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Virginia Mayhew

With a lung capacity as mighty as the woolly-mammoth, saxophonist Virginia Mayhew shows that life is unpredictable, but always worth the challenges. Her battle with breast cancer put a halt to her recordings in 2005, although she released Sandan Shuffle in 2006 with her quartet. She tells, "I actually recorded Sandan Shuffle right before I discovered I had breast cancer. I did a short tour, then started the chemo."

She is back in 2008 not only with a new solo album, A Simple Thank You, which she recorded with the Virginia Mayhew Septet, but also as the bandleader of the Duke Ellington Legacy--a little big band ensemble featuring Duke Ellington’s grandson, Edward Kennedy Ellington II on guitar. The Legacy’s debut album, Thank You Uncle Edward has wonderful melodic creations formed by Mayhew and pianist Norman Simmons, and reaffirms Mayhew as the lady with a big band sound using the accoutrements of a small intimate band. Ms. Mayhew has been one busy lady, but somehow there seems to be no dividing line between work and play for her.

She glows, "I was thrilled and honored when Edward Kennedy Ellington II asked me to be the bandleader of the Legacy. Edward bartended at Sweet Basil Jazz Club for many years, and was on the road with his grandfather and father. Edward and I have been friends since 1987, when I first moved to New York City and simultaneously joined the World Seido Karate Organization, of which he is also a member. The Legacy has come a long way since we first started, in many ways due to the influence of pianist Norman Simmons. Edward understands a great deal about music and the music business. I couldn't ask for a better boss!"

Karate has been a long-time discipline in Mayhew’s daily regiment, which she also lists along with "reading, walking, gardening, drinking good wine, being with family and friends," as being some her favorite pastime activities. In a previous Jazzreview.com interview, she admits to having "a black belt from Seido Karate," and tells, "I have had left Seido for a while to study kick-boxing." Her karate practice even inspired the cover photo of her previous album Sandan Shuffle, which she notes, "My karate studies not only inspired the cover photo, but also the title track that came first, actually, of Sandan Shuffle. Sandan is 3rd level."

Apparently, Mayhew does not only have the windpipes like a woolly-mammoth but she can kick as hard as one too. She reveals that the Legacy have been performing prior to recording Thank You Uncle with a cast that additionally consists of Joe Temperley on baritone saxophone/bass clarinet, Wycliffe Gordon on trombone, Mark McGowan on trumpet, Paul Wells on drums, Tom DiCarlo on upright bass, Sheila Earley on percussion, and Nancy Reed on vocals. She expresses, "The Legacy has already existed for a few years, and we have been performing around the Tri-State area, as well as in Washington D.C. and Pittsburgh, and a couple of weekends at the famed Sweet Rhythm jazz club in New York City. We are hoping that this CD will enable us to play more high-visibility gigs around the world."

The song selection for Thank You Uncle Edward covers some of fans favorites from Duke Ellington’s catalog like the sultry stride of "Pretty Woman," the peppy jejune shading of "Cottontail," and the bluesy aureoles of "Come Sunday." The track "Toe Tickler" from the album is one of Mayhew’s original compositions which she divulges, "I wrote ‘Toe Tickler’ for one of my cats, whose name is Lester Young. He is named after the legendary tenor saxophonist who wrote a great tune called ‘Tickle Toe.’ My Lester loves to bit my toes in the morning to get me up to feed him, hence, the name." Mayhew simulates that tickling sensation with shags of frolicking horn spins that curl affectionately around the rhythmic loops.

"Moon Mist" is another track from the album that was not penned by Duke but his son Mercer Ellington, the father of Edward Kenney Ellington II. Mayhew outlines, "The song list was selected from our repertoire in the Legacy. Norman has written many arrangements for the band, and most of these are his. We wanted to focus primarily on Ellington for this debut CD, although we did include ‘Moon Mist’ as a feature for Joe Temperley."

For the Legacy's recording, Mayhew remarks, "Norman and I have done all the arrangements. The other members do not contribute in that way." She beams, "Working with Norman Simmons is a dream come true! We met in 1987 when he was teaching and I was attending the New School. We have been playing together ever since. He is a great artist, a generous person, and a wonderful friend."

Mayhew assesses about the other band members, "Everyone involved in this recording was a pro. Well, almost," she revises. "They just came in and did their jobs....they didn't need much, if any comment from me."

Comparatively when asked who is the boss of the Virginia Mayhew Septet, she answers, "Of course, I am."

