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No Walls: An Interview with Virginia Mayhew

Virginia Mayhew Virginia Mayhew
Like a novel, an album title usually characterizes a unifying theme or offers a flavor of the music. Sometimes they are obvious and straightforward. Sometimes they can reveal a pervasive mood (Miles Davis' Kind of Blue) or offer an affectionate requiem (Duke Ellington's And His Mother Called Him Bill). Occasionally, they can reveal the subterranean inspirations of a musician.

Virginia Mayhew's first release was the widely praised Nini Green, released by Chiaroscuro in 1997. The title refers to her maternal grandmother, Virginia Adams. "I wanted to do something to show her in a tangible way how much I loved her. She was ninety-six years old when she died a year ago. She lived a very full life. We were very close."

"I was named after her. I called her 'Nini' because as a small child I could not pronounce 'Virginia.' She was a classical singer and loved Bach. I would often go visit her, and she loved it when I was practicing. She was a strong woman, in many ways. I guess what I appreciated most about her was her unconditional love for me. Whether I'd see her two months or two hours earlier, she was always so happy to see me."

A 'Nini green' is a special kind of green. A teal turquoise kind of green. It was a green cherished by this Irish grandmother and her adoring granddaughter. If someone wearing the right green sweater walked by, her young granddaughter might exclaim, "A Nini Green sweater!" A walk in the neighborhood might reveal a passing man wearing a Nini Green scarf or in the window of a house might display Nini Green curtains.

"I guess my love of music must be genetic." Mayhew's mother, Anne, was a classically trained pianist. Her father, who died when she was seven, and her grandfather could play the piano by ear.

Admitting that she was very lucky to have come from "such good musical stock," Mayhew started practicing the violin in fourth grade in Redwood City, south of San Francisco. By the next year, she switched to the clarinet. This orientation was clearly classical, following her roots.

Jazz came later. She had been invited to join the Sequoia High stage band. Not a classical outfit, but one that played jazz. And while Mayhew continued the clarinet, she followed her jazz muse. Her music teachers introduced her to the jazz that was playing in San Francisco. And so she was frequently in the audience at the Keystone Korner listening to and studying the likes of Dexter Gordon, Bill Evans, George Coleman, Archie Shepp, Zoot Sims, the Count Basie Band and many others. Rock and roll did not play a factor, nor did the jazz fusion. "I didn't hear any of the 'electric' fusion music that was going on at the time."

Although she performed in various bands that played a wide range of musical styles, Mayhew finally committed to a career in jazz when she was in her mid-twenties. "I finally made up my mind when a friend and mentor, Johnny Coppola, said to me, 'Virginia, you love jazz you love the saxophone why don't you just follow your heart?"

And so she did-with a vengeance. Mayhew decided that she was in it "for the long haul." She realized that building a career in jazz necessitated a move to New York City. Her first step was winning the first ever Zoot Sims Memorial Scholarship to the New School. This gave her two years of fundamentals and gave her access to the notable clubs, such as The Blue Note, Village Vanguard, The Village Gate, Birdland, Fat Tuesdays and Sweet Basil. And opportunities to play with world class musicians: Toshiko Akiyoshi, Lew Tabackin, Slide Hampton, Joe Williams, Leon Parker, and Clark Terry. For several years, Virginia worked with trombonist Al Grey and was featured on his 1990 Fab album. She also appeared on two albums of the fifteen piece, all-female big band, DIVA.

Determined to record her own band, Mayhew sent tapes to various musical labels. Chiaroscuro Records finally responded by "paying for everything" for the Nini Green debut. She assembled her talented band of like-minded and long-time collaborators: percussionist Leon Parker, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, bassist Harvie Swartz and drummer Adam Cruz.

Mayhew also wanted to the best available pianist to play in her band. So imagine this: she had listened to the great Kenny Barron for years and decided that he should be pianist in her band. With that intent in mind, she went to Bradley's one evening where he was playing. "My attitude towards life is to always try to get what I want." During a break, "I asked him if he'd play. And he said yes."

The critically acclaimed Nini Green has now been followed up by the recently released No Walls on Foxhaven Records. She has brought back her the members of her band and introduces drummer, Allison Miller, a recent New York transplant.

In a similar vein, Mayhew dedicates No Walls to another important woman in her life, her mother, Anne. And true enough, two of her compositions affectionately refer to "classically hard core" mom. 'The Visit We Missed' is a melancholic, moody tune about a missed rendezvous with her mother. But, because the piece "didn't speak to her mother," she tried again. She wrote a more upbeat tune for her, 'Hi-ya, Mama!' This one worked. "It's a catchy melody, a Latin kind of groove, and it's hard to lose with a blues." Apparently, hard-core mom also loves funky tunes.

Mayhew's other compositions, 'Apple Flambe' is a "fast and intense New York-style tune", while 'Never Enough' is wistful with a beautiful rubato introduction by Kenny Barron. Mayhew's playing is like a polished stone, gorgeous and colorful. Never slick and vacuous. Her band is tight and expressive.

One of the highlights of the album is a duet Virginia plays with Kenny Barron on Duke Ellington's ballad, "Don't You Know I Care (Or Don't You Care To Know?)" This stripped-down collaboration reveals Barron's delicate piano playing interlaced with Mayhew's sublime saxophone. The result is heaven. "I loved what he played, and how he played it. He created so much beauty, with energy. I really love his solo. It was so easy to play with him. Inspiring!"

Harvie Swartz composed the track, 'No Walls,' as a reflection of his tour of Poland and the crumbling of European communism. "Harvie wrote it with a political idea in mind." But, Mayhew used 'No Walls' as the title of her album to reflect perhaps something larger and more personal. Perhaps it's a credo of a band of creative artists playing their brand of modern music, without being pigeonholed into a musical category. Or as Bob Bernotas wrote in the liner notes: "No walls, no barriers, no labels just music."

Maybe it's just the music, or maybe it's a declaration of a woman struggling to succeed in a male-dominated jazz world. "Well, (being a woman jazz musician) is definitely different. It's hard to be taken seriously and hard to get experience." Perhaps, "no walls, no barriers" is a plea for an audience to simply listen to her music. And to flourish as a woman composer and musician.

It doesn't come as a surprise that in addition to her jazz career, Mayhew has achieved "a black belt from Seido Karate, and also one from M'Kkedo Karate/Kick Boxing. I'm back into karate, but kick boxing was awesome."

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Virginia Mayhew
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