The Education of Camille Thurman

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Thurman was the first woman to tour and perform full time with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

(Photo: Courtesy of Camille Thurman)

Here’s a question: How many tenor saxophonists would feel comfortable stepping into John Coltrane’s shoes to perform his transcendent A Love Supreme with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and Wynton Marsalis? A second question: How many of them are women?

One of them is Camille Thurman, who channeled the jazz icon in an all-Coltrane program at Jazz at Lincoln Center last June for the final concert of JLCO’s virtual spring season. Playing the master’s legendary suite, arranged for big band by Marsalis, she found a way to convey Coltrane’s intensity and spirituality without imitating, her full-bodied sound and inspired improvisations embodying Coltrane’s deep immersion in the blues and unpretentious commitment to achieving higher consciousness through music.

Her appearance as guest soloist for the Coltrane tribute was an outgrowth of Thurman’s glass-ceiling-shattering two years (2018–’20) of playing with the saxophone section of the JLCO. She was the first woman to tour and perform full time with JLCO in the orchestra’s 30-year history.

But the 35-year-old’s saxophone prowess is just half the story. The other half is her talent as a scat-happy vocalist. She first caught the jazz world’s attention in 2013 after placing third in the Sarah Vaughan Vocal Competition. She could have become a major force on the strength of either her voice or her tenor saxophone. She can belt a high-energy chorus of a standard like Harold Arlen’s “My Shining Hour,” then, with the slightest of pauses, put the tenor to her mouth and blow like the veteran instrumentalist she has now become. It’s a killer effect, almost as if Sarah Vaughan played tenor saxophone like Dexter Gordon.

Not that the humble Thurman would embrace such comparisons with two of her idols. Her journey from St. Albans, Queens, New York, to playing with jazz aristocracy on international stages is a story about overcoming crippling self-doubt through perseverance, hard work and a surpassing love of the music.

“She’s like a little sister to me,” says alto saxophonist Tia Fuller, one of Thurman’s mentors. “I’m so proud of her. … She has cultivated her own sound and now uses both instruments [saxophone and vocals] as her own voice. It feels like the same voice. The freedom she was approaching when I first heard her sing, I’m now hearing that in her sax playing.”

In addition to Thurman’s tenure with the Marsalis-led JLCO, she has, in her young career, already played with other jazz royalty such as George Coleman, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Roy Haynes, Dianne Reeves, Kenny Barron, Buster Williams, Terri Lyne Carrington, Jon Hendricks and Russell Malone. Beyond her saxophone appearances, JLCO has featured her as a guest singer in a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald and as a vocal soloist in Marsalis’ musical theater work The Ever Fonky Lowdown.

Thurman has recorded four albums as a leader: Origins, Spirit Child, Inside The Moment and Waiting For The Sunrise, the last two on Chesky Records. More are on the way, including Fortitude, a piano-less quintet project with drummer Darrell Green, her husband since January 2021, and another project, Spring Awakening, which includes keyboardist Victor Gould. She is also preparing a set of reimagined Burt Bacharach songs for a major New York show of her own in June at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Appel Room.

Thurman has a bubbly personality, a positive outlook, and laughs easily. DownBeat spoke to her via Zoom recently about her mentors, her setbacks and triumphs and her history of overcoming prejudice against female musicians. This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

How did you deal with the shutdown caused by the pandemic? Did the experience change you in any way?

What we do is very interactive and hands-on. … We make our living primarily from performing. And not knowing when or if we’ll ever get back to doing that — that was a scary thought. I love to go out on stage and hit with the band … and to commune with the audience and celebrate life — there’s nothing like it. To not be in that space was really hard.

Fortunately, I was able to use that time to create for myself and Darrell, it was a great opportunity to work on this quintet project. Being in that creative space was healing to us as artists. The situation was heavy — in a lot of ways, not just the pandemic, but what was happening socially [in 2020]. But [the new projects] gave us some hope.

