Tina Raymond, on Activism through Artistry, Feminism in Jazz, and How to Say What You Mean and Still Get Along

by Gary Fukushima

Photo by Jennifer Cecci

On the evening of November 7th, 2016, Tina Raymond went out for drinks with a few friends to a tavern in Toluca Lake. They were celebrating, for they had cast their votes for whom they thought was to become the first woman president of the United States. “I was sitting at Timmy Nolan’s (Tavern & Grill)”, Raymond recalled wistfully, “and I saw the numbers coming in, and then I just went home and went to bed.”

Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton had an immediate and profound effect on Raymond. “It felt very personal,” she said, describing her mood as “heartbreaking…this sort of melancholy, ‘we’re not there yet…wow America really hates women!’ That’s how I felt.”

Tina Raymond is a jazz drummer, classical percussionist, and a recent hire at Los Angeles City College, one of just a few women throughout the country to have a full-time faculty position in jazz. Some of what she felt on that fateful election night can be heard in a tune from her upcoming trio album, Left, Right Left (Orenda Records). ‘Union Maid’ (by Woody Guthrie) is about a strong female union worker who fights for her rights in union meetings. “That song was written a long time ago,” said Raymond, who herself comes from a family of union supporters, with a sister and grandparents who are teachers and a father who is a labor attorney. She understands the struggle depicted in the song continues to have meaning today. “We’re still fighting, we’re still not equal, we’re still not there. I think it’s really sad.” The normally upbeat anthem is reimagined by Raymond as a tender waltz, its unspoken poignancy realized through the sensitive and eloquent pianism of Art Lande, the renowned musician whom Raymond met and became close to when she was a graduate student at CalArts and he was a visiting resident-artist there. Lande had called Raymond over the holidays to say hello, at a time when she was contemplating expressing her political views through her music.

The American author Barbara Kingsolver penned an essay in the Guardian a few weeks after the election, in which she exhorts her fellow creative types to “join the time-honored tradition of artists resisting government oppression through our work”. That passage struck a chord with Raymond. “I’m much more of a ‘I’m just gonna do my thing and lead by example, and stay quiet’ (type),” she explained. “I didn’t consider myself a political person until everything that was being decided was against what I believed in.” Yet, as she read Kingsolver’s words to her grandmother, a former English teacher whose eyesight is failing her, Raymond experienced an affinity with her family’s history of social activism, and a newfound desire to carry on the trend.

“So many of us are just writing how we feel on Facebook, and posting articles,” said Raymond, noting how the political venting on social media might help us feel better but do very little in the grand scheme of things. “More artists are wanting to do something but are nervous about how it would be perceived, not only by the public but also by their peers.” With the release of her politically-themed album, Raymond is attempting to go further in expressing her views and concerns about what is happening in our country right now. “I hope it makes some people,” she continued, “feel like I understand what they’re going through…and that it makes some artists a bit braver in putting how they feel (into their art).”

So, when Lande called, Raymond asked him if he would be interested in making “a politically motivated record” with her. He agreed, with the caveat that the sentiment be not anti-American, and that they would record music with a positive message, with the viewpoint of trying to see our current political engagement as something that is healthy. What Lande wants is certainly a heavy lift in a time when the country has not been this divided politically since maybe the Civil War, or at least since the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960’s. Lande was a product of the sixties, coming into his professional career then by playing with some of the greatest musical revolutionaries of that era, artists like Lee Konitz, Gary Peacock, Kenny Wheeler and Charlie Haden. Raymond studied with Haden at CalArts, getting to witness first-hand lessons and stories from the legendary bassist who always looked to inform, challenge and unite people through his music, notably his historic Liberation Orchestra. “I think Charlie would have approved (of the album), at least conceptually!” Raymond said with a laugh. “He would tell stories about being arrested and how important he felt it was to stand up for what you believed in. I think it was Charlie who said how much music can really bring people together, because in order to enjoy a concert you have to sit next to someone who may not agree with you.” Raymond agrees wholeheartedly with that sentiment, of music being important enough to bring people into the same space.

Left Right Left is an introspective album, open and textural, the spaciousness lightly colored by Raymond, Lande, and West Coast veteran bassist Putter Smith. The song selection was carefully researched and chosen by Raymond, and she decided on a mix of treatments of patriotic songs (Battle Hymn of the Republic, America the Beautiful), well-known protest songs from the Vietnam War (If I Had a Hammer, Saigon Bride, Lift Every Voice and Sing, The Fiddle and the Drum), and a few original compositions by Smith. It should not be lost on the listener that Raymond included songs written by Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez, two musicians whose music helped to shape the protest movement of the late sixtes, and two musicians who also happen to be women.

