Since its arrival almost a century ago, jazz saxophonists have been predominantly men. Saxophonist Mindi Abair’s father, jazz great Lance Abair, is a perfect example.
Which is exactly why her success is especially sweet for this daddy’s girl, she has broken the saxophone glass ceiling.
Hers a life less ordinary
Her 2006 major label debut, “Life Less Ordinary,” debuted at the top of the Billboard Contemporary Jazz charts. Prior to that, she had enormous fans. Among them was pop superstars Duran Duran, who brought heron tour in 2004. She has subsequently opened for artists as varied as Mandy Moore, Josh Groban and Adam Sandler.
Abair is a graduate of the esteemed Berkeley School of Music and recently released her latest pop, jazz and soul musical stew, “Stars.” It is an apt title for a musician about to orbit amongst the music industries brightest.
Abair sat down with SheKnows to discuss the finer points of discovering your life calling, ignoring the detractors and pushing through until a dream is realized.
Apple falls not far…
SheKnows: Take me back to the beginning, what were your first memories of music?
Mindi Abair: I actually grew up on the road with my dad’s band.
SheKnows: No kidding.
Mindi Abair: Yeah, (laughs) I didn’t have to look very for my first notes of music. I was born and they took me on the road immediately. Until I was five, it wasn’t that I was give that we settled down and had a house. By the time I was banging on the piano, so I started lessons. Played piano for a few years and then school band naturally started.
SheKnows: That gets so many sax players going.
Mindi Abair: They laid out a bunch of instruments and said, ‘choose one you like.’ So I chose saxophone, I thought my dad was pretty cool and he played (laughs). I watched him on stage for all those years. You’re an eight-year-old girl, that’s what you do. It worked out quite well. I was a band geek my whole school career.
SheKnows: I can’t help but ask, did you ever happen to go to band camp?
Mindi Abair: Oh, I went to every band camp. Come on, you can’t miss band camp. That was a great moment in that film for me, I just thought…
SheKnows: We are getting some props.
Mindi Abair: (laughs) Band geeks are not so bad after all.
SheKnows: Did you know that you were going to do this as a career as you were going through band years. Kids invest a lot of time in music, but not all know that’s where they’re going.
Mindi Abair: I never thought about it was taking me, I just really like playing. I was immersed in it. I didn’t play sports. I tried out for cheerleading…once. I wasn’t very coordinated. That was a disaster, basically music was what I did. When it came to decide what I was going to college for, it was a natural. It was only when I went to college that anyone said, ‘you know you can’t do this for a living.’ No one played saxophone and sings. That didn’t stop me. I’m glad I didn’t hear that until it was too late. I was hooked.
SheKnows: You didn’t by chance go to Berkeley School of Music, did you?
Mindi Abair: I sure did (laughs), it’s a great school.
SheKnows: It’s such a rich environment.
Mindi Abair, My God, yes. Even though I had been in school bands and I had my father as a role model, all I knew was music I listened to which is pop and rock. When I got to school I was at a huge disadvantage. I didn’t know jazz and any of that, it was fun. The students around me would give me their records and we’d totally sit up listening to records. They showed me the difference between Miles Davis and all the others…it was pretty cool.
SheKnows: They always refer to a musician’s sound, is that where yours began forging?
Mindi Abair: I think college was a big coming of age place for me, definitely. My sax teacher Joe Viola, every week, he would say, ‘get your own band together because you write and you have your own sound and you have to have your own band to showcase that. I don’t want you just fitting in within someone else’s band.’ He taught me to be myself. He let me do a concert with my own band for my senior recital instead of having to do the expected repertoire. That set me up for a career of feeling of just feeling like myself. I could express myself and it was going to be successful instead of being trampled upon.
Music is morphing
SheKnows: As you were getting ready to put out that first CD, knowing you had this interesting hybrid of music, did you ever look around at the music industry around you and see how much it too was melding? Boundaries are being busted.
Mindi Abair: Most definitely. I think anyone from my generation has to admit that they were listening to rock and pop and soul and jazz and it was everything. All of us, all my friends listened to James Brown next to The Police. Nobody’s iPods have the same genre of music in them (laughs). The music that I write, to see that in it, I think is a given. But I do look around and think genres are going away. I felt good making a record with R&B, pop, soul and obviously a lot of jazzy saxophone with my vocals. For me, it was doing what came naturally. Monikers are a dated thing.
SheKnows: What for you was one of the highlights of recording “Stars?”
Mindi Abair: “Stars” was a great escape for me because I was touring a lot last year and I would come in and escape to the piano and start writing. The music that was coming out of me was hopeful and fun. Obviously everything happening in the world right now isn’t. I can only attribute the album being so positive was that it was for me an escape to be able to go into my own little world and write. The music made me really happy.
SheKnows: Well, it is certainly making audiences happy, as you said, just when we need it most.
Mindi Abair: You know I looked back at the pile of songs I was writing and they all…that was the thread. Hopeful, fun, one of my girlfriends I gave a CD of demos of songs I’ve written to see what she thought. She called me from her car and said “You have to name this song “Gonna Be Alright” because that’s how it makes me feel. That was a cool vote of confidence on what I had gotten from it.
SheKnows: Because you do so many different things, you sing, play the sax, write your own songs, in the studio is one thing, must be really exciting for you to get up in front of a crowd and wear all these hats.
Mindi Abair: It’s pretty wild live. Two saxophones in front of me, kind of switching off while I’m singing, it makes for a fun live show. Sometimes, as an instrumentalist who has played a lot over my life, it helps to put in a vocal every now and then because people want to hear a lyric, to hold on to a lyric. I think spark from that, a different way to express yourself through a live show.