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BPR Interviews: Sharel Cassity

Sharel Cassity is a Chicago-based saxophonist and educator who has played with Herbie Hancock, Wynton Marsalis, Aretha Franklin, among others. Originally from Oklahoma, Cassity moved to New York City where she attended the Juilliard School, receiving a Masters in Jazz Performance in 2007. Cassity has been listed in DownBeat magazine’s Critics Poll as Rising Star Alto Saxophone for 10 consecutive years (2010-2019). 

Alex and George: How does one find jazz in Yukon, Oklahoma?

Cassity: I heard music since I was in the womb; my dad played piano, Hammond B3 Organ, french horn, and trumpet. Although my parents divorced when I was very young, on my visits with my dad I would always listen to his records—Charlie Parker, John Coltrane. When I was 9, I started asking for a saxophone, so my dad bought me my first alto, a Conn Shooting Star. I immediately began to play it, and my dad set up lessons with the saxophone professor at the university he taught at. Just for fun, on visits, my dad and I would get together and play “Green Onions,” “Watermelon Man,” “Stella by Starlight,” you know, standards. He worked out some little gigs for me, and by the time I was 12, I was playing with him all over Oklahoma City. So we played a few gigs, but then we lost touch for a while, and I clung to the saxophone thinking that if I became good enough, he would come back, and we would play again. It turns out, he wasn’t crazy about me making a career in jazz (which now he thinks is great), and he would always tell me: “Jazz is no place for a woman.” And I understood that he knew the value of an education and was trying to save me from a hard life. But it’s funny to think back, especially when I discovered that he had plotted with my first sax teacher to dissuade me from becoming a jazz musician. And I remember being about ten years old walking into my lesson, and my teacher asking: “So you want to be a professional musician?” And I replied, “Yeah.” “So you want to wear polyester suits, ride buses, shower in bathrooms—you want to do that for a living?” And I said, “Yeah!” So that was my start. 

A&G: At that time, did you have any influences? Of the really famous figures in jazz music, there aren’t a lot of female musicians you can look up to. You don’t really have anyone to say “I can copy that business model” or that musical aesthetic necessarily in the same way. 

Cassity: I wasn’t thinking about a business model, originally—I just wanted to play. So it wasn’t until 2007 that I realized there weren’t many women whose careers I could model in that way. Growing up, I listened to Renee Rosnes, Ingrid Jensen, and Cindy Blackman’s albums, and was inspired not because they were women, but because the music was at a high level. I was learning how to play from recordings, but I wasn’t thinking about what the artists looked like, and especially that they didn’t look like me. So yeah, in my development, I never considered that I was different because I was female. I just learned the music to the best of my ability because I loved it and related to it. Then in 2006, I had a teacher at Juilliard ask me: “Can you find 

someone like you in the jazz lineage?” And I couldn’t… exactly. I suddenly felt like an outsider in the music I identified with so strongly and began a process of discovering why and how my gender mattered. But I always believed that sound and sight are two different things, and music is sound, which has no gender. 

A&G: Do you think that it is more important that a female musician internalize and think about how they behave and how they act and how they dress even more so than a male musician? Does it matter more? 

Cassity: I think so. How you dress determines how you are perceived, as with anything, and with a woman playing jazz, people have all kinds of perceptions. For instance, if you’re a sideman you might dress and act differently than if you were a leader because you’re doing a job and need to blend in. If I’m the leader I would wear something hip, but I’m never focused on that when I’m playing. Most people say women can wear whatever they want—and I believe we can—but then to have a reviewer at the gig just write about our physical appearances is frustrating. I’ve had reviews that said: “I just loved watching her cheeks turn red as she went for the high note” and “her legs as she walked across the stage,” and that’s a little disheartening when you’re just trying to look your best while being taken seriously as a musician. Also, knowing that if you wouldn’t have dressed that way, that same reviewer may never have written a review in the first place. I notice most men are trying to look their best, right? Everyone’s trying to look their best, so why shouldn’t I? So that I don’t ruffle any feathers? So that I don’t intimidate anyone or have to dress down to blend in? I don’t think that’s the answer. 

When I was a sophomore in high school, I wanted to play in a big band that some of my other friends were in, but the leader, an 80-year-old man, only hired men. One night the alto player called in sick, and I happened to live around the corner. My friend said: “Come on, come on, we can make you look enough like a boy that you can play the gig, and he won’t know.” So, I walked in as Sean Cassity and played the whole gig without the leader knowing I was female. In my high school jazz band, the uniform was navy suits with no special outfits for women. So, I wore the khaki pants, a blue blazer, maroon tie, and loafers, and never thought of protesting the uniform because, at that time, it was a big deal to be included. I was proud of it, although I look back at photos and think, “Wow, that was a different time!” Up until about 2015, when the #MeToo movement started to gain momentum, there were no grants—specifically for women who did what I did in New York. I didn’t get the feeling there were too many people interested in women playing straight-ahead jazz. Now that there’s significant media attention, women are starting to get some leverage, and I think the awareness has helped. 