About the election, Raymond recalled, “Especially as a woman, I was really proud to go and cast my vote for a female candidate, and so were a lot of my friends.” To Raymond and her friends, and undoubtedly many other women around the country, Clinton’s defeat was yet another reminder of the difficulties facing women to achieve equality, even in 2017. Raymond knows this as well as any woman, and probably more, for as a female jazz musician (and a female drummer), she is a strong and visible representative of an overwhelmingly small portion of the jazz community at large. “I never think of myself as a minority,” said a defiant Raymond. “That I’m called a female drummer implies I’m not the norm.” Yet she acknowledges there have been significant challenges in this regard ever since she took up the drum set. “I had a teacher (in college in the Midwest) who said “I don’t know how to teach you because you have ‘feminine energy’.” Of course there were many more teachers who were able to avoid such gross misogynistic gaffes, “…but then you’re out playing in bars, and there’s cowboys coming in from Kentucky, and they put their foot on your floor tom, and everybody’s watching you and they don’t think you can play. Or you’re setting up the drums, and they’re like — oh, who’s playing drums?” She chuckled, ironically. “I’m just setting these up for fun.”

The move to California has helped in this regard. “This scene (in Los Angeles) is particularly inviting and warm and friendly, and understanding and respectful. That’s why I’m here.“ She continues, “There’s quite a few young women who are playing their butts off, who have the confidence to come out and do really great things. I think there’s more assimilation of men and women hanging out together in the clubs and not having it be a big deal.” Nevertheless, there are still little things that come up. Here’s a tip for bandleaders: Try to avoid introducing your female bandmate as “the lovely and talented” so-and-so, unless you plan on doing that for her male counterparts as well. This happens a lot to Raymond, yet she often bites her tongue. “If I allowed myself to get offended or worried about that stuff, I would just be mad all the time, so I just let it go.” She has adopted the mindset of working to see past the issues that divide us, issues of both gender and politics, in the spirit of Lande’s caveat. Raymond has witnessed female colleagues responding to instances of misogyny, where the pushback was unnecessarily vicious in proportion to the original incident. “It’s the same problem with politics, where everybody’s yelling at each other, and calling each other out,” she said. “Where’s your compassion? Where’s your humanity? Why aren’t you having empathy for what this person is experiencing and trying to see it from their perspective? I think we’re all lacking in that…”

Still, being a ‘female teacher’ at a major college is quite an achievement, especially in jazz, were there are so few women educators at the collegiate level. Raymond could not recall a single female teacher in all of her jazz education, and postulates that perhaps this is the reason why there aren’t as many women jazz musicians. She doesn’t know if that theory is correct, “but I will say that every school that I’ve taught at where I taught percussion and/or jazz, as I’m there longer there are more and more women in the program. I don’t know if that has a whole lot to do with me, but I definitely see female students interested in what I’m doing, especially high school students and young college students. They are looking to you as an example, and I am conscious of that.”

When asked if she had any advice for younger, aspiring female jazz musicians, Raymond had a quick answer. “Be fearless!” she exclaimed. Then came the qualifier, which itself underscored the dilemma of today’s modern woman. “Be fearless but be careful. That’s so shitty,” she conceded. “Set boundaries for yourself for what you’re willing to be told, and when someone crosses a line, find a way to express to them that they’re being inappropriate. But have enough trust in yourself that what you have to say is valid, and where you are in your journey of learning to play music is valid.”

The release of Tina Raymond’s new album is certainly a validation of her own considerable strengths as a drummer, musician and bandleader. And it also points to her newfound courage, to express without apology her views of the world, as she also embraces her identity as both an influential jazz musician and educator, and as a woman. The latter thing is certainly important as one of the central issues of our time, yet Raymond is at the forefront of working toward a future where one day it won’t be a big deal at all. Perhaps at that point there will also be a female in the White House, as the leader of the free world, who won’t have to respond to criticisms of not smiling enough. At the end of the interview, Raymond recalled one last anecdote, about a beloved teacher of hers who used to tease her about how she never smiled in any of her photos on the internet. “He wrote me (recently) and said ‘I really should stop that, it’s kind of sexist, isn’t it?’” She didn’t take offense then, but now slyly noted:

“No one was going to tell Miles Davis he needed to smile on the bandstand.”

Tina Raymond, Art Lande and Putter Smith will be performing at Bluewhale in Downtown Los Angeles this Thursday, celebrating the release of their new album, Left Right Left.

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