Marilyn Mazur is one of the few musicians I've interviewed that was in a country other than the United States. After she kindly agreed to do an interview, I sent a long list of questions. Even though it was through email, there was a good feeling to the communication. As she explains in her main reply, she decided to tell her story based on my questions. It doesn't make sense, to me, to include my questions here; there isn't much back and forth and it's her response that is important. Our correspondence helped publish an article for the March 2021 issue of The New York City Jazz Record - Encore: Marilyn Mazur.
Mazur is a unique and powerful artist. Learn more at: https://www.marilynmazur.com/
via email: February 7, 2021
Wow, I had no idea about how many albums I am a part of. I’m not sure if you can trust the amount from discogs, I took a look and there are many duplicates there, and probably some missing albums also. (I haven’t tried to count them, have you?)
You probably already read about my life on my website:
Here I have written a new version of my life story for you. I am mostly answering your questions as part my story instead of separately. It is probably much too long, but just choose what you like of it, and feel free to re-phrase my language.
My mother was of Polish descent (I took her maiden name - Mazur - as a teenager) and she was a hardworking nurse. My father (William R. Douglas) was a biochemist (who also played violin and was Afro-American). He and my mother found it hard to be a mixed couple in US in the 60s. So the whole family (also including my big sister Yvonne) started our life all over in Copenhagen, which I was always very happy about. I was 6 years old when we took the boat (sailing for a week) from New York to Scandinavia in 1961. My mother never went back to US. My father and sister returned to New York in the early 70s.
I remember a few things about New York from my early childhood and first grade in school, but it’s rather hazy and mostly revived from photos. I was in musical play school in New York, and later read in my baby book that I loved percussion already as a baby. In Denmark, my father sent me to violin lessons, so that was my first instrument (I was 7 years old). However, I thought it sounded awful, since I was only a beginner, so I didn’t like to practice, and even if my teacher told my father that it didn’t matter since I had talent. My father got upset and sold the violin, which I didn’t mind too much - except for losing the beautiful violin and the music lessons. But I was still really into music. We had a piano at home, and I loved to learn little pieces from my sister until I started taking lessons myself from the age of 9, where I also started classical ballet.
I had already (also about 7 years old) established my "secret world", where my fantasy dance teacher would teach me the steps of “Le Sacre du Printemps” (my absolute favorite music, which has been rooted deeply inside me my entire life). I would draw the curtains in our living room, so I was alone on our red carpet, put the record on and dance. This is when the connection between music and magic started for me, which later was revived through Miles Davis’s music.
So, yes, to your questions: I was very serious with my piano and dance lessons, but kept on having my own parallel world where both dance and music were magic and creative ways of living. It seems I was always into writing, drawing, dancing, choreographing, composing. I guess that the seances with Mrs Mysticulum (my secret dance teacher) and Stravinsky was my first clear revelation. I felt very private about my relation to music as a kid, I didn’t have others to play music with, and liked creating my own music and songs.
As a teenager, I started to listen to live music and would always dance (rather wildly) at live concerts with my favorite groups: Riel/Mikkelborg V8, led by two Danish jazz icons, that I later got to work extensively with, and Kenneth Knudsens Coronarias Dans. Besides from Bitches Brew, one of my favorite albums, was Cream’s Disraeli Gears. Also, Frank Zappa made an impression, and I loved the British trio Azimuth, especially singer Norma Winstone, whom I finally got to work with a few years ago.
At the age of about 16, having left school (mainly because of my strong focus on dance and music), I joined The Creative Dance Theatre, and toured with them for about three years. The group sometimes worked with live musicians (i.e. Dollar Brand, Karl Berger, the Swiss group OM), and also had a choreography I made with some of my recorded piano music. But I didn’t experience enough musical qualities and rhythm in this dance form, and my piano teacher also really wanted me to have an advanced musical education at the the Royal Music Conservatory, so that’s how I got the idea to change my instrument.
