Eugenie Jones’ Creative Strategy

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“Songwriting is intuitive for me,” Eugenie Jones said.

(Photo: Steve Korn)

Booking record dates in Seattle, Chicago, Dallas and New York demands a brand of grit, and high-level organizational skills. But tenacity and project management was elemental to Eugenie Jones’ creative output long before she conceived Players, her new release on her own label, Open Mic Records.

In 2010, the Seattle-based marketing and communications professional and philanthropic activist launched her career in music. “I’m a creative by nature,” Jones said. “My approach is more from a business acumen and creative standpoint, also a point of personal growth. Once the seed is planted, I start figuring out how to make it happen.”

Regions away from her native West Virginia, the singer and songwriter received what she considers divine inspiration following the death of her mother, choir soprano Tommie Lee. “I realized I missed hearing her sing around the house. In trying to reach a place of solace I said, ‘I wonder if I can carry on that part of her.’”

Three albums later, Jones has honored Lee’s legacy and expanded her own artistic vision, recording with Marquis Hill, Lonnie Plaxico, Bobby Sanabria, Bernard Purdie and Quincy Davis — a mere handful of the 32 instrumentalists who appear on Players. “One morning, it just came to me: I’ll record in each region of the U.S. with a different set of master artists,” she said. “You’d think there’d be some tremendous difference among these places, but you find a likeness — a shared dedication to craft.”

And craft was at the focus of her DownBeat conversation, which has been edited for clarity and space.

Speaking of master artists, please share how you connected with Reggie Workman, who serves as a major collaborator on Players.

I was at Jazz Congress in 2018 when I introduced myself. When I realized who he was, I gulped. I’m talking to Reggie Workman! But he was very congenial. I shared this concept with him, and he encouraged me. The more I’ve gotten to know Reggie, the more simpatico I’ve realized we are. We’re both up all hours of the night working. He’s driven and I’m driven. Moreover, Reggie is a facilitator — connecting people, acting as a mentor.

Being driven has its challenges. What’s your method for prioritizing creative pursuits?

I try to have that connection back to the community. I enveloped that into my music by starting my nonprofit Music for a Cause. When I present an event, which hires artists at a worthwhile fee, we identify a charity in the community where people can make donations. One year, I did the Jackson Street Jazz Walk and the admission was a canned food donation for Seattle food bank Northwest Harvest. Because of my background in donor development, I was able to solicit businesses for donations to actually present the Jazz Walk and pay the performers. There wasn’t a need for a cover fee.

Your songs share very detailed stories. Are you composing at the piano, with a guitar, into your phone?

Songwriting is intuitive for me. I have flashbacks of hearing my mom humming, and I would ask her, “What’s that song?” She’d say, “Oh just something I made up.” When I start writing, I’m singing into the recorder; melody and lyrics are coming simultaneously. For “There Are Thorns,” I wanted to write a song that encouraged people to pull through difficult experiences. For “Sittin’ At The Bar,” I wanted to create a picture of a smoky bar where you’re just sitting there having a drink and you don’t want anybody to bother you. And I never sing standards that don’t resonate with me. Like Billy Strayhorn’s “Multicolored Blue” — it was genius of him to use colors of flowers to articulate emotion.

Another standard you include is “I Got Rhythm,” which opens on this swinging solo gesture from Quincy.

I said, “Quincy, I just want you to get a rhythm going. Then I’ll come in, and when I’m ready for the whole band, I’ll say, ‘Right there.’” That’s what we did.

Would you share your inspiration for “The Gift of Life” which you co-wrote?

What’s so important about that song is that we’re collaborating with the Kidney Foundation so it can be given [as a gift] when someone makes a donation. My friend, piano player Peter Adams, is waiting for a kidney right now. He asked me, “Would you be interested in writing this song with me?” He’d started it, but his feel was almost like a funeral dirge, and I thought it should be more celebratory. So, we worked together, and that’s how that came to be.

Alex Dugdale delivers a strong statement on “Ey Brother.” It feels as though you wrote that song, in part, for your fellow artists.

Central Seattle has a legacy where a lot of African Americans got their start, musically — Quincy Jones, Ray Charles, Ernestine Anderson. The Black and Tan Club was a place where they could go, and be accepted. That’s what that line is, “No matter how dark your skin, you can step into this light.” There were red lines, places they couldn’t perform because of racism. I wrote this song to acknowledge that legacy, and also to figure out how to get through my feelings of what happened to George Floyd, and the racism that we still encounter. There are red lines. Every day you walk outside in brown skin, you experience it. Alex became the perfect counterpart to this sage Black woman putting her arm around a young musician and saying, “Hang in there. Keep playing. Keep going.” It was cathartic for me.

There’s an unusual way songwriting informs your approach to existing material.

I make sure it’s what I want to say, and how I want to say it. I wanted to do “You Can Have Him” but, to make [the lyrics] more digestible for the modern woman, I added that line, “A woman truly loved will do anything for her man.” Then it becomes reciprocal. In Strayhorn’s tune, I added more of the verse so I could offer different levels of expression. In “Blue Skies,” those lyrics “as far as the eye can see” — that was all me. It’s not part of the original song. I Eugenie-ize it so it has more meaning for me. DB



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