Remembering Connie Crothers (1941-2016)

It took Connie Crothers several years of profound study before she would perform in public. She she eventually began to perform solo, and to experience rejection from the audience. She also offered reasons why her band would not perform more frequently. She was adamant that it had to do with the divide in the jazz world—jazz tunes versus free jazz/free improvisation—and with the fact that she was a woman leader and would be hired less often because of it.

Written By

Ursel Schlicht

I always had a deep feeling as I still do to be one with the very minute I’m in.

While doing research during my first stay in New York in 1995, feminist blues record producer Rosetta Reitz handed me an LP Perception and told me to check out Connie Crothers.  I had compiled texts about women jazz instrumentalists and perused decades’ worth of jazz magazines in order to create an annotated bibliography for the Jazz Institute in Darmstadt.  Still, I had never heard of her. (An interview in the Village Voice existed, which she later gave me, but she had not been featured in any jazz magazine).

Connie agreed to my request to interview her for my dissertation, and I went to hear the Connie Crothers Quartet—which included Richard Tabnik, Sean Smith, and Roger Mancuso—at Cleopatra’s Needle.  Deeply moved by the tight band, their fast, swinging, effortless unison lines and seamless move between composition and improvisation, I felt this was a true new musical discovery and wondered why this band was not touring the jazz festival circuit all over the country. The band played original compositions by Connie and standards.  Several of her pieces are based on changes of standards,  with a bebop feel, yet with her own expression.

Connie invited me to her apartment on 9th Street near Astor Place and we talked for hours.  I learned how as a child prodigy she was trained at the piano to perform classical music and that she set out to study composition. Then she recalled her radical move to New York upon listening to Lennie Tristano’s Requiem, a bluesy tune and homage to Charlie Parker.  Connie had dropped her studies in Berkeley, traveled to the East Coast, and formally studied with Tristano for six years.   She immersed herself, studying countless hours every day, rethinking everything from the fingering of scales to how to hold the hands, how to approach a jazz tune or approach open form. It took her several years of profound study before she would perform in public.

I never improvised, though, that is a story also.  When I decided that I wanted to be a jazz musician, I knew that it was about improvising. I could really play by then, I was a good player, I was a very highly trained player, and I could play big works. I could sit at the piano and a lot of music could come out of the piano, and all that was wonderful, I appreciated it, but this was my moment of truth: I sat down at my piano with the desire to improvise, and I sat there for, oh, twenty minutes, a half hour. I could not improvise one note. And in that moment, I became angry. I realized that as much as I had given, and as much as people had given to me to learn, that this dimensional thing had been left out, and I was totally blocked. I was facing a wall, and I felt like I had been so deeply deprived of something that was so important. Not that anybody did that to me. It’s in the classical music culture—it wasn’t always like that, those great composers could improvise! It’s a deep story.  So, the thing that I credit myself with in retrospect is that in that moment I did not fake it.  I knew I couldn’t improvise, and I didn’t. I faced it.  It was rough. (…) I faced the enormity head on right away.  I took it in that I could not do it.

In her last decade Connie Crothers had become a profoundly admired and sought-after improviser.

To me, this statement was a powerful testament to her seriousness as an improviser.  She recalled how she eventually began to perform solo, and to experience rejection from the audience. She also offered reasons why her band would not perform more frequently.  She was adamant that it had to do with the divide in the jazz world—jazz tunes versus free jazz/free improvisation—and with the fact that she was a woman leader and would be hired less often because of it. (She explained that in the 1960s there was virtually no literature on women´s rights and highlighted that Lennie Tristano was ahead of his time: “Long before he was hip, I would say that Lennie was a feminist.” She felt that he took her seriously on a deeper level than she had experienced with her previous teachers, and that she was struck by the difference.)  Neither fitting the expectations of a jazz audience or of a downtown free improvising one, the band had by that time somewhat accepted that performances would be few; however, they rehearsed every week at Connie’s.  Fortunately, in her last decade she had become a profoundly admired and sought-after improviser.

Connie Crothers at the piano.

After our interview, I was determined to take lessons from her eventually.  Some years later, I was able to do so and came to her loft in Williamsburg.  I had not been living in New York for long at that point and was still developing my own playing, improving my standard chops  and free improvising.  Though I had taken various workshops as a student in Germany, Connie showed me a new level of profound dedication to studying and a range of new conceptual ideas, many of which she’d credit to Lennie Tristano: to connect with the melody of a tune through singing, to improve touch on the piano, to work on sound, to breathe, to play scales and melodies with new fingerings, to learn a huge variety of voicings, and, most importantly, to feel the music on a deeper level, to feel the energy of the piano.  She was puzzled by how most characterizations of Lennie Tristano would be about his technique rather than his way of teaching a deep feeling of the music.  (Tristano, well known for his dedication to teaching, would give lessons and students would be around waiting for their turn, as lessons could last for drastically different lengths of time, depending on what the student brought and needed.)

Connie showed me a new level of profound dedication to studying and a range of new conceptual ideas.

Connie had her own unique, personal way of teaching.  While she often mentioned how Lennie would see a particular approach and made it clear how much she had learned from him, which ideas were developed by him, why she would recommend a particular thought at this moment, she would always go with everyone’s personal needs, wishes, and ideas. She saw me as an individual and made me feel special to her.  By many accounts, she had this very outstanding ability to make the musicians, students, and friends around her feel special.  Many of us developed a personal relationship far beyond a standard student-teacher rapport.  A lesson would often begin with a conversation about anything from musical to personal to political to philosophical.  Two chairs were set, just a bit away from the piano.  She’d sit on the one closer to the piano, the student would be closer to the stereo. I’d often put a CD into it with the track I’d be singing for her.

