Multi-talented bassist/vocalist/composer discusses her jazz upbringing, traveling for the State Department and new CD
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
October 5, 2009
New York native Mimi Jones (aka Miriam Jones) is a multi-talented bassist, vocalist and composer, whose elegant sound is an eclectic mix of genres based on a strong jazz foundation. A graduate of the Manhattan School of Music, Mimi has also studied with Lisle Atkinson, Ron Carter, and Milton Hinton. As a “side man” she has shared the stage with such talents as the great Lionel Hampton, Roy Hargrove, Rachel Z, Sean Jones, Kenny Barron, Joshua Redman and many others. Mimi has toured extensively throughout Europe and the United States and participated in the Department of State and Jazz at Lincoln Center Rhythm Abroad Program. Her debut CD, A New Day, was released in September 2009.
FBPO: Tell me about your musical upbringing. You sure were exposed to lots of different styles of music from an early age. It’s not an uncommon tale among bass players that they were asked to pick up the bass simply because nobody else was around to fill that role.
MJ: I truly feel that the bass chose me, but funny you should say that. It went down just like so. One day during practice time in high school, when I should have been running etudes on the cello for the next orchestral rehearsal, I was spotted by the jazz band director doing my daily routine: standing in front of the mirror with the bass, twirling it around and working on figuring out bass lines to popular TV themes, like Barney Miller. When he asked if I played bass and I said no, he said, “Well, you do now because we need a bass player for the second band.” It was a wrap after that. He immediately changed my schedule around and before I knew what had hit me, I found myself playing walking bass lines. “Sorry, Mr. Cello!”
FBPO: What’s it like being a female in an environment that’s traditionally been dominated by men?
MJ: I embrace it now. I used to overplay, just to prove myself. I’d wear overalls and a big T-shirt to downplay my femininity. Then I’d get frustrated when cats didn’t call me back after a great gig. Eventually, I realized that the only thing we can really do is play our hearts out and reach for our individual best, our dream. It’s okay to get inspired by others around you, but it’s important to know that each of us has an individual voice and the ability to inspire others, regardless of whether we’re male or female. So, I’m not waiting for permission or a stamp of approval from anyone to do what I love to do; I’m just doing it. Remembering the women who came before me and what they endured in their time inspires me to reach for higher ground. I’m finally having fun being a woman, looking pretty and playing the bass. Yay!
FBPO: Do people compare you to Esperanza Spalding, Nicki Parrott, Marion Hayden or other female bass players?
MJ: So far, no, perhaps with the CD being so new and all. Esperanza is one of my favorites, my heroine. I love the way she executes herself, the whole package: her voice, fluency, musicality of bass playing, compositions. On top of all that, she’s totally feminine and personable. Now, that’s inspiring! Nikki is my good friend and a great bassist, but I don’t hear a lot of comparisons between us, nor between me and Marion. People will often say that I have an old school feel, like Ray Brown, PC (Paul Chambers) or Jimmy Garrison. I guess we will see in time what folk really have to say.
FBPO: You were very fortunate to have been mentored by some of the biggest luminaries in jazz: Barry Harris, Ron Carter, Milt Hinton, Dr. Billy Taylor, Max Roach and others. Were you able to appreciate what a big deal that was at the time, or were these guys just “music teachers?”
MJ: I definitely appreciated who they were. I was forced, as a child, to listen to jazz, all styles, and so I knew exactly who Ron Carter was. I would sometimes be a little star struck, but would quickly be brought back to reality when he would say, “Miss Sullivan, don’t come to my class out of tune.” Whoosh! (laughs). Milt Hinton felt like my grandpa I never met, always pushing me to the front of the line. I loved him dearly. When I look at Billy Taylor, he always reminds me of Duke Ellington and that whole time period. He’s so eloquent, intelligent, thoughtful and super talented. I guess, in a nutshell, I will always look up to them and hope to continue the incredible legacy they passed down, despite the social obstacles they faced. Once they hit the stage, magic began to unfold.
FBPO: You’ve performed with some pretty heavy jazz cats, including Lionel Hampton, Roy Hargrove, Kenny Barron, Joshua Redman and many others. How did you become established on the scene as a jazz bass player?
MJ: I attended the Jazz Mobile workshops every Saturday and the Barry Harris workshops every Monday. I got a scholarship to the “Jazz in July” jazz camp. I played with Charlie Persip’s big band. I played on the street, on the subway platform, uptown, downtown and anywhere else I could. At the time, I wasn’t really thinking about it. As I was just focusing on getting better and making some “cheddar,” people were getting used to seeing me. I started getting calls for small gigs, then bigger gigs, then auditions, and so on. By the time I graduated from the Manhattan School of Music, I had basically started some momentum for myself. In fact, I even missed my graduation because I had left for Japan the day before. Word of mouth is a powerful thing.
FBPO: Traveling around the world on behalf of the Department of State must have felt like quite an honor. What was that experience like?
MJ: It was an honor, but for different reasons than the obvious. My first trip was during the time when we had just gone to war with Iraq. I was in South America and the people were actually pissed off at Americans for our President’s actions. I noticed that the news coverage down there was very different from that in the states. We were being told one thing while the rest of the world was in chaos. Honestly, I was embarrassed.
For my second trip, two years later, the State Department took me to Africa, where I had the opportunity to visit many Islamic countries. In Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania and Mali, the people completely embraced us. They wanted us to know that they (Muslims) were not all terrorists. I was asked in a few interviews why Americans hated them so much. I told them the truth, that I didn’t hate them. The media can dictate the voice of an entire nation, even though there were hundreds of thousands of people who tried to stop the war. Politics can be tricky. On that trip, I did not feel helpless and confused. Rather, I embraced the people back because I recognized that we shared many similarities. I taught them about American culture and learned as much as I could from them about their culture since, to me, ignorance is a big part of the problem. Traveling changes you and inspires you to do better with what you have. It teaches you to find joy, even in the toughest situation, and makes you appreciate the world. It educates you in a hands-on manner you could never get from a book. You can actually smell, hear and feel the experience.
FBPO: Tell me about your new release, A New Day. You must be pretty excited about it.
MJ: Yes!!! I’m like, “Finally!” What a process. It’s kind of like giving birth – no one can really tell you what it’s like. You have to experience it for yourself. People were always asking me, “When are we going to hear something from you?” while I was playing in all those sideman situations. So, yes! It’s kind of liberating to be the front (wo)man, for a change. It’s a lot of responsibility, though. I’m feeling the attention and I’m anxious to get better and better sooner.
FBPO: What’s next for Mimi Jones?
MJ: The world! (laughs). Nah. Okay, well, maybe some of it. I’m already writing the next record, even though I’m physically pushing the current one. I just can’t stop the ideas from flowing. I’ve always wanted to integrate fashion, dance and other art forms into the music, so once the ball is rolling a bit faster, I look forward to experimenting with those things. I’m also very interested in the business side of entertainment and looking for more attractive ways to engage people. I’m looking forward to touring, performing in big reputable venues and festivals, as well as the humble smaller venues, passing on a good word, raising money for important causes and becoming an icon in the process.
FBPO: What do you like to do that’s not necessarily musically oriented?
MJ: Movies and TV! Getting a great massage, doing yoga, eating different types of good food and dancing. I love to dance! Oh, and learning Spanish. I stress the “learning” part, since I’ve been at the same level for 12 years. One of these days, I’ll get it right!