Final mavericks: Jade Simmons and a Go-Go symphony

jade blogWell, final only for now. Because, as I said in my last post — where I finished the list of readers’ nominations — I’ll be continuing this in the new year.

So the name to conjure with, maverick-wise — the maverick of the year, if I had to name one — would be Jade Simmons. One look at her website (follow the link) tells you she’s different. “Cyber Digs of Multifaceted Pianist Jade Simmons,” it says. “Take off your shoes & stay awhile!” I don’t know anyone in classical music who’s so much at home in our outside culture, who does the same things in her many presentations of herself that smart profit-making companies do. Who so totally realizes herself in the way she shows herself to the world.

I don’t have space in this final post to do her justice. So when the new year comes, I’ll feature her early on. The No. 1 maverick in classical music, if you ask me. Browse her site, and see the many things she does.

One last thing. People who aren’t used to this kind of presentation — so glamorous, so contemporary — from a classical artist might fear that she’s all flash, and no substance. No way. I’ve met her. She visited one of my Juilliard classes a year ago, and let me tell you — you won’t meet a more solid, smart, grounded person anywhere. She’s the real deal, inside and out. A model for our field.

Some others I’ve had in mind:

Liza Figueroa Kravinsky’s Go-Go Symphony

Full disclosure: I worked with Liza as a consultant, helping her with a launch strategy for this project, and also offering some tips on orchestration. But that’s minor stuff. The idea for the piece was completely hers.

Go-Go is an iconic Washington, DC style of dance music, with a history dating back to the 1960s. Liza’s idea was to use not just a Go-Go beat, but also Go-Go musicians in a classical piece based on Go-Go.

The piece is fully notated, except for the Go-Go drummers’ parts. The Go-Go drummers don’t read music, and of course wouldn’t play anything prearranged on their own turf. They know how to play Go-Go, and they just do it.

So it’s the combination of Go-Go and classical musicians that makes this special. As Liza emailed to me:

What makes us maverick is that we change the music itself; by artfully using the music of the local popular culture, rather than putting on a token pops concert or an “arts education” event.  This is just MUSIC.  No lectures, program notes, multimedia, or publicity stunts needed.  Nobody cares whether or not we wear tuxes.  We understand each other’s music, and we just communicate with the music.

Strangers out of the blue are telling me they are excited about the gogo symphony!  Today, an African American woman who had read my City Paper ad for more musicians called to ask me when we will perform.  I told her we’re not ready yet.  She’s not a musician – just a gogo fan who happened to read my ad. She’s asking if she could just see a rehearsal, because she likes the concept of “gogo symphony.”   She is excited that we have HER music in our symphony orchestra.  I suspect part of gogo culture is having fans hang out and watch during rehearsal.  I might do that if we can find a larger rehearsal space.

She reminds me of another gogo fan who happened to hear a gogo symphony rehearsal at George Mason University as she was walking down the hall.  “That’s gogo!” she said to herself.   She stopped and walked into the room and asked the trumpet player (the lone African American) if we were playing go-go, and he said yes.  She learned that I was the composer, walked up to me, and told me this piece was great.

Another great anecdote involves our new trombone player, who teaches band/orchestra at a middle school.  She is new to this area, and one of the first things the students asked her is, “Are we going to play any gogo?”  She replied, “I will find out what that is.”  Then she saw my ad and volunteered to play in the gogo symphony. After her first rehearsal with us, she played the midi files for her students.

Here is what she write me: “I’ve played the midi for my students, they think it’s awesome…cuz it is!”

Now THAT’s a YOUNG audience!

 Other people show their excitement in many ways.  A documentary crew has started to film us, and a small media reporter has already interviewed me.   And I’m not even ready for the publicity yet.   What is the hook for this unsolicited publicity?  Not how we perform, not how we educate, not how we present things.  It’s the MUSIC itself.

The go-go musicians feel the same way.  This is a new experience to them, but then again it is not.  It is THEIR music in my music.  They are familiar with the go-go part, and ONLY THEY can play it right.  I NEED them.  They are my artistic equals.   I do not feel like they need to “elevate” their art form to mine.  I am borrowing from them, learning from them, and they do the same from me.