In those days, all music studies in Denmark were purely classical, and I had no plan of becoming a classical pianist. I joined the new education (called AM) at the Conservatory, which was meant for coming music teachers and included conducting, arrangement, choir and more. This gave me a broader perspective, while I was developing as a jazz musician. Being into body movement and rhythm, it felt very natural to get my first drum set and study classical percussion as my main instrument, and this really took hold of me. As a pianist, I had already created my first band, Zirenes (1973), playing my music with two Swedish female musicians that I met at the Vallekilde Jazz Summer course. Gradually the group was expanded with danish drummer Alex Riel (who knew me as a dancer and found my strange rhythms intriguing in spite of my lacking experience in jazz), and sax player Uffe Markussen. Strongly immersed in my own way of composing/playing, I wasn’t that conscious about being one of very few women instrumentalists.
But going to Vallekilde (in the early 70s) made it clear that the others were practically all men, and that they had different “rules” than me. So, it was tempting to bond with the few other women and find our own musical path.
Although I was inspired by lots of music I heard and learned - I never felt the need to play/write like others. So my music has always had a kind of homemade touch to it. It would have been very different growing up today with all the possible jazz educations. As a drummer, I found that I could communicate easily by ear and feeling, so I didn’t worry much about tradition and i.e. bebop. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I am breaking rules (which I am not applying in the first place), because I use lots of energy on fitting into and enlarging the actual musical expressions, whichever these are. Growing up with classical music also gave me a good basic understanding of harmony, etc. In the beginning, it felt natural for me to play with free jazz musicians, avoiding the established way into jazz. But I found it more and more important to emphasize melodic patterns, rhythm, poetic structures, etc.
In the late 70s, I had established myself as drummer/percussionist in many groups and collaborations (John Tchicai, Palle Mikkelborg, The Danish Radio Jazz Orchestra and more). I created Primi Band to further explore the female qualities and focus on body/rhythm/voice. The members were not all musicians, but in various ways into dance, music and experimental performance. I also became a collector of sounds, and have a large collection of instruments from most of the world, and I like to let their sounds speak for themselves and create music out of this. I use time and energy on building various set-ups for the different events.
When traveling these days, I will often play on backline, and then it becomes part of the game to get surprises and inspiration with the new sounds. During my years touring the world with Miles and Wayne, I had to give up on having a regular working group in Denmark. I made many other great bands and projects through the years, but always missed the Primi Band, who were like close friends and family to me. So when the Copenhagen Jazz Festival in 2015 encouraged me to revive Primi Band, I was thrilled, but answered, “I can’t do that, because most of the members don’t play anymore” - sax player Lotte Anker is the only original member that is fully professional on the jazz scene today - “but I would love to gather a new version” - which became Shamania.
Since the festival asked me to make a Scandinavian group, it is of course different to work with highly respected musicians from different countries, which means that we basically meet for performances and play more composed music than do experiments. All members are strong profiles and have their own space in the music. There is less dancing in the group than in Primi,
although we often work with a dancer.
Compared to my youth, there are more great female music artists now, but after the blooming in the 70s and 80s; the amount also went down again in Denmark. There are more in the other Scandinavian countries, it seems. The amount isn’t so important, but it’s great to hear strong female expressions and that it is possible to influence the music and be a part of the scene and development. It has never been important for me to define myself or my music by my gender or skin color, and especially with music, these characteristics are not essential for the work, but as any individual, I can add personal elements. On the other hand, being different might have influenced my choice of profession. (In 1961, I didn’t see other brown children in Denmark, which of course has changed now).
I experience music as a kind of collective consciousness where the whole universe/world/time/humanity can contribute and melt together in possible sound/vibration. So we can be inspired by music and sounds from everywhere and let it come out in new forms to share.
Important Danish artists in my early years: Palle Mikkelborg, Alex Riel, Kenneth Knudsen and Erik Moseholm. In the 70s there was lots of festivals and happenings to visit in Denmark/Europe. In Copenhagen, Jazzclub Montmartre was a favorite hang out. The place has opened again the later years, and is still a nice place, and one of the very few places left to play in town. Now there is also a new club for improvised music called Klub Primi (!). In Denmark there is definitely more musicians than audience for it, if we move away from the most popular kind of music.
