Sharel Cassity Finds Comfort

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​“I knew Dizzy’s music inside and out,” Cassidy said about playing in the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band. “That’s what I grew up chasing.”

(Photo: Michael Jackson)

There’s a zen-like drive to alto saxophonist Sharel Cassity that’s undeniable — über calm on the exterior, but burning inside. Whether leading her own groups, or working as an in-demand side woman for everyone from the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band to legends like Herbie Hancock, Wynton Marsalis, Jimmy Heath, Roy Hargrove and so many more, Cassity brings that fire, an open set of ears and a willingness to foster musical community.

Based in the Chicago area since 2017, she’s carved out an artist’s life, gigging around town with groups like Altoizm, an saxophone-driven summit led by Cassity and fellow alto saxophonists Rajim Halim and Greg Ward, touring the globe or teaching the next generation at DePaul University and Columbia College Chicago.

She sat down for a live interview with DownBeat in December at the Midwest Clinic, a gathering of some 20,000 music educators and students in Chicago. The free-flowing conversation with Frank Alkyer, DownBeat’s editor and publisher, offers just a glimpse into Cassity’s world as artist, educator and mother. This transcript has been edited to its essence for reasons of style and space.

Frank Alkyer: Let’s start at the beginning. Where were you born?

Sharel Cassity: I was born in Iowa City [Iowa]. But six months later, we moved, and throughout my childhood I ended up moving 13 different times.

My parents divorced when I was 3. And my father was the musician. He had played in New Orleans for 10 years, six nights a week before they moved to Iowa. It was three months before I was born. They moved to Iowa so that he could get his doctorate at Slippery Rock [University].

Alkyer: He’s a pianist, keyboardist and he played some organ, I think.

Cassity: Yeah, absolutely. And I grew up hearing that. I grew up seeing him play in organ trios. There are pictures of me as a baby on his organ while he was practicing. I grew up hearing the music. I loved it. I didn’t quite know what it was. But I also was exposed to a lot of classical music, which I think the goal was to push me that way.

Alkyer: Your dad was pushing you in that direction.

Cassity: Everybody. It’s more fitting, I guess. So I started piano at 6. When I would visit him in the summers, he gave me a practice schedule that was literally four hours to six hours a day. And I would practice piano. So everyone thought that I was a prodigy. I was winning all these classical piano competitions. But, really, I just practiced.

Alkyer: You were playing at a high level as a young kid, a high level as a pianist — winning competitions and things. How did you find the saxophone?

Cassity: I wanted to play an instrument. I don’t know what gave me that idea. I was a kid. I don’t know. I just want to play an instrument. I told my mom, “Hey, I want to play the flute.” And she said, “You? Play the flute? You’re too cool for that. You’re gonna look like a pickle playing the flute, jammin’ out.”

Alkyer: No offense to the flutists in the audience!

Cassity: No offense! I play the flute now. But my mom was the catalyst. She said, “Keep thinking.” She didn’t say saxophone, but she said, “Keep thinking.” And I went to see my dad, and I saw a saxophone player. And I was like, “I want that. I want one of those.”

Alkyer: You turned down a classical [saxophone] scholarship to the University of North Texas. You looked at …

Cassity: The University of Central Oklahoma. And at the time, I still had some responsibilities with my brother — helping my brother come home from school, and I was I was studying there, you know, practicing and playing at UCO, which was great. Brian Gorrell leads the program now. They have a nice jazz lab. It’s a great program.

But I needed something more, I needed to get in a bigger pond. So I decided to go visit my aunt in Boston, and I enrolled at Berklee. But shortly after, George Garzone actually helped me audition for NEC. He heard me and he said, “You should audition.” And I did. But the first day of school, they brought me into the office and — preface this with I hadn’t seen my dad in 12 years; I hadn’t seen him since I was 12, actually. And they called me into the office and said, “You can’t have the scholarship. Your biological dad makes too much money. And you’re you’re not allowed to have this scholarship.” So I dropped out of school, and I spent a year working at a bagel shop.

Alkyer: For all you young people out there that are working odd jobs, we’ve all done it.

Cassity: And then my best friend from Oklahoma, who was a drummer, David Bowen, moved to New York, and he said, “Sharel, you’ve got to come out here.” So I made the trip. We went to see Branford [Marsalis] live. When I got off the bus, he took me down into Smalls. I met everybody. It was amazing. It was everything I had always wanted. I was like a kid in Candyland, meeting all of my heroes. So I stayed in New York for 16 years.

Actually, let’s back up a bit. I wasn’t in school. So I played at the jam sessions at Smalls. And Mitch [Borden] gave me $20 a day, if I cleaned up and locked up afterward. I practiced in Smalls. I was always moving from different places for different reasons. Finally, I decided to audition at the New School because a lot of my contemporaries were there that I would see come through the clubs.

