By PHILO COHEN Photography NATHALIE YANG
I really wanted to include Alyssa for this series because I always wondered how she would describe her practice, her routine, and her environment. She is the only girl friend I have from the people I know at the New School for Jazz in New York City. When I met her, I noticed her joie de vivre and energy. She seemed to be constantly motivated and very self driven. Today, she is playing in New York -including one show at Cornelia St Café this week- and is about to put out her first EP.
As she is surrounded by men at the school she chose to attend, I wanted to find out about her way to navigate that scene. Alyssa opened to me upon her childhood, and how she got into the genre of jazz, as well as what came with it. A deep reflection on freedom in work, and independence of thought.
Philo Cohen: How did your interest in jazz come about?
Alyssa McDoom: I had been singing since I was 10. I did musical theater and sang casually, I was very much into pop music. I am Caribbean and was raised around reggae music so I had never really heard jazz before, I did not even know it was a thing. [laughs] My sophomore year of high school, I did a summer program in which everyone was playing jazz. I thought it was so cool and way more advanced than anything I had ever listened to. I went back home as a Junior in high school and started trying to learn all the harmony and music theory I could and auditioned for a bunch of jazz programs I had heard about, and I just got in somehow. That is where I was thrown into jazz, really fast. I was introduced to it, and suddenly became a jazz singer.
PC: You never looked back?
AMD: Well now I am taking a step back, because I was thrown into it so fast. The couple first years were so intense, I was learning so much, and trying to keep up with my peers that had been playing this music way longer than I had. It was really hard. Now, I am seeing all this from a different perspective. I know a lot more now theoretically which allows me to find freedom in what I do. I try to mainly focus on what I always found I liked in music.
PC: You are attending The New School for Jazz. It is one of the most classic and rigorous music school in this city. Do you believe that a strict curriculum is necessary in order to find this freedom?
AMD: I think it depends. When I applied to college, I was apprehensive and questioned if I was committed to jazz enough to make it the focus in my career. Above everything, I connected most with writing music. I chose New School because I knew that the students who went there were doing their own thing. Music schools, and conservatories, especially when they are strict, can try to force you to focus on things they feel is best for you. And what someone else thinks is best for you, may really not be the best especially when it comes to your art. They often want to choose for you, the path that you should be going on. But I realized that this is the time in my life and career where it is the most important to discover on my own. I wanted to go to a music school where I would not have to fight for my own future.
PC: Talking about fighting for your own future, and because you jumped into it so fast, did you know how male dominated jazz was?
AMD: Well, yeah I did. [laughs] When I did that first Grammy thing, I was in awe. The musicians I was meeting were some of the top in the country at our age, and they were extremely talented and all had huge knowledge of music. These musicians were pretty much all males and they were extremely intimidating. They were constantly challenging the singers/females in the group to show how much more they knew and how much better they were. It was my first time being in an environment with jazz musicians, and I quickly figured out how degrading the scene was to singers, and to girls. Singers are the dumb people in music.
PC: I find this last sentence pretty crazy. The fact that singers are considered the “dumb people” in music while most vocalists I know at Jazz are women.
AMD: Jazz is such a difficult, and old school genre. Most artists spend their whole life trying to master it, and it takes a lot of dedication and practice to be able to do it well. When you are a singer, you naturally don't have to practice as much as an instrumentalist because singing is something that you can do naturally whereas instrumentalists need to spend time learning the instrument. So because of that, singers have to constantly be proving themselves to be more than this generalization that they don't know anything. And sadly over the years being a singer has somehow become simultaneous with being a female. If you're a woman pursuing music, it is assumed that you sing. So female instrumentalists have it a lot harder being the small minority within this genre. But I guess that is the bottom line of everything .The standards are so much higher for women in our society.
PC: When you talk about the first time that you encountered this patriarchal climate at the Grammy competition, it seems like it was quite shocking to you. Did you grow up in an equal atmosphere?
AMD: I was born in a suburb in Florida. Growing up in a town where I was really the only Black girl, made me recognize early on that I was unlike my peers. Because of my differences, I never truly fit in. But, I never let this difference affect me negatively. I was raised around a huge family, and they were all so proud of where they came from. They taught me how to be proud of who I was, that my differences made me special. They always pushed me and inspired me to challenge myself. When I found music, I was totally okay with being different.
PC: How did that feeling of difference changed when you moved to New York City?
AMD: Doing all these music programs in high school had already taught me how people from other states were so much more open minded than the ones from my town. Arriving here, it was an extremely different lifestyle than the one I was accustomed to , but it felt really good to be in a place like New York where there is so much diversity and people are so accepting and open to other opinions and lifestyles.
PC: I feel this eagerness for diversity when I listen to your music. There is a diversity in instruments, in vocals, or in sound effects. How did this new lifestyle you encountered when moving here influenced your creative process?
AMD: My creative process completely changed. I learn all of what I know from my friends, from the people that I work with. When I moved here, I met people who were thinking about and analyzing music on such a deep level. While living here I came to realize that thinking only technically was a shallow/surface level way of approaching music and art, that there is so much more to think about other than technique which is what I only thought about for so long. Music is so much deeper than trying to be the perfect singer with the perfect technique and that was the problem I ran into studying music in an institution. Now when I make music I think about elements of my music that I would have never even considered if I had never moved here. The options you have when creating are endless, and that is what I am exploring while I have been recording my first body of music here.