Lennie Tristano thought that his discovery of asking students to sing with the great recorded solos was his most important discovery of his teaching life. As he explained it to me, he thought that before he knew about this, he could teach theory to his gifted students and they could be very accomplished, but he could not teach true spontaneous improvisation. Singing with records does this. When you sing with one of the great early innovators—after you’ve done it enough—you will internalize what the feeling is of spontaneous improvisation. You will also discover and release an energy that can only be found there. It is dimensional. It can’t be described verbally and it can’t be reached by practicing some kind of musical procedure. I recommend singing with the great innovators of the early decades of jazz. They were all spontaneously improvising their great solos, and this was their context. Spontaneous improvisation was the jazz world norm then, as well as the requirement to express individuality.

(excerpted from a Connie Crothers workshop handout)

After singing, I’d go to the piano and she’d listen and make suggestions.  More and more, a friendship outside of the lesson developed.  She remembered conversations. She’d recommend something and occasionally push me. Most vividly, I remember my anxiety about performing solo.  I did not feel ready.  Connie curated a concert series at The Stone and invited me to perform solo.  She knew I had three quite active duos at the time and was very comfortable in those and in larger groups. She said:  “I want YOU to perform. I want to hear you play, not with a duo, by yourself.”  She talked about how wonderful an energy I’d feel from the audience, which would inspire me. I followed through and played a solo set with my compositions spread through an improvised set.  No other teacher had done such a thing for me.  She’d come to my gigs.  When nobody else would make the effort to come to a gig at a small venue that was hard to reach, Connie would get on the subway and be there.

In the earlier years I knew her, she was very dedicated to her quartet and to other close associates. After Tristano died in 1978, many of his students kept in contact and there is a network of mutual support and respect that is still intact today. Of all his students, Connie was probably the most active in continuing Tristano’s legacy. New Artists Records provided an outlet for like-minded musicians. Her first release on New Artists was an album of piano and percussion duos with Max Roach entitled entitled Swish (NA1001), which they recorded in 1982. Max thought highly of Connie and they had planned to release a second one. Sessions on Haywood Road, also recorded in 1982, unfortunately remains unreleased. Although they did not get to perform publicly, Connie and Max remained very close, particularly during the last years of his life.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the quartet stayed together, but performances were sparse. Connie taught a large circle of students and stayed immersed in music; however, she craved being out there and performing more frequently.  Around ten years ago, Jemeel Moondoc hired her, which introduced her to a new audience.  From then on, she’d be more and more embraced by the communities around Arts for Art, the Vision Festival, Roulette, and The Stone.  In just a few years she played and recorded with many outstanding musicians.  She brought trumpeter Roy Campbell into her quartet. Band of Fire can be heard on New Artists Records, a collective label she co-founded.  She was very affected by Roy’s passing and doubled her efforts to play, perform, teach, support others.  The New Artists Records catalogue has been expanding dramatically in the past few years. She was very dedicated to the label, which fortunately will continue under the auspices of pianist Virg Dzurinko. There have been many more interviews with her. She had been a frequent guest at radio stations, Adam Melville wrote a term paper about her teaching (Rutgers University), and Chris Becker interviewed her for his book Freedom of Expression: Interviews With Women In Jazz (Beckeresque Press, 2015).

In 2013, I moved away from New York to Kassel, Germany.  Our friendship grew to another level.  We saw each other during every stay of mine in New York, went to concerts together, heard each other’s gigs, performed a piano duo at the Firehouse Space in Williamsburg. In February of 2015, she came to Kassel for a solo concert at the Theater im Fridericianum and a workshop at the Institute of Music at Universität Kassel.  She stayed with my kids and I for those days and we treasured those memories—singing “A Sailboat in the Moonlight” with a record of Billie Holiday as a duo at the workshop; Connie sang Lester Young’s part and I sang Billie’s. Or, on the beautiful, sunny morning of her concert, walking through the Bergpark, covered with snow.  She walked and hopped around with such ease, everything about her was full of life.  I still cannot imagine that she is no longer walking and hopping around like this. This was supposed to be the beginning of much more to come!  She played a piece at night inspired by the waterfalls and birds and my children.

Fortunately, I had seen her more often that usual in these past months. As hard as it was to see her so weak, feeling the energy of the New York music community toward her was tremendous.  I am grateful to have been a part of a wonderful circle of friends who supported her.  Grateful to have seen her well and less well over the past months, to have been with her on her last day, hospitalized, breathing hard. To spend time with other close friends of hers at the hospital.  Some I know well, some I hardly knew at all, it did not seem to matter—we all felt connected through Connie, and Connie was surrounded by love at any moment.

She died later during that night. Strangely enough, she remains very present—many friends shared thoughts on social media, WKCR did a memorial broadcast almost immediately, WBAI did a memorial broadcast, The New York Times ran an obituary.  I began writing these words on my flight, in this surreal situation between different worlds, in a strange moment of time.  Listening to the WBAI radio broadcast I hear her voice talking about familiar subjects.  I sit at the piano and feel her presence. On September 17, during a larger cultural event in the city of Kassel, my musical contribution will be dedicated to her.

Ursel Schlicht and Connie Crothers

Ursel Schlicht and Connie Crothers

(Ed Note: Unless otherwise noted, all quotes from Connie Crothers herein derive from Ursel Schlicht’s extensive interviews with her, many of which have been published in Schlicht’s book, “It’s Gotta Be Music First”: Zur Bedeutung, Rezeption und Arbeitssituation von Jazzmusikerinnen (On the Impact, Perception and Working Situation of Women Jazz Musicians), Karben: Coda, 2000. A complete list of Crothers’s recordings is available on Crothers’s website.—FJO)