How did you meet [your husband and partner] Darrell?

We’ve been together about eight years. It wasn’t planned that way, I can tell you that. [laughs] The first time I met him was at Small’s Jazz Club at a late-night session. I heard this drummer and said to my best friend, saxophonist Yunie Mojica, ‘Whoa, he can play!’

She describes how she and Darrell talked about music that night and became friends, leading to his suggestion that she collaborate with his working trio.

We’ve been working together ever since. It’s evolved over the years. The trio became a quartet, featuring Wallace Roney Jr., who is a family friend to us. His father was like a big brother to Darrell.

So it was Darrell who introduced you to Wallace Sr.?

Yes, and to [his brother, saxophonist] Antoine Roney. Wallace Jr. is a phenomenal trumpet player with a great sound. We have a special relationship — when we play, it just comes together; I don’t even have to look. I can feel and know the nuances of where we’re gonna move. As a vocalist and as a horn player, you don’t find that every day.

And your relationship with Darrell?

You mean how did that happen? [laughs] We loved working with each other, but most importantly, we developed a great friendship. He’s a beautiful person … who I not only have the good fortune to work with, but he became someone who really understands me, who I could talk to.

How did you first get interested in playing music?

Music was always around me. My mother played piano and sang at church. She would practice while I was sleeping, but I would hear everything. And I remember one day just getting up and sitting at the piano and playing what she had played the night before. And one day I told her, “Mom, I’m gonna play at a talent show at my school.” And she said “What are you going to play? You don’t play an instrument.” I told her I play the piano. And she said, “You’ve never played the piano!” And I said, “Come!” [motions with her finger.]

How did your mom not know? You would only play when your mother wasn’t home?

Yeah. So I showed her — I played the song she had played the night before, “From A Distance,” which Bette Midler made famous. And my mom’s jaw was on the floor. She said, “I haven’t even showed you a scale!” I sat there and played it in A-flat [sings the opening notes of the song].

In A-flat, no less! OK, so you were going to be a horn player.

Yes, I just didn’t know it yet.

As a seventh grader at a middle school in Bayside, Queens, Thurman talked her way into the band, despite having no previous instrumental experience. She described how the band teacher — Peter Archer, later the inspiration for the Oscar-winning Disney movie Soul — encouraged her to play flute, then other instruments.

I hadn’t had music lessons in years, so I kept it a secret that I was actually playing by ear and not reading the music. I remember one time a buzzer went off — it was awful-sounding and, like, a semitone off of A-flat. I heard it and said, “Oh, my gosh, that’s so out of tune!” And Mr. Archer looked at me and said, “How did you know that’s A-flat?”

I said, “I don’t know, it sounds like A-flat, right?”

He went to the piano and began playing notes in various registers and asking me, “What’s this?”

“Oh, that’s E-flat. Oh, that’s B.”

He said, “You have perfect pitch!”

I said, “Oh, is that what that is?”

She later begged him to let her learn saxophone.

He said, “If you learn how to play saxophone and clarinet, and continue playing your flute, you could one day play on Broadway.” And my eyes just lit up: “I could play on Broadway? That’s what I want to do!”

Have you had a chance to thank Mr. Archer?

I did, and it was one of the proudest moments of my life. When I was working with the JLCO, we had the annual holiday concert [in New York]. So I called him and said, “Hey, Mr. Archer, what are you doing Sunday night?” He said he was going to be at home. I said, “I’d like to have you as my guest,” and he said, “OK, where?” And I said, “I’d like you to come to Jazz at Lincoln Center because I’m going to be playing with Wynton and the orchestra.” And he was like, “Oh, my God, this is great, this is amazing!”

So he came, and I brought him backstage and showed him my case with all my instruments in it — the flute, the tenor, the clarinet. And I said, “Mr. Archer, I just want to thank you for getting me to this moment.” He was so happy.

When you attended New York’s LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts, I understand you encountered some sexism in the jazz band.