In hindsight, she reflects about the final cut of Thank You Uncle Edward. "There are always things you'd like to improve, but overall I feel the CD Thank You Uncle Edward came out really well. Having Wycliffe Gordon and Joe Temperley on the CD brought the band to a new level."

Bringing in new voices that know how to intermingle with the ones already present is an encounter that Virginia can proudly boast she experienced firsthand while performing in the DIVA band, an all-female big band jazz ensemble where she met saxophonist Ingrid Jensen whom she called upon to guest on her latest album A Simple Thank You.

She reminisces, "Ingrid Jensen and I were in the original DIVA big band in the early 90's. I've always loved trumpet and trumpet players, and she has a sound that I loved immediately. We played hundreds of gigs together in a quintet format, and she is on my first 3 CDs, including Phantoms, which featured trumpet, tenor, bass and drums. Part of the inspiration for that CD was her incredible tone, which can be under-appreciated when there is a harmonic instrument. Harvie S also has an incredible sound, and I just wanted to hear that acoustic purity. Ingrid is one of my oldest and dearest friends, even if I rarely see her these days, and is a part of my musical family. When I imagined (the title track) ‘A Simple Thank You’ and ‘I Thought You Loved Me,’ I heard her on it. She is one of my all-time favorite musicians."

Mayhew recorded A Simple Thank You with her Septet, which includes Kenny Wessell on guitar, Harvie S on bass, Victor Jones on drums, Lisa Parnott on alto/baritone saxophone, Scott Harrell on trumpet/flugelhorn, and Noah Bless on trombone. Mayhew recalls how she met her band members, "I met Kenny Wessel when I first moved to New York City (in 1987)...we played a jam session at the New School together and I never forgot him. 15 years later, I invited him to join my new quartet with Victor and Harvie. Harvie S was introduced to me by drummer-extraordinaire Leon Parker when I was getting ready to record my first CD, Nini Green on Chiaroscuro (Record label). That was 1996, he totally took care of business, and he's been a mainstay in my bands ever since."

She recounts, "I hired Victor Jones for a gig at Cleopatra's Needle many years ago...not sure how I got his number...He was great, but I wasn't ready for him yet. When I put together the Sandan Shuffle band in 2003, I knew he was the drummer for me."

She remembers, "Baritone and alto saxophonist Lisa Parrott and I met in the DIVA big band....must have been mid-90's. I was impressed by her musicianship. When I started getting into odd meters, she gave me some tips, and when I put together the Septet, I wrote the bari/alto book especially for her. I don't know anyone who could play that chair as well as she does!"

She confesses, "I'm not sure how I met Scott Harrell....maybe Ingrid Jensen gave me his number? Or Harvie? Scott is one of those hidden treasures....he doesn't have a big name, but he plays a hell of a lot of trumpet! He is able to handle both the solo and lead responsibilities of the Septet book...very rare! I think I first heard Noah Bless in the Howard Williams Big Band...of which I've been a member for over 12 years."

She denotes, "Noah plays with passion and fire, and he doesn't play a lot of licks. He is very creative, and he has played in many Salsa bands...I love his style of trombone playing."

A Simple Thank You reunites Mayhew with several of her sincerest friends like her long-time compatriot and bass player Harvie S who wrote the track "A Simple Thank You," which became the title of her latest album. "Harvie S wrote ‘A Simple Thank You’ for me after I came down with breast cancer. It is such a beautiful song, and I so appreciate it and treasure his friendship."

Amy Hirsch, another one of Mayhew’s dearest friends, co-produced the album with Mayhew. "Amy was the perfect co-producer," Mayhew resounds. "She loves the music and the band, and brought in Sushi for lunch! Having her financial contributions takes a huge amount of stress off me. We were able to pay the band better than I could have alone, and afford radio and press promotion. She is always up and positive and has great suggestions. I couldn't ask for a better co-producer."

One track that feels like home for Mayhew is her Septet’s rendition of Thelonious Monk’s classic tune "Rhythm-A-Ning," which she recorded previously with different musicians on her album Phantoms from 2003. She tabulates, "When I came up with that arrangement of ‘Rhythm-a-ning,’ I was just starting to work on playing in 7/8, and I realized that it would sound great in 7/8. I imagined a sort of calypso meets 7/8 funky groove, and it's still a blast to play. I never to think about what the critics would like. I think that the arrangement maintains the integrity of the tune, while giving it a fresh perspective. I find Monk tunes are especially great for playing in odd meters or different feels...they have such strong melodies, chords and hooks."

