Patrice Rushen’s Journey Through Jazz, Pop and Hollywood

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“With her generation of playing, she was ideal for the concepts [on the album],” Henderson said. “[It was] really a game changer for me; before I had focused so much on bebop, then working with Mwandishi with Herbie. People like Patrice ... made me shift gears and change my approach, just like how the younger people informed Miles Davis. She was invaluable.”

Rushen continued doing session work through the late ’70s and 1980s—during her commercial peak. She even worked with Prince on his 1978 debut, For You. But after 1984, Rushen left Elektra for a short stint at Arista. The move, though, came with less artistic control, and her sole recording for the label, 1987’s Watch Out!, was severely delayed. Nevertheless, the three years between her final Elektra recording and Watch Out! afforded her the opportunity to fulfill her original dream of composing music for film and TV. She scored Robert Townsend’s 1987 satirical comedy feature, Hollywood Shuffle, then handled music on five episodes of his 1990 HBO comedy show, Partners in Crime.

Just as she helped break gender barriers in jazz through her solo and sideperson work, Rushen was doing the same in the realm of film and TV scoring, especially after she became the first woman to be the musical director for numerous Emmy, Grammy and People’s Choice awards broadcasts, as well as the NAACP Image Award shows throughout the 1990s and into the mid-aughts.

“In my own music, I was allowed to do my own horn and string arrangements, and I was allowed to produce,” Rushen said. “Many of the [activities] that I was doing behind the scenes for my own projects were building on the skill set that I would need ultimately to score television projects and musically direct events.”

While her name recognition in the r&b world attracted Townsend, Rushen recalled that she faced race-fueled resistance when it came to scoring other movies, especially those that didn’t involve a black director or protagonist.

“Many film producers didn’t always have to say it when they were surprised when I walked into the room,” she said. “You could see it on their faces with them thinking, ‘How can a black woman score an adventure film?’ As if I wouldn’t have any idea about what an adventure film would look or sound like. I’d already had long conversations with people like Quincy Jones and Benny Golson, who knew that I would be facing some interesting barriers. They were thoughtful and real about some of things that I would have to consider. But they never said, ‘Don’t do it.’”

As Rushen persevered in the movie and TV industries, she continued doing remarkable session work with the likes of Carrington, Wayne Shorter, Carlos Santana, Mike Clark and Wallace Roney, among others. This summer, she’s touring with the Christian McBride Situation. And at USC, she’s an artist-in-residence and curriculum consultant; at Berklee College of Music, she’s an ambassador for artistry in education.

Even though Rushen continues composing everything from contemporary jazz to pop and orchestral works, she isn’t too interested in signing a new record deal or trying to recapture the commercial pinnacle of her Elektra period. Still, she’s delighted that the recordings are being reinvigorated through Remind Me (The Classic Elektra Recordings, 1978–1984).

“Creating music with the jazz and ’70s dance-oriented r&b sensibilities was relatively new when I started recording. But it was very natural for me because it mostly was made by the generation of musicians that I came from,” Rushen said. “But the record companies were still trying to figure out that marketplace; a lot of that music could fit in many places. Back then, the labels put musicians in certain categories and they never wanted us wandering outside that category. Happily, today’s consumer doesn’t listen to music quite in that same way. They hear what they like and they don’t necessarily worry about what category the music fits in.” DB

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