A&G: I’ve heard that the #MeToo movement hasn’t necessarily picked up speed in the jazz world, especially in comparison to other industries, because of its lack of organization and regulation. 

Cassity: You know, I’ve had conversations about this with classical musicians who have orchestras in place, they have unions in place, and they’re amazed that jazz is still really like the Wild West. You can wave a flag for #MeToo and say: “Oh, so-and-so did this or that,” but then you have to accept the repercussions. An attractive young woman in jazz will get a lot of 

attention from male musicians, as well as teachers, whether wanted or not. In the position of a female student or sideman, you lose no matter which response you choose. Once the conversation goes there, it’s difficult to build a professional, working relationship after that. At the same time, the male students are busy building more and more relationships with the same people and gaining more opportunities from that. But to go out and start calling these people out for the sake of a movement, for attention, doesn’t feel right to me especially if you learned a lot from them. I prefer to focus on my career, focus on the people who are lights in my world and leave it at that. 

A&G: Do you think that will start to change as more female jazz musicians become bandleaders? 

Cassity: I think so. Absolutely. If more women are becoming stronger players, innovators and are great bandleaders, then that can happen, and can actually start to change the demographic of the scene. Right now it looks like it’s changing because the industry is picking 2 or 3, maybe 5 people to put on the forefront of the movement, but I think there’s an army of women underneath, and when they’re ready and they surface, it’s gonna get deeper. 

A&G: What is the incentive monetarily to play jazz music? Is there any money in record sales? 

Cassity: It’s worth it if it’s your passion, and if you feel a calling. And if you know the value of what you do, then you’re in a better place to sell it for what it’s worth. You have to be prepared to do what you love and find more ways to supplement your income because success in jazz and being a great instrumentalist doesn’t necessarily mean you will have financial success. I recommend young musicians read books on negotiation and entrepreneurship to prepare them for the industry better. Still, one has to understand that if you are selling what you love—in this case, jazz—it is the same as any other business; if you’re not prepared to sell what you love, then start thinking outside the box. 

A&G: Would you say there’s a correlation between how good you are as an artist and monetary success? Or do you always need that business component in order to have a successful career? 

Cassity: I used to believe it was all about how good you were, but that’s not always the case, and it also depends on what you want. If you want to get a lot of attention for a short time, then how good you are doesn’t matter. There are plenty of people doing that. But if you want longevity, to be respected among other musicians and have monetary success, then yes, you have to be good—really good. And on top of that, you have to know more than just music: you need to understand how the business works, who your audience is, and you need to have the drive to sell it. We’re in a strange time in jazz where the musicians know who the real artists and players are, but the industry does not always reflect that. The industry is so desperate to sell something that they are looking for whatever glitters, and they slap that on the front of everything until it fizzles out, and then they move on to the next “big” thing. It seems like the word on the street is very different than what’s being presented to the general public. 

A&G: Do you mean in the jazz community or just in general? 

Cassity: In general. We’re in a society where people aren’t educated about music the same way they used to be. If you go to Japan, Europe, many countries all over the world, they teach jazz or fundamental music classes in schools… but Americans, it’s a miracle they learn the recorder in grade school. Some suburbs have big marching bands and jazz bands where kids are exposed to jazz and music theory, and that’s great. Other than that though, the community, in general, is not musically educated or exposed unless music is in the home. This means that now, the people at the top of the music industry may not be very literate in jazz, or they expect their audience isn’t and so they capitalize on that. It’s common to see the industry more interested in a formula of what sells, versus pushing someone who is really great at their craft. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes it does intersect, but if the general community was more educated I think things may be different. And that’s why it’s so important to keep music in schools and to take kids out to concerts, especially in this political climate which continues to cut funding for the arts. 

A&G: So in that world, it sounds like jazz could fall apart eventually.

Cassity: Not as long as there are people playing this music at a high level and innovating. The music will always speak for itself. Music is supposed to be a reflection of society, and for jazz to keep being relevant it must continue to include more women and people of different backgrounds who will contribute in a very honest way that has a lot of integrity, without losing the original components of blues, soulfulness, and improvisation. If this were to happen, I believe the music could really grow and become something even more spectacular.