A relatively new track in Mayhew’s repertoire is "One For The Parking Fairy" from A Simple Thank You in which Mayhew describes a happy tale in the liner notes about how one evening she was searching for a parking space before a gig. She had asked the parking fairy to open a spot for her and the fairy acquiesced to her wish. Not one to let a good deed go unnoticed, Mayhew returned the favor by naming a song after the celestial figure that saved her that night. "I can't remember how this tune came to me....I do remember struggling with the bridge...it took a while for this tune to be completed, and when that happens, the tune usually doesn't work out. In this case, ‘Parking Fairy’ seems to be getting more airplay than any of the other tracks on A Simple Thank You. I give a lot of credit to the smokin' first solo by Noah Bless, and the great drums/percussion/rhythm groove."

Some fans will be able relate to Mayhew’s attachment to fairly folklore, after all, Virginia is Irish and Irish folklore can convince the staunchest existentialists that fairy-like guardians constantly watch over us and move obstructions out of our paths. It also helps that Mayhew grew up in San Francisco where musicians and dreamers grow as prosperous as daffodils in a grassy fields. She told in a previous interview with Jazzreview.com, "I started playing clarinet at age 10, began saxophone at 16. I studied and performed on classical clarinet/jazz and other saxophones until 1986. Then I focused on jazz saxophone and I moved to New York City in 1987. My mother played classical piano. My father and his father played piano by ear; my mother’s father played classical piano and mother (Viriginia Adams) was a classical singer." To all that she responds, "I guess my love of music must be genetic."

Mayhew's paternal grandmother, Merle E. Mayhew also took part in her music education. "My other grandmother, Merle E. Mayhew, who sat with me and my beginning clarinet book and helped me get started. She wasn't a musician, but figured out the fingerings."

Her roots are in classical music but once her heart found jazz, her feet soon followed. She purports, "I have so many influences, and I can't list them all...Dexter Gordon, Lester Young, Sonny Rollins, Don Byas, and Ben Webster." She says, "At this point in my career, I am trying to be true to myself, and play/write what I hear."

She moved to New York City in 1987 when she won the first ever Zoot Sims Memorial Scholarship to the New School. She reports about the experience, "I got to meet and study with the living legends of my record collection. Some of the students were future big name jazz musicians, like Larry Goldings and Brad Mehldau. The school didn't get me into clubs to play, only a discount or free to attend concerts." Those clubs included The Blue Note, Village Vanguard, The Village Gate, Birdland, Fat Tuesdays and Sweet Basil.

Additionally, she has performed in two State Department tours. One in April 2002 as a Jazz Ambassador performing with a big band in Kazakhstan, Belarus, Moldova, Armenia, and the Ukraine, formerly the USSR. She did another tour in August 2003 to Southeast Asia that included concerts in Thailand, Laos, Viet Nam, Malaysia, India and Bangladesh.

She has also expanded her jazz credentials by teaching private instructions and being a faculty member at numerous jazz camps, including Stanford Jazz Workshop, Monterey Jazz Festival summer camp, and Jazz Camp West in Pescadero, California. Currently, she is the Director and Founder of the Greenwich House Jazz Workshop. She comments about her teaching experiences, "I have learned a great deal teaching. I have met many wonderful people. Teaching reminds you of the basics...what's important... I founded the Greenwich House Jazz Workshop so that my students would have an ensemble in which to play. We've had a lot of fun and played a lot of jazz."

Some lessons that she imparts to her students are, "LISTEN! TRUST YOURSELF! WORK HARD! HAVE FUN!"

Spoken like a true poet, she admits that her greatest joy has been, "Being with the ones I love" and shares, "I look forward to whatever life brings! Good things are preferred."

Virginia Mayhew balances her life between performing with her Septet, the Duke Ellington Legacy, one of her quartets, or any number of free-lance gigs. Working and playing jazz music allows Virginia Mayhew to live what her grandmothers, Virginia Adams and Merle E. Mayhew, had dreamt for her. She dedicated her debut album Nini Green in 1996 to her maternal grandmother, Virginia Adams, and with it carries a lasting memory for Virginia Mayhew when she would see her grandmother who was always happy to see her and to see her practicing. It is all the encouragement that Virginia Mayhew needs to persevere.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Virginia Mayhew
  • Subtitle: Phantoms
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