When I first got there, I had an incredible teacher, Bob Stewart, who made all the students want to learn about jazz. Everybody was there to play. When he left, though, in my junior year, things got a little interesting. This was sexism, and waaaay before “Me-Too.” It wasn’t sexual harassment; it was sexual discrimination.

For instance, if we had a big band rehearsal, normally there’s five saxophones in a section, and there was myself and another girl. I remember we would stand there for 30 minutes waiting to take a turn to play. The students would decide among themselves who would play on which tunes … we were supposed to rotate, but the rotation would never happen.

Then, if there was improvisation, some of the guys would laugh at us if we were trying to figure out the changes and making mistakes. It would be like, “Oh, she’s terrible. Oh, she sucks.” It was hard. We weren’t learning because of it. I remember instances where we would hang out with musician friends, and some of the guys would say really nasty stuff, like, “So-and-so can’t play,” or even come into your face and say, “Well, he should have got that chair, not you — you shouldn’t be playing here!” We would complain, but [nothing happened].

I graduated not wanting to have anything to do with playing music. It discouraged me, broke my spirit.

Thurman wanted to attend Berklee College of Music, but it was beyond her means at the time. Instead she attended Hunter College for a year, then transferred to SUNY Binghamton, from which she eventually graduated with a degree in geology. It was a jazz band leader at Binghamton who encouraged her to get back into jazz.

At Binghamton, I met Michael Carbone, a teacher who ran the jazz band, and he said I should audition. And I said, “Um, I don’t think you want me to audition.” He said, “Why? You went to LaGuardia. You can play.” I missed the audition because I sat on my bed contemplating if I should go and was fearful that everything I had experienced two years before would happen again.

So I missed it. And the next day he saw me and said, “I was looking for you — where were you?” I told him he didn’t want me in his program, that I was the worst player in the world and would make his band sound terrible.

You really thought that?

Yeah, because that’s all I heard for two years straight. [Carbone convinced her to come to an improvisation class.] So I came to the class. He had his back to us, and, one by one, we were taking turns playing to some Jamey Aebersold [backing tracks]. When they got to me, he dropped his papers. He told me, “You can play! You have ideas!” and asked me to stay after class. Then I told him my story. He said, “Everybody should have a safe place to learn. You can do that here. Nobody here will say anything to disrespect you.”

He brought Tia Fuller to campus to play with us. That was the first I got to see a woman in person [playing saxophone]. It was also the first time I got to talk to a working woman musician.

She pulled me aside and said, “What are you doing here?” And I said, “I’m studying rocks and I’m going to be a scientist. I love dirt and trees and hug the earth all day.” [laughs] And she said, “You need to be playing.”

I said, “I don’t know if I can do it. I don’t see any women out there doing this. Will people respect you as a player? Can you make a living off of it? Can you embrace being who you are as a woman?”

And she said, “All of those things are possible. Look at me — I’m doing it.”

And it just kinda clicked for me.

After moving to New York City in 2009, Fuller helped her to meet other musicians to play with. Her circle came to include bassist Mimi Jones, Darrell Green and Antoine Roney. Eventually Marsalis heard her singing on a gig with JLCO saxophonist Sherman Irby at Dizzy’s, an encounter that led to her appearing with the orchestra.

You broke a significant glass ceiling when you joined the JLCO. What did it mean to you as a woman and as a musician to be invited to join?

It meant so much to me. At my first concert with them, I couldn’t help but think about all the great women — The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, Vi Burnside, Vi Redd — who came before me, who were doing this and were left out of the history books. Then I felt like it was not just a celebration for me, but for them, too.

But what was really humbling was hearing from young women, educators, from older women — and from men, too — that just seeing a woman up there spoke so profoundly to them. Especially for the young girls. For them it was, like, “Wow — I could see myself up there — that’s a possibility.”

You never set out to be a role model. But I guess that’s what you have become.

I guess so. [laughs, then considers it further] I guess so. DB



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