Name: Roxy Coss
Occupation: Saxophonist / Composer / Improviser
Musical Recommendations: Wayne Shorter. Kendrick Lamar.
Website / Contact: If you enjoyed this interview with Roxy Coss, head over to her website for more information.
When did you start playing your instrument, and what or who were your early passions or influences?
I started playing the alto sax at age 9 in the elementary school band program, and tenor sax at age 11 when I joined the jazz band at my middle school - that’s when I really started to love the saxophone and found my passion for Jazz. My teacher, Robert Knatt, turned me on to some great classic Jazz recordings, like John Coltrane’s Blue Train and Cannonball Adderley’s Somethin’ Else. Mr. Knatt would tell me about different tenor players to check out, like Stan Getz, Stanley Turrentine, Sonny Rollins, and Dexter Gordon, and what to listen for in each of their playing styles. Then he would quiz me about what I had heard. Through this process, I began to discover all the different ways the tenor sax could sound, and how different musicians all had different voices. I remember being so excited to go to the record store with my dad and pick up a couple new albums, taking a chance on what the music would be, and if I would like it. I would get to know each player. This was important in showing me early on that I could have - and should strive to have - my own, individual voice on the saxophone.
In high school, I started to check out Wayne Shorter a lot, and more Coltrane, some Joe Henderson, Hank Mobley, Jimmy Forrest, and some more modern players, like Joshua Redman and Eric Alexander. I loved anything that swung hard, and any tenor players with big sounds. I started to be more and more intrigued by Wayne Shorter’s mysteriousness and Coltrane’s prowess. At that point, my favorite band became Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. I loved that old Blue Note sound, and still do. It’s a foundation of my aesthetic that the music I create be grounded in that type of heavy groove.
In college I started listening a lot to Roy Hargrove’s RH Factor, and my mind opened up to the idea of creating new genres of music. I am still pondering how to use my jazz background, and try to move the music forward. It’s so important for musicians now to keep relevant. We need the art to reflect what’s happening in society. That is partly why Jazz has become largely unpopular - because it’s often stuck in the past, and has no context in today’s culture. Bands like the RH Factor and some other recordings I had, like Brad Mehldau’s Largo, opened up my ears and mind to the idea of mixing different influences into the music. I have always listened to pop music, old R&B, The Beatles, hip-hop, etc. It’s important to have a melodic sensibility in the music - something people can relate to, or feel connected to - and that is demonstrated well in most “popular” music.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
For most professional musicians, this process is ongoing - the learning and absorption, the research and refining; it’s a lifelong journey, not something that you “get over”. Even though you may have less references to pull from at the beginning of your musical career, I like to think I always sounded like my self. I’ve had a strong vision of my own sound concept since I started on the tenor sax - I could always hear clearly the direction I wanted my sound to move toward. The choices we make along the way in what we surround ourselves with, automatically influence who we are as a result. So, in deciding to listen to or mimic certain influences, we accumulate that knowledge, and hopefully, it absorbs into us and becomes a part of who we are as an artistic whole. I’ve never been someone to try to emulate a particular musician when I’m on stage. I leave that for the practice room.
I remember distinctly in middle school, when we were all trying to start improvising, that my peers were copying certain players, and taking their “licks” and putting them into their solos in jazz band. This always made me really mad, because I thought they were “cheating”. I’ve always tried to maintain my own, true voice - maybe at the detriment to my own growth at first. But I think in the end, it helped me.
Tell me about your instrument, please. How would you describe the relationship with it? What are its most important qualities and how do they influence the musical results – and possibly even your own performance?
The Tenor Sax is the instrument that when I first played it, I thought, “This is IT!” There was something special about the relationship I had with that sound that was unique, and I felt more of a connection than I have playing any other instrument before or since.
For one thing, the saxophone has a very vocal sound. The reed gives it an earthy and humanistic quality. Music needs to reverberate in your soul. The importance of acoustic instruments becomes more and more great as we move into this digital age. Not that I don’t also enjoy the things we can do with electronics, but we also need these raw and guttural sounds in music and our lives.
Also, the range of the Tenor Sax is relatively low, and I’ve always been more drawn to lower-pitched instruments. For instance, out of my doubles, I really enjoy playing the Bass Clarinet and the Alto Flute; and I’m always hearing the Bass lines first when I’m listening to a new song.