In order to include them in my project, I have to accept that I am working with people who did not necessarily go to a classical music conservatory.  I have to learn to work with people who learn music by ear, and who like to create and interpret music more spontaneously.  If I insist they pass a traditional classical musician audition, I will not benefit from the unique gifts they and their culture have to offer me. This in turn will limit what kind of people I can reach effectively with our music. Anyway, with today’s technology, we can use audio files instead of written scores to communicate about the music.  The end is more important than the means, and I have to be flexible about the means to get this right.

So I tore down two walls.  One wall is our condescending attitude towards popular music, and the other is classical music’s knee jerk definition of how a good musician should function.  In the end, classical instruments are just instruments, and musicians are just musicians.  We should be flexible in how to make it work.

I think I will start blogging about this, because it has been quite a learning experience for me.  Soon my website will be up, once I figure out how to use WordPress to build the site.  If you’d like to wait for the website before you blog about it, I would understand.  But for now, people can join the go-go symphony Facebook page for the latest updates.

I know this is a lengthy response, but I can’t tell you how much electricity I’ve been feeling from others about this project.  I’ve been around the block for a while, and I sense I am on to something here.

To which she later added:

I now have one of every type of brass instrument, four saxes, one flute, two keyboard players, and a team of go-go percussionists.   You should see the diversity in this group!  All ages, ethicities, economic backgrounds.  One kid, has to be about 16 years old, want so join but his mother is afraid to let him venture out into Virginia from Washington DC.  He’s African American and really wants to play with us.  The go-go musicians are really excited and want to learn to read music better.  They love the idea of playing in a classical symphony orchestra and think it’s a big honor.

I can’t think of a better note to end on. Though I have more mavericks to add! As they used to say in Brooklyn, when the Dodgers again failed to win the world series: “Wait till next year.” When the honor roll of mavericks will continue.

Other posts in this series:

Looking for mavericks

Breaking the mold” (about Ad Hoc, a chamber ensemble that describes its performances as jams)

Mavericks nominations” (the first group of readers’ suggestions)

More Mavericks” (more readers’ suggestions)

Path-breaking piano curriculum” (about a truly astounding program at a Canadian university)

Mavericks — continuing” (still more from readers)

We personalize what music is” (about the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra, which is breaking 

Final mavericks — Jade Simmons and a Go-Go symphony” (final only for 2012, because we’ll resume this in 2013)

Still more mavericks (resuming in 2013, with marvelous things from two major institutions, the Toronto Symphony and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment)



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  1. Eric Benjamin says

    I think we’re looking for more than just “crossover” programming ideas,, but I did one that took the concept a tiny step further. Alex Bevan is a revered singer/songwriter in the Cleveland area. I orchestrated his “Watersongs” album and presented it with Bevan singing as a second half of a program that also featured Telemann “Hamburg Water Music”, Ellington suite from “The River” and Smetana “Moldau”. Fans of Alex got to hear a different take on the theme of rivers, our symphony audience enjoyed the eclectic program and felt smart and hip.

    • says

      I’m looking for all ideas and experiences — anything that brings classical music into our wider culture. As you clearly did with this program! Thanks for sharing it.

  2. says

    Thanks for the props, Greg. Actually, the go-go musicians do read music – but not as extensively as classical musicians do. They read well enough to find our place if we need to iron out something in the middle of the score, for example.


    • says

      Thanks for setting me straight on these things, Liza. Silly of me to jump to conclusions! I did mean, though, that the drummers in Go-Go (as in any other kind of pop music) wouldn’t prearrange their parts. The rest, yes. I remember once hearing some jazz students play a stultifying version of one of the Kind of Blue tracks. I’d swear they’d simply transcribed the record, and were sounding stiffer than the most unimaginative string quartet hacking through Beethoven. Except the drummer! Because, or so I guessed, his part hadn’t been transcribed, and so he was really playing.