Roxy Coss, ASCAP Foundation Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Honoree, Featured at Newport Jazz Festival

By Erik Philbrook, Editor-in-Chief, @erikphilbrook  •  July 11, 2016

Musician and composer Roxy Coss is considered one of the most innovative and accomplished saxophonists of her generation, and was named in the 2014 and 2015 Downbeat Critics Poll as a “Rising Star” on soprano saxophone. Originally from Seattle and now a fixture on the New York scene, she has performed extensively around the world. She is also a popular side-woman and has performed with numerous jazz greats, such as Clark Terry, the Mingus Big Band and as part of the Diva Jazz Orchestra. As an educator, she has over 15 years of experience and has led master classes around the country.

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In January, Coss released her sophomore recording as a leader. Restless Idealism (Origin Records) features 10 original Coss compositions, and has been met with critical acclaim, reaching #7 on Jazzweek’s US nationwide jazz chart.

This year, Coss was honored as an ASCAP Foundation Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Award honoree. Additionally, Coss was selected as the first recipient to perform at the 2016 Newport Jazz Festival as part of a new joint effort between The ASCAP Foundation and the Newport Jazz Festival to benefit emerging jazz talent. In announcing the new partnership, George Wein, Founder & Chairman of the Newport Jazz Festival, commented: “We are very happy to have this association with The ASCAP Foundation and I have a great deal of respect for Herb Alpert and his foundation and what it has done for jazz.”

For Coss, Newport is “a huge deal,” and she is thrilled for the opportunity to perform her original music with her own band. The Roxy Coss Quintet will perform on the Newport Jazz Festival’s Storyville stage on Saturday, July 30th. She recently talked to Playback about her new album, her guiding philosophy and her hopes for the (near) future, post-Newport.

It had been a while since you’d released a full-length recording. What does your new record mean to you and what does it represent for you at this stage in your career?

It means so much. It definitely reflects a chapter of my musical life. But the material is also very personal. The compositions all reflect the themes that I was going through when I wrote them.

The first record I made was after school, so it was kind of me hitting the ground running right out of school. A lot of the music on the first album was actually written either during school or right at the end of that time period.

So this album is a transition out of that headspace and into real adulthood as a professional musician. Like, what does it mean to be a working musician in New York and in this climate of today’s music industry. It also reflects the skills that they don't teach you in music school. You know, they teach you all the technical stuff, but how do you live as a musician? That’s all the things that you have to learn on your own. That’s a big part of it.

You’ve played with a lot of people, you’ve been a side person and you’ve played with some great musicians. But you have also had your own residency at [NYC jazz club] SMOKE for a couple of years with your own group. What have you received most from that opportunity and experience?

Being a leader is a lot harder in a lot of ways. When somebody else is taking care of all the details, it’s easier to just show up and do the job. And it's not that it’s easy to do it right or do it well, but when you are creating your own job, you have to actually define it before you can do it well.

So learning those leadership skills has been great, and having a chance to play every week so that you can develop skills that are not just about playing a solo or playing a melody like I was saying before about the technical things. Now it is more of a bigger picture thing. So, for instance, how do I command the band? How do I shape this set from my driver’s seat? How do I shape this solo or how do I shape this song? How do I get my musicians to follow me, respect me. All those things that are unsaid.

When I think about my time at SMOKE, from the beginning to the end, I think that I was trying hard at the beginning to play sets that I thought I was supposed to play, or that other people expected me to play, whether it was the repertoire or choosing the sound. By the end of the residency, I really was playing almost all of my original music. Everything had kind of changed into more of what I see myself as.

I came to realize that, you know, I can sit here and try to be whoever my influences are all day long, but at the end of the day, I have to be myself. So, having something regular like that forces you to find yourself and allows you to experiment with different options and really find what that is. It was invaluable.

You were presented with The ASCAP Foundation Herb Albert Young Jazz Composer Award. It’s not just about being a great musician. It's also being a great composer. What did that particular award mean to you?