The Saxophone is a very physical instrument to play - especially the Tenor Saxophone, because of it’s size, the fact that it’s made entirely of metal, and there are so many keys and buttons to push, along with the fact that it’s a wind instrument. The whole time you are playing, your entire body is engaged: your lungs, muscles, bones. I have developed muscles all over - in my mouth, throat, chest, fingers, hands, wrists, arms, etc. - that non-sax players probably don’t even know exist. It takes everything I have to play my best. When I finish a performance, I am emotionally, physically, and intellectually exhausted, if I’ve done my job right.
I’ve played the same Tenor Sax since I was in Eighth Grade. It’s a Selmer Mark VI from the early 1970’s. It is a part of who I am, and what my voice is. In this way, I definitely have a relationship with this particular instrument.
Many artists feel as though, at some point, certain people gave them the ”permission to do certain things”. How was that for you – in which way did the work of particular artists before you “allow” you to take decisions which were vital for your creative development?
I have taken a lot from Wayne Shorter’s philosophy: music being just one part of life, instead of music being everything. He said, “Music is a drop in the ocean of life.” My approach is more about a journey, feeling, action, or the imagination, rather than an athletic feat, or a statement of achievement. The deeper I get in life, the deeper my music will be in reflection. I believe this philosophy has allowed me to dig deeper into myself and the music, and will continue to allow me to do so. I don’t want to get caught up on technicalities in music, or rules; I only want to further my technique and abilities as a means to creative expression, which is my end. I want to ultimately find the path that leads to my best and truest self, personally and musically. This means, no barriers, and no “shoulds”. In this way, everything everyone has done before me has shown me possibilities, yet nothing anyone has done before me dictates what I can or cannot do.
This philosophy has also expanded my view of what can inspire, drive, and direct my music. For instance, approaching the saxophone as if I’m describing a favorite character from a book. Or writing a song that describes a break-up. By expanding your view of music within life, you allow the music to grow. It becomes infinite in its possibilities.
What were some of your main artistic challenges when starting out as an artist and in which way have they changed over the years?
One main challenge I’ve faced since the beginning of my artistic journey, which remains, is the fact that I’m a female. Being a Female Jazz Instrumentalist is extremely rare, which makes it a constant challenge. This is such a broad and complex topic, but I’ll say a little bit about it.
The differences in experience of a girl and a boy going in to jazz, starts from the choosing of an instrument - girls are encouraged to play traditionally non-jazz instruments (ie flute, clarinet, violin), boys are encouraged to play traditionally jazz-oriented instruments (ie trumpet, saxophone, drums). It continues with the differences in expectations of boys vs. girls as they grow older, and how we are socialized to act within a learning environment. For instance, girls have been shown to raise their hands less in class to both ask and answer questions than boys. As Jazz is an art form in which participation is of the utmost importance, you can see how this would naturally lead girls away from it by nature when they get to the age where these differences become more pronounced in social expectations.
This continues as students get older, in the way the students interact with their peers, and expectations about if it’s “cool” to be in jazz band, or “cool” to be confident, assertive, and independent. Girls often don’t want to try to improvise a solo in front of her more aggressive, confident male peers - or in front of a boy she doesn’t want to “out-do”.
These differences in experience continue as the students grow older, in how they interact with their mentors and teachers, and their role models. As a girl comes into her own as a young adult, it may become awkward for her male teacher to sit in a small room with her. (I had a friend who attended an esteemed university, who’s professor told her male peer that her tight clothing was distracting him in their lessons). In fact, there are very few role models or people to seek out as mentors as a young female musician in Jazz, simply because there aren’t many female professionals.
As the female student grows older still, and comes into the professional world, she may face other acts of discrimination, judgement, violence, people ignoring her, condescension, or sexual harassment or assault. She may not receive the same quality of education as her male counterpart from the same teacher. She may be looked over in being hired for a gig, because she will never be “one of the boys”. She may be typecast based on appearance. She may simply make her male peers feel uncomfortable, thus being excluded. She may be made fun of for being “too loose”, or “too much of a prude”, or because she doesn’t look “serious” enough (ditzy whore), or “too serious” (uptight bitch). She may never receive the encouragement that lends itself to the confidence and faith one must embody to continue to be an artist for one’s lifetime. I, myself, have personally experienced acts of each of these behaviors. These types of experiences often accompany being a minority in any community.
In terms of the music, we all have our strengths and weaknesses. My goal is to make sure I foster growth in each. I want to be great at something - so I must continue to develop my strengths, while making sure not to ignore or neglect the things I am not as naturally inclined. I want to make sure there aren’t particular skills that I can’t do very well, that hold me back from my potential. After a certain point, it becomes less about “natural ability” or “talent”, and more about time and hard work. Wherever you put the most time in, you will see the most gains.