Jackie Myers is an accomplished jazz songwriter, pianist and performer whose talent has evolved over the course of several albums and countless live shows. Her most recent album, 2020's Clementine, reflects this growth as a set of songs performed live at Kansas City's Black Dolphin jazz club. We are lucky to share an interview with the artist about her work and creative process, along with her book and movie recommendations. Read on...
Describe your musical background. When did you start writing songs? Who were some of your earliest influences?
I wrote my first song around the age of 13. At the time, I think I felt like every other teenager, a bit isolated, changing quickly, not sure of fitting in and I would listen to a lot of music. I really felt I connected to songwriters. I remember we had a piano and I took lessons, so I knew somewhat how to play and I just remember plunking out chords and writing out super melodramatic lyrics about teenage life, lol. I remember being somewhat ashamed of the expressive nature of my activities and hiding the lyrics in an album in my dad's record collection. It's all pretty funny to look back on and think about. I was very influenced at the time by folks like Ben Folds, Elton John, Ani Difranco and music my dad liked: The Temptations, Marvin Gaye and stuff from his jazz collection - Miles Davis, Ramsey Lewis, Dave Brubeck and a plethora of names I still listen to today.
You are primarily known as a jazz songwriter, performer and recording artist. Where’s your comfort zone in these different areas? What continually challenges this comfort zone?
I think genre is a challenging construct for any songwriter, but genre is also a necessary demon to confront as it is the primary descriptor of the music. I started out more as a jazz-influenced singer-songwriter, than a jazz artist that pens her own songs -- there is a distinction there that I think is important. I would say today that I've very intentionally written several albums solidly in the genre of jazz. In terms of a comfort zone, I would address that by stating that it's challenging for artists to switch gears in general. When I wanted to practice music as a full-time jazz musician, I really had to move to Kansas City. I needed to be immersed in it and I needed somewhat of a fresh start to change gears. When I lived in Austin, I was more known for being a flexible "sideman" and a songwriter that led bands as well. I played anything from country, to pop to soul music in Austin. The jazz scene there was a very different part of the community and though I did eventually play in that scene, the barriers to that movement within the music community seemed significant. After finally breaking into the jazz venues in Austin, I was still needing to play a lot of different kinds of gigs to make a living so when I was invited to move to Kansas City to play at a jazz club and I jumped at the chance, knowing that in a new town, if I started out playing jazz, I would be considered a jazz player. It was one of the best decisions I've ever made and I think there is no limit to the talent in this scene. I also feel like I'm part of something and that the Kansas City Jazz Scene is more collaborative than competitive. We all root for each other in one way or another and I have been lucky to have a lot of help studying and playing since I moved here.
How do you prioritize creativity in your life? What are your biggest creative blocks and how do you move through them?
This is a tough question for me because there are many things about being a musician and a songwriter that are challenging for me, but I do not suffer from creative blocks, nor do I struggle to write. I do have to work at my crafts and I struggle in other ways -- like I have to practice long hours to play at what I feel is a competent level. I have had to learn a lot of jazz standards in the past few years to be able to play in the Kansas City jazz scene. BUT in terms of creativity and songwriting, I don't intentionally make time, it just comes. It has always been that way. Again, there are many things I work very hard for, but creativity and the urge to splash the blank canvass has always been a compulsive urge of mine and not really an intention. If anything the struggle has been to intervene in that process and work on crafting it and focusing it rather than just clinging to the initial idea that inspires me. I have worked hard to try and learn different forms of songwriting, from classical fugues to instrumental jazz, from sparse singer-songwriter tunes with only piano accompaniment to large arrangements with vocals. These days I tend to explore digital songwriting and since the pandemic hit, I concentrate more and more on projects where I write for film or stage. Since I cannot perform full time, I see these as my most promising opportunities to get back to work full-time.
Your most recent album is 2020’s Clementine, which was record live at KCMO’s Black Dolphin. Tell us about this album. What inspired you to compose it?
The first thing I need to mention about the album Clementine is the band; Todd Strait is on there, Rod Fleeman, Trent Austin, BRad Gregory and Ben Tervort. They are all tremendous players and I am completely and utterly humbled to have made an album with them. Clementine is somewhat different from my other vocal albums in that it was recorded live. At the time I was working 3-4 nights a week at Green Lady Lounge, which is run by the same folks as Black Dolphin. The jazz conglomerate also included a radio station and there was a call for original pieces to play on that station. Many of the artists that were working there were asked to make live albums for the radio station. I actually recorded this album twice; once as a duo and the next time with the full sextet. I didn't feel the duo album represented the work very well and I wasn't thrilled at my performance on that recording. I had to push for the expanded band, but in the end I think it was worth it. That fall was somewhat of a tumultuous time because I felt honored to be asked to create an album with the Black Dolphin and I felt very supported as an artist because my work was being valued and I was working a lot. So I worked really hard to get my arrangements done and the band rehearsed. Then two weeks later I was told I would be leaving the regular lineup at the jazz club and I went from feeling valued and productive to wondering how I would make a living for the next few months. That spring, I was asked back, but right before I was supposed to start playing at the Green Lady again, the pandemic hit. It was a lot for me to take in. I mention all that to say that Clementine was the last album I was able to make. I released it during the pandemic even though I knew that decision meant I wouldn't tour the material. I also knew it probably wouldn't have as much radio success as some of my previous albums. On a national level, it was reviewed on organissimo.org and seems to still be getting some radio ads at the time of this interview, but not a huge reaction. That being said, I felt embraced locally. Kevin Rabas gave it a wonderful review, Chuck Haddix spun it on his radio show Fish Fry which is one of my favorite radio programs ever. The Plastic Sax celebrated Clementine and the critic behind that particular publication is known for telling it like it is, so I was thrilled with the response. I think if I had waited to release Clementine, it's possible that there could have been a larger response, but I'm not one to get caught up in 'coulda-beens,' so I'm glad to have released it when I did and I'm glad some folks enjoyed it.
What other music currently inspires you?
Currently I'm studying a lot of film composition. I love the obvious choices -- John Williams, Mancini, Leonard Bernstein and I like Hans Zimmer as well, though he is a very different composer than the first three. I just finished studying the score for The Godfather by Nino Rota and I loved that. I also love Mark Mothersough's work. In terms of jazz, I currently study with Roger Wilder and Bobby Watson. They are both endlessly inspiring for different reasons. Roger introduced me to Maria Schneider and I've been digging into her stuff a bit and Bobby has been challenging me to learn to play his compositions and other standards; it's hard to come up with the right words to convey how inspiring it is to spend time with him. I feel very lucky to be able to continue studying.
Jackie Myers's recommendations from Johnson County Library's catalog:
Frankenstein by Mary Shelly
The Exorcist by Peter Blatty
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin (currently reading)
On The Track by Fred Karlin. Also currently reading. Excellent resource for film composition