Interview with Trumpeter Nadje Noordhuis


Combining cinema sweep, transportive emotion, and rich melodic grandeur, Australian-­born trumpeter/composer Nadje Noordhuis possesses one of the most unforgettably lyrical voices in modern music. Her deeply-­felt, clarion tone and evocative compositional gift meld classical rigor, jazz expression, and world music accents into a sound that is distinctively her own. Noordhuis was one of ten semi-­‐finalists in the 2007 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Trumpet Competition and was selected as a Carnegie Hall Young Artist to undertake a weeklong residency with trumpet great Dave Douglas in 2010. Recent engagements include a yearly week-­long run at New York’s Village Vanguard with Rudy Royston’s 303, performances with the Grammy-­winning Maria Schneider Orchestra, performances at jazz festivals in Europe, Canada and Brazil with Grammy-­nominated Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, and regular appearances with her group at the historic 55 Bar in Greenwich Village.

1. Tell us a little about yourself and what you do.

I’m a trumpet player and composer, mainly in the jazz realm. A couple of times a year I’ll do classical/new music gigs and/or commissions. I play with the Maria Schneider Orchestra, Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, the Anat Cohen Tentet, and lead my own bands including a jazz quintet and a duo with vibraphonist James Shipp. I’m working on a solo show that features trumpet and electronics. I teach trumpet and piano privately, am a teaching artist with the New York Pops Education program, and teach jazz trumpet students at the MSM Precollege Division. I spend a lot of my time scheduling and rescheduling, suffering through Crossfit, and being disappointed with my coffee making skills.

2. What do you love about being a female jazz musician? What do you not love as much?

Being a woman jazz musician has a whole set of challenges. That’s not to say that success, whatever that means to you personally, isn’t possible, it just means that it can be more of a struggle. When I moved to New York, it took me about four years to get a gig with a well known male bandleader. Up until that point, I was only hired by women bandleaders or played in all-women bands. It was totally bizarre. I knew that unfortunately being hired by a man would give me validation in the scene that “I could play”. The general assumption is that women jazz players aren’t as capable, which is infuriating. In order to have gigs, and thus improve as a musician, I would have to create my own opportunities, which is why I started my quintet in 2009. Being a woman in this industry forces you to hone your entrepreneurial skills, that’s for sure. It can be frustrating when playing a gig and then have to deal with questions that a man wouldn’t have to deal with. For example, just a couple of days ago I was playing with a brass quartet, organ, and choir. Both of the trumpet chairs were women. One of the male singers commented “Wow! You trumpets are, like, really good! Like, legitimately awesome! So, what do you do for a living?” I said, “Well this might surprise you, but…I’m a trumpet player”.

When I’m playing in a large ensemble, I want to blend in because I’m a section player and not the leader. It’s difficult not to stand out when you are the only woman or one of two playing in a band of seventeen men. I get this question a lot – what’s it like touring with a bunch of men? My answer is that there’s no issue. They are all great humans – funny, talented, and accepting of me as an equal. I don’t need kid gloves or special treatment. I want to be treated the same as everyone else, and that usually happens now, which is fantastic. But there’s always some silliness to deal with. A couple of times I’ve left the stage at a restaurant club, and since I would generally be wearing all black, a patron at the club will hand me their check, assuming that I’m a server. But it took a really long time to get to the point where I know I can deal with any sort of frustration, and carry on.

3. Do you think we have a specific role or responsibility as female brass players? How do you incorporate that (or not) into your own life as a musician?

Absolutely. Before I left Australia, I ran a series of jazz workshops for high school women, which was incredibly rewarding. But after I had been in New York for a year or two, and was really struggling, I thought to myself that I can’t possibly encourage another woman to pursue this career path. It has taken me a while to realize that I was making a decision that was not mine to make, and if someone is passionate about improvising and playing jazz, then I want to help them as much as I can. My most important job is to be visible. When young women musicians see another woman play, they get this wide-eyed look – you can almost see the penny drop in their head that things they thought weren’t possible for them are in fact within their reach. I love doing clinics at colleges where there are usually less than a handful of women students. There’s a competitiveness that exists, as if there can only be one great woman trumpeter or saxophonist, but it’s not true. There’s room for everyone. There’s room for everyone, people! Shout it out!

4. Do you see any specific challenges for musicians in today’s climate? How do you mitigate those on your own or when teaching?

Musicians today need to wear many hats. They need to be able to play and improvise across multiple styles, have amazing reading skills, teach a variety of ages and abilities, arrange, compose, handle their scheduling, network, book gigs, and be a manager. It’s a juggling act. It’s rarely enough to be a great musician anymore. Being able to switch between roles is something that I’m still working on, to be honest. If one aspect of my career is doing well, another role is usually tanking. If I’m writing, then I’m not organizing logistics. If I’m emailing or on the computer all day, I’m not going to be preparing for a gig. It can be exhausting with the constant switching around, and trying to not only deal with what’s happening now or in the next week, but also plan projects for the next six months to a year ahead. But then I’ll play a gig with a prominent and incredibly talented bandleader, like Maria Schneider or Anat Cohen, or my band will play a new tune and they tell me how much they like it, and it is so meaningful and fulfilling that it all seems worth it.

5. Is there anything you wished you had known as a student or young professional that you know now? Any advice that you’d like to share with younger female musicians?

Find what you love and do that. And be okay with that. For example, I really love playing ballads and playing flugelhorn, but I thought because I lived in New York that I should be really great at bebop. And it was frustrating to me to learn how to play in that style because I didn’t feel like that music belonged to me, and it felt so out of reach. It has taken a long time to build my confidence across a range of styles, but I have to approach it as “this is how Nadje plays bebop”, and not try to compare myself to Clifford Brown or Freddie Hubbard.

I would recommend young women musicians to form their own bands. Don’t wait for someone to hire you. Find your sound and go for it. Your peers are your people. Treat them well! Be on time! And if you are lucky, you will get to hire each other for a long time to come.

6. Any resources you recommend? Books, podcasts, recordings that changed your life etc.

I love a book called Free Play by Stephen Nachmanovitch, which is about keeping the spirit of play alive in improvisation. About sixteen years ago, I read a book about women jazz instrumentalists called Madame Jazz: Contemporary Women Instrumentalists by Leslie Gourse, which I found incredibly depressing at the time because the last chapter was all about how it’s close to impossible to maintain a family life while you are on the road. But the first trumpeter I read about was Laurie Frink, and when I saw her name on the list of teachers at Manhattan School of Music, I knew that she should be my teacher. So in a way, that book changed my life. I’d be in Australia teaching high school students had I not read it. I’m a member of the Australian Trumpet Guild and the International Trumpet Guild, and it’s great to read in their publications about women brass players who are doing well. Every little bit of encouragement helps!

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