And I went through New School, finished my bachelor’s, and then I got the full scholarship to Juilliard. And that’s when things started to take off. All the way through New School, I was a bartender.

Alkyer: Where did you bartend?

Cassity: Baltimore Lanes.

Alkyer: Good job?

Cassity: Great job!

Alkyer: We always hear about the competitiveness at Juilliard. Did you feel it?

Cassity: Yes, a little bit from the other students, but more because what I saw at Juilliard were students who were doted over. Their parents came to all the concerts. They were supported. I, at that time, when I moved to New York, my family was like, “Well, that’s it. She’s gone.” And I didn’t have any support.

So when I saw that, I sort of went through a breakdown, and I got some help and learned how to deal with it, which was probably the most valuable thing I received at Juilliard.

Alkyer: Wow. How did you get help? What did you do?

Cassity: I went to a psychologist, and I guess I said the right thing because they sent me to their top psychologist, who looked like Splinter [from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles] [chuckles], he had a white beard. And, you know, we did about a year-and-a-half of cognitive therapy. Some meds, but I got off of those just because I don’t like meds. But, yeah, at the time it was warranted. And we talked about building a generator. Sometimes you have to build a generator of who you are, even if you don’t think that is who you are yet. You have to build that into you. If you don’t have support, you have to build that support into you.

Alkyer: You were able to get through Juilliard, get your master’s degree. Tell us what happens right after that.

Cassity: Right after that, Michael Dease, the trombonist, invited me to a New Year’s Eve party — and this is something I will never forget. He said, “By the way, bring your horn.” I showed up and it was every jazz legend you can imagine that was alive. James Moody, Benny Green (the trombonist), Roy Hargrove, Cyrus Chestnut, Jimmy Heath. Slide Hampton was there. I mean, it was a meeting of jazz royalty. And the only young people there were a young Emmet Cohen, a young Evan Sherman, myself and Michael Dease.

I didn’t know what to do with myself. Roy had seen me at jam sessions at Cleo’s, at Smalls. I was always sitting in. I was always playing.

So we’re at this party, and I’m like, “Oh, my gosh, you know, Roy, I never know what to say to them.” So I’m there and he just comes over, and he said, “You got your horn?” I was like, “Yes.” He said, “Good. Get it out.” At the time Antonio Hart, another one of my idols — I grew up listening to Antonio — and he was burnin’ over the uptempo bebop tune “Bebop.” He was just burnin’. And Roy, I thought he was gonna play next, but he looked at me said, “You’re next.”

I was like, “No!” What are you gonna say? So you gotta go. I went, and I played, and I guess they listened and from then on, I played in the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band. Which was a huge moment in time where I got to tour with Jimmy Heath, Roy Hargrove, Gary Smulyan, Antonio Hart, James Moody … .

It was incredible. I was pinching myself every day. To be there and to be a sponge and soak up not only the music, but the culture and what they taught, which was coming from Dizzy. It’s being a human being, having compassion, always treating people with kindness. You know, wherever you go, making life fun.

Alkyer: You, as a side woman, have played with literally everybody. In fact, it’s probably a shorter list of who you haven’t played with. Who were some of the mentors had a profound effect on you?

Cassity: My my top mentor is John Lee. He’s the bassist for the Dizzy band. He runs the Dizzy band, and all of the Dizzy groups. But he played with McCoy Tyner and Sonny Rollins in the ’80s, the ’90s. And he’s the one who brought me into the fold. He’s the one who’s always kept me on the path. You know, knowing what’s right and always doing the right thing. John is amazing. I call him my East Coast dad. He also did the album Relentless with me.

Alkyer: What have you learned from him?

Cassity: Oh, my goodness. He he was one of the first people to talk to me about tuning everything out and just listening to music and playing and focusing. He also taught me not to be a stone face. I was so serious. This was a serious thing. You know, I was way more serious then. I’m glad it changed. [chuckles]

He was just like, “OK, Stone Face. First of all, you have to smile a little bit.”

Alkyer: Other mentors?

Cassity: James Moody gave me the nickname “Sectionette.” My first week playing in the Dizzy band, we were at sound check on the stage of the Blue Note and I’m sitting by Mr. Heath, and Mr. Heath didn’t warm up to me right away. He just didn’t.

And I’m sitting by Antonio Hart and Gary Smulyan in the section, and Moody leans over from the second tenor chair and he says [to Heath], “Ha, ha, that’s ‘Sectionette.’” And Jimmy went, “Aargh. OK.” And that was my acceptance into the band. Because when they walk into a room, they’ve been playing with big bands their entire lives, for so long that they call each other “Section.” It’s a term of endearment. So when Mr. Heath would walk into the Blue Note and see Moody, he’d say, “Hey, Section.” And Moody would yell back, “Section.” And, they’d give each other a hug. So me being “Sectionette,” that was my first nickname.