Well, it was amazing to receive it. It’s something that I had submitted music to for several years, and I’ve always thought of myself as a composer. When I started my musical training, I actually started on piano when I was very young, and my piano teacher taught a very unique method, which was the Pace Method. And in that method, it's not as much about learning repertoire as it is about understanding music theory with these ear training exercises.

And part of that is you have to compose. Even as a five-year-old kid, you have to compose a song every semester and you have to submit it to a competition. So you learn about that process at a very young age. And so I’ve always thought of myself as a composer because of that experience.

And coming out of school, I started to have more room to find my voice. When I was in high school, I spent a lot of time just doing all these festivals and competitions, and so the composing focus wasn't really there. But, after school was over, it was nice to really find my voice again as a composer.

To receive that award was a big “yes,” affirming that all this work is really paying off and that, you know, you are a composer. Composing is so important to me. My new album is a good example of that. It’s all original music. And I think that is where the future of jazz music needs to go. People need to have their voices out there.

You do a lot of teaching. As someone who has had an incredible amount of experience as a composer and musician at a young age, what are you teaching the next generation that they may not learn in school?

It depends on the audience [laughs]. I’ve taught five-year-olds and I’ve taught college students and adults. No matter who I'm teaching, I’m trying to give the bigger picture that I feel is lacking in a lot of educational situations, at least what I experienced as a student. So I share a lot of life lessons that only real experience can teach you. I say to young students: “You can sit here and work on all these little details, but that song you just created? That’s you and that’s awesome!” I try to recognize what they have to offer as an individual.

Then for a high school or college student that's trying to be a professional, what is important is making sure they know that the hardest thing to do in jazz – and the most important - is to just keep going. That goes for any type of music. Part of the struggle is just to not quit, and the people who succeed are the ones who are the most persistent. They just don't give up. There's no secret here.

And [Canadian composer/trumpeter] Ingrid Jensen told me that when I first came out of college. She said, “just keep the horn in your mouth and it'll work itself out [Laughs]. You know, everything you do contributes, and you might not know what it’s going to do for you later on, but any work you put in is going to help.

You’ve played in all types of venues and with different groups. Now you’re getting ready to play for the first time at the Newport Jazz Festival as a result you being an ASCAP Foundation Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Award winner. What does the Newport Jazz Festival opportunity mean to you?

It’s huge. The further you go in life and in your career in any field, less and less you get that feeling that you got as a kid where you're super excited, super nervous. When I got the phone call, it was like, oh my God - that feeling was so consuming. It’s a huge deal to me, not only growing up hearing about my heroes who played at the Newport Jazz Festival, but some of them this year are playing alongside me on the other sets. To be a part of that community on that level is just so exciting.

As someone who knows you need great collaborators to make great music, you chose ASCAP as your PRO. We like to think of ourselves a collaborating in your career. What does it mean to have like an organization like ASCAP backing you up?

It's been amazing. A couple of years ago I was trying to figure out the more business side of the industry and I went in and met with ASCAP’s Cia Toscanini and Adrian Ross. They just answered every question I could think of - and more! They asked me important questions about what I wanted and gave me the rundown of what options are out there as a composer and as a musician.

That was when I started to realize that ASCAP is like a family and I have support on this side of it, which is great to feel because, again, that’s one of those things they don't teach you enough about in school and you kind of have to figure out on your own. But to know that there are people that you can call up and just say ask “what is this? What am I supposed to be doing?” It makes you feel more safe in this big scary world of the music industry. And it’s nice to know that composers can apply for opportunities that come up and have a little bit of extra support [LAUGHS]. It’s always nice.

What’s next on your wish list, career-wise?

My next big thing is touring as a leader. Newport is going to be great. I'm looking at it as a doorway into the next level of performance, which is to take my band on the road. I want to be able to travel and play my music for people with my band and play my compositions. That’s what I’m working towards.

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