at the Brooklyn Museum. They met in Detroit when he was tour director at the Detroit Institute of Art and she was on tour.

"It was love at first sight," Esther said with a smile. She got up and stretched, reaching her fingertips towards the sky. Then she phoned Tim to tell him she'd be home soon.

Esther got a job with The Dance Theater of Harlem. She played some jazz there and got support and applause, which helped her grow. "Even though I wasn't always playing jazz, it helped working there. There were a lot of drummers at The Dance Theater of Harlem and I learned to play loud and hard. I learned to play aggressively. I learned to kick ass. A lot of it's about that -- about winning."

I asked Esther if playing aggressively is typical of women musicians.

"Many hold back, don't let it out. That's the culture. They don't show all sides. They're not free. Some don't allow themselves to grimace or grunt on stage...they're holding it in. But the culture's changed. There are some first rate exceptions. Melissa Slocum (bass player), Melba Liston (trombone player and composer), piano player Dorothy Donegan... she can play the pants off any man!"

While at The Dance Theater, Esther also played jazz at clubs such as Sweet Basil and Knickerbockers, and at events like the "Citicorp Jazz Atrium" and "Women's Jazz Festival," sponsored by Universal Jazz Coalition. She grew stronger.

"Nobody catered to me. It's better that way...but I've taken some hard knocks." I looked at this sensitive artist and wondered how she had survived.

Esther has been working since she was fifteen. During the first years she worked as a baker to support her music, singing Charlie Parker solos while she patted dough.

"I sing, then work it into the instrument. If you can sing, you can play. First you fall down, then you pick yourself up. And your self-esteem grows. I had more desire to do it than humiliation that I couldn't. Now, I'm on fire to play! I'm not afraid to contribute -- uncensored. And I do. Now I can allow the natural instincts to surface. I get cheered. Sometimes male musicians get irritated. They take it that I'm being cheered because I'm a woman. That's because they weren't listening."

She shrugged. Her eyes were very blue. "I used to work hard to be 'one of the boys.' I dressed unisex. I did what I could to get on the team, but I hadn't learned teamwork. I'd never been part of the 'old boy' network. Women don't have the same education in teamwork that men get. I've learned, and I've found out about myself. When I'm on stage, I'm not only a woman. I'm a lot of things. I'm a musician. Now all my rules are dictated by the music. The part I don't like is going off stage. The audience gets disrespectful. Some want to fondle me, buy me drinks, take me to bed. Playing, deep down you seduce an audience. It has nothing to do with your being a woman. But off stage it's tempting to reach out, like I did on stage. The music is over. I want sometimes to be held and comforted. But I remember there's another show, the next night or next week."

According to Esther, she got the job at Sweet Basil "by sheer luck," being there at the right time. When I asked her why she was hired from among the others, she said because she auditioned best. She didn't seem to want to give herself full credit.

"It was playing before the major act. I didn't make much and didn't know how to ask for more. Nobody talked about that. But I played with some great musicians and I learned a lot. As I became better known, I got better jobs. I gained confidence. I could show more as a woman. I saw male musicians play with gentleness and learned it was okay to show my emotions."

After Sweet Basil Esther played keyboards at The Blue Note for three years.

"It was poor money, but I got to meet and play with the greats. I worked with Ted Curson every night, six nights a week, and got to play with George Benson, Wynton Marsalis, Stanley Turrentine, Ben Riley, and many others. I discovered the 55 Bar at 55 Christopher Street. It's my favorite local place. You can really throw down pretensions. It's about playing. After The Blue Note I toured. I loved it...meeting new people, going all over the world. I worked with Philly Joe Jones and his trio. I also toured the U.S. with "The Don Oliver Gospel Quartet," and the Far East with Sabrina Carnesi, a singer. I tried on new personae, new mirrors. I allowed my feminine side to emerge. I was freed from the normal constraints. We were the toast of Singapore!"

Recently she toured Germany. "The Germans are great to play for. They love music and they love jazz. I've grown calluses. I don't put much sensitivity into anything but the music now. I'm there to play, to work, to give 100% and I expect that from the people I work with. I've learned from men complete concentration. They don't let their feelings get in the way."

When asked what feelings she meant, she elaborated, "Like proud, or intimidated, or personal love life stuff. My feelings don't run me. Drugs enabled me not to have feelings. Now I can run my feelings. I feel I'm beginning to mine the richness of my existence! People don't expect women to play as you have to play twice as well. That helps us play better."

When she's not working, Esther spends as much time as possible practicing. She has been using electronics for many years and is currently taking a course to learn more about the mechanics. She is the only woman in the course.

"It's not an open world, yet. There are a lot of double entendres at class. They don't seem to suspect I can be as ribald as the best of them."

Electronics opened doors for her. "Jazz is a big, wide world. You have to be versatile. With the computer I can be ten people. Drug free, I can go to the essence of my music now. The hardest thing is when the gig's up -- I have to go back into this society with its rules. On stage I know who I am -- woman, child, man, silly person, wise person -- but I've learned not to expect, just to see.

"It's about music, about playing. It's the music that counts. Not sex, or race, or age. I had an advantage not being 'one of the boys.' Being on the outside has given me a reference point, a vantage place from which to see."

Esther has goals. Devastated by her mother's death, she is getting back on her feet. She wants to get as much into the acoustic world, playing piano, as into the electronics world of keyboard. She wants to make a record, with her own band, and tour, world-wide.

"There's no doubt in my mind I'll do that. Some day I'd like to have my own recording studio. The production side is really seductive to me."

In the meantime she works at clubs, parties, and does commercials.

"Commercials are creative and clever. They're fun. Challenging. Pay's great. But I'd like to get out of doing society parties. It's awful! You're a paid servant. But it helps pay my rent. I can make fifty to a hundred dollars an hour, and the only way to do better right now isn't legal. The transition on stage to off stage continues to be difficult. It's a difficult world. But I've known my entire life -- since I was four -- I'd be a musician. That's what I do. My parents saw me conducting in the back seat of the car when I was five. They thought I was crazy."

I asked Esther how she sees the future for women musicians and jazz.

"I think there's a backlash about women. It's an economic matter. But jazz has gained in acceptance and has made a comeback since the 60's. Now, though, there's a white, new age attitude that has softened it. But people are more skilled, too, and more open. The backlash is about power, and money. Not race or sex. There's a lot of money to be made, and people will do anything for it. The bottom line is greed. All races and sexes respond to it! Music doesn't have a color or a sexuality. It's not a one-kind-of-person game. But giants have died broke. Today, women in jazz are still primarily decorative. It has nothing to do with the quality of their music. There are great players, like ones I've mentioned and others, like Patrice Rushen, Joanne Brackeen, Jane Ira Bloom, and of course everybody knows Marion McPartland. They play great, but in terms of making bucks we haven't begun to make a dent. This isn't only in jazz, but in rock and roll, everywhere. Women instrumentalists aren't taken as seriously as women vocalists."

Then she was talking about playing again, her green eyes smoldering. When she got up to leave, she shook my hand, and I was shocked by the strength in her grip. The worn jacket became elegant as she put her arms into the sleeves. She hugged her chest. It was going to be cold outside.