Alkyer: Were you the only woman in that band?

Cassity: Yes. But, really, Renee Rosnes was a predecessor in the band. She she was the first woman in the band. She was gone by the time I got there.

Alkyer: OK. Let’s talk about that.

Cassity: Again, It’s interesting, because I was focused on the fact that I deserve to be here because I’m a musician. I worked to be here. I know this music. I knew Dizzy’s music inside and out. That’s what I grew up chasing. But then to be the only woman — when I see the audience, that’s when I start thinking about it. Because everyone perceives you differently. And then everyone has to comment. Oh, it’s great seeing a woman in the band. It took me a while to get used to that. And then, how you dress is treated differently. How you act is treated differently. For me? I try not to focus on them. I tried to play my part as great as I could because I knew it was an honor to be there.

Alkyer: You were in New York. You were doing the thing. You’re playing in everybody’s bands. You’ve got your own leader career going. And you moved to Chicago?

Cassity: Well, another can of worms. I was in New York. And the last three or four years I was there, I wanted to teach. It was important to me to start teaching.

I had a master’s from Juilliard in performance. And I was applying at all of these teaching jobs on the East Coast, and I couldn’t get one. I couldn’t land one job. I was always in the top three, and they would pick someone that was internal or someone that was a little more famous or someone within that degree. And I started thinking about the future and thinking about what it’s going to look like when I’m 60. Am I gonna be doing the same thing, running around playing gigs and tours? I wasn’t sure about that. And I knew that for things to change, I couldn’t go about it the same way. So, I just kind of prayed about it and thought about it. And then I get a call to go play in Doha, Qatar, at a major club for a month. And while I was there, I had this life-changing experience that the music needs to follow me. I followed the music my entire life. So if it’s meant to follow me, great. And if not, fine, I’ll do something else. But I was at a point where I was just ready to release.

And when I was out in the Middle East, I met a woman who ran the Qatar Music Academy. And I said, “I’m looking for a teaching position.” You know, I was just chatting, talking to her. And she said, “Oh, really? Well, I run the music school and we’re looking for a woodwind instructor.” Since I could teach clarinet, flute and saxophone, I taught at the school for a year. And while I was out there, I met my husband, Richard Johnson [a keyboard player who was running the jazz club].

So we met there, and we ended up having these long talks. I knew immediately that this would work. This is it. I just realized this is the person for me. And so it was kind of chaotic because we had this break because Qatar gets very hot in the summer, everything closes. So in the summer, I went back to New York. I’m playing the Blue Note, and I’m flying to Chicago [where his parents were living]. And we’re looking at houses and I’m meeting his family and then flying back to New York, and then I’m doing a tour in Mexico.

We got married. We bought the house. We set it up. Then, we went back to Qatar to work another year. And that’s when I found out I was pregnant. We had the baby in Qatar. While I was there, I was practicing. I was writing. I missed the community of New York. But I did not miss the struggle. You know, and I was getting a chance to figure out who I am.

Alkyer: How has Chicago been for you?

Cassity: I love it. I love in New York, too. And, I thought I would live there forever. But since I’ve been in Chicago, the music scene has really gotten into my being. If you don’t play some blues, and if you don’t groove, you’re not going to be received very well. You have to come with some blues. You have to come with some language, some soul.

And there are so many incredible musicians on the scene, and educators, too: Bobby Broom, Jeff Bradfield, Dana Hall, Reggie Thomas. Ramsey Lewis was alive when I moved here.

The rhythm sections are 10 people deep of people who can really play. They’re killing, and they could go to New York any day.

I always tell people everything that I wanted to accomplish in New York I’m able to accomplish here. I wanted to teach. I’m teaching at three colleges. I wanted to still perform. Now, I’m traveling more than ever to perform and performing in the clubs here.

I wanted to have a family; I can comfortably have family here. And I wanted to start a jazz program. And I started a non-profit called Jazz Up. And, we have that in the summertime in the area where I live.

So, I was able to accomplish these things within a short time of being here.

Alkyer: One thing about family life: How do you balance wife, mom, teacher, travel, all these things?

Cassity: It’s a lot, I’m not going to lie. But it’s worth it. If you care about something, you will find the time. Especially as women, we work so hard to get where we’re at. Having a child was so powerful. It’s changed [how I think of] humanity, because I’ve never experienced that much love, and that much joy. And I wouldn’t trade it for the world. At the same time, I have another passion. So [my son] is going to grow up seeing that, and I think that’s good. DB



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