Traveling has always been an important part of playing for me, since Denmark is a very small country for playing music that is not mainstream. Already in the 70s I would travel in Europe to play with fellow musicians in other countries. I am always deeply into the music I am playing, and haven’t experienced what you call being “called out.” I find the spirit, togetherness and good vibrations to be an important part of music, so I try to always make constructive suggestions rather than correcting my fellow musicians. It is important for me that all the people I play with bring their individual strength, personality and energy to the music, which would not be achieved if they were to just fulfill my own expectations. I strive for bands that have a good chemistry, and use my intuition a lot to create them. I have also had bands with colliding energies, that made great music together anyway, but in the long run, a band must feel like a harmonious family for me to keep it going.
Playing with Miles: yes, I came from a different and much more collective scene, I adored Miles’s music from the 70s and felt less at home in the pop of the 80s. It was my first time back to New York since I left in 1961, so it felt really special to return straight into this "dream come true.” It was a fantastic adventure to meet and play and tour with Miles, and I really learned a lot about grooving and musical presence through those years. Miles gave me a lot of freedom, but his music at that time was pretty concrete, which demanded a certain “masculine” energy from me, although Miles probably wanted me to bring more air and poetry into the band. Yes, I was the only woman in Miles’s bands, but that was only one of the ways I was different from the rest, and I was used to being an “outsider.” It felt strange in the beginning (1985), the second Miles band I was in (1988) was more social, but wow! what an experience with Miles's leading power and inspiration - to tour the whole world under those grand circumstances and have the chance to give what ever possible to Miles’s music!
For me, music and other abstract art forms are like openings into the essence of life itself - you can share and transform emotion/moods/experiences into energy/colors. Especially with improvised music we are able to live in the moment and react to each other. In these quarantine times, it is clear to me how music can add to the spiritual wellbeing and keep people company even when isolated. The band name Shamania, to me, is a female form of Shaman, and also “mania" symbolizing the act of setting Woman Power free. I believe that music at its best is a kind of magic, uniting humanity, freeing us from physical conformity.
In 2020, most of the concerts with my bands were postponed (about 15 of these!). Luckily I had some great projects in the first months of 2020 (i.e. Shamania in Switzerland and playing a new version of Bitches Brew with DR Big Band), and later in the year lots of new offers popped up, so I ended up as busy as always. And many new collaborations turned out to be really exciting
(i.e. trio with Jakob Bro and Palle Mikkelborg and subbing as drummer in Hildegunn Øiseths quartet). So, with many changes in plans and concert strategies, it was still possible to play a good deal.
Now it has changed here in Europe, everything is closed down, we can’t travel or even play locally, and this is tough! I have lots of plans and ideas to work with, especially composing for my bands and coming projects, and also developing my solo concept. But the situation tends to make me much more lazy anyway, since there are no soon upcoming events to encourage me. And right now there’s no income to live on either. When we can play again, I (as always) have many invitations as a guest artist or soloist, and of these I choose the most tempting ones.
Since leaving the Jan Garbarek Group in 2005 - after around 14 years of touring with this great saxophonist - my first priority is my own bands (regularly working groups of mine are Shamania, two quartets, a trio, solo concerts). I co-lead the 13-piece semi-big band Maluba Orchestra.
In 2020, we released my latest album, Live Reflections, with live recordings of my former group Future Song, which was my strongest group in the 20 years following my years with the American greats (Miles, Gil Evans and Wayne Shorter).
But I am a curious person, and receive inspiration from playing with many other musicians, so you can find me in many settings during the year. I work regularly with Makiko Hirabayashi Trio. I also work often with my husband, bassist Klavs Hovman, i.e. in Makiko Hirabayashi Trio.
I often make special constellations for various events, and when I have the chance to compose for larger ensembles or films, I do that too. So to answer your question, that makes about seven regular groups and lots of loose projects. I am especially looking forward to being back on the scene and connecting with some happy listeners.
Some of the most exciting projects in 2021: composing for a Chamber music festival summer 2021, working more with Shamania, a new trio with Jon Balke and Torben Snekkestad, a festival concert featuring Norma Winstone.
All for now !
Photo by: Frida Gregersen
from M Mazur's website: