Renee Rosnes: Although not musicians themselves, my parents loved music and wanted their three daughters to take music lessons. For me, that meant
the piano, beginning at age 3, and violin as well at age 5. Throughout elementary and high school, I studied both instruments with classical teachers who taught through the Canadian Royal Conservatory of Music system. As a violinist, I was a member of the Vancouver Youth Symphony, and as a pianist, I competed in many local piano competitions and festivals.
VOJ: How did you get into jazz? Who were some of your earliest influences?
Renee Rosnes: I first heard jazz when my high school band director, Bob Rebagliati asked if I would be interested in joining the school’s big band, known then as a “stage band.” I had never heard jazz music prior to that. It turns out I was very lucky, as “Reb” was, and still is, a very knowledgeable and passionate teacher. Quite soon, after starting to learn how to play jazz, I discovered that I was really intrigued with improvisation and how it all came together. To help me out, Reb gave me lots of recordings to take home to study and listen to. These included albums by wide range of artists and styles: Oscar Peterson, the Count Basie Big Band, Lee Morgan, Herbie Hancock, The Singers Unlimited, Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner, Jean-Luc Ponty, and Ella Fitzgerald, to name a few.
VOJ: What was it about jazz that drew you to it, and what about it keeps you interested?
Renee Rosnes: All music is a global language, and it connects people. I know how fortunate I am to travel the world doing what I love – hopefully bringing some happiness to people. I love the spontaneity of improvisation, and how the conversation changes from night to night, performance to performance. The emotional palette is endless, and the process of learning remains exciting – and exploring the possibilities never gets old.
VOJ: What was the motivation behind your moving to NYC? What was that experience like?
Renee Rosnes: I was able to move to New York City from Vancouver, B.C. through a generous grant from the Canadian Council of the Arts. My intention was to study and live there for the period of a year and then move back home. I took lessons, went out to the clubs, jammed and rehearsed with lots of different new friends, and practiced a lot. I even did some playing with a quartet on the streets in Manhattan, toting an electric piano and small amp on the subway. One of my first NY gigs was to become the pianist for the nightly after hours jam at the Blue Note Club in the Village. This was a great, because I could get into the club early to hear whoever was performing that night. On a regular basis, I was able to hear many of the greatest artists, which made a big impact on me. I remember hearing Sarah Vaughan, Hank Jones, Freddie Hubbard, Ray Brown, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Dave Brubeck, Wayne Shorter, Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones…I could go on. It was wonderful to hear and see them perform in such an intimate setting.
VOJ: How did your gig with Joe Henderson come about? Could you say a few words about working with Joe?
Renee Rosnes: In 1987, shortly after I moved from Vancouver to New York, Joe hired me to play with his quartet. He simply called me up one day, and said he had a tour coming up and asked if I’d like to join him. We began a musical relationship that lasted until he was no longer able to play due to his illness. I had the great fortune to play with him in many contexts, with a wide variety of rhythm sections including such players as Larry Grenadier, Al Foster, Billy Drummond, Cindy Blackman, Sylvia Cuenca, Tony Dumas, Charlie Haden, Marlene Rosenberg, George Mraz and others. I was consistently awed by Joe’s incredible artistry. From night to night, he played with such joy and command, and he inspired the same from his band mates. He used to say, “Heaven is on the bandstand,” and could often be found looking skyward with his hands in a prayer-like stance as he listened to the sounds around him. It was almost as if he was summoning the muses. I have so many cherished memories of playing with him.
VOJ: You’ve worked with a variety of great musicians, but some notable ones include Wayne Shorter, JJ Johnson, Bobby Hutcherson, and James Moody. What do you think has enabled you to play with such a wide variety of musicians? Is versatility something you’ve consciously thought about?
Renee Rosnes: I never gave much conscious thought to being versatile. I think my versatility comes from my genuine love of music, as well as doing the homework necessary to play well in any given context. It’s important to be as prepared as possible. Regarding the masters you mentioned, I’d been studying their music for many years before I had the opportunity to play with them. I feel like my “job” in a rhythm section is not only to support the soloist but to elevate the whole sound of the band. There’s no one way to make that happen…except to always be listening to what’s going on and contributing in service of the music, without ego.
VOJ: What are your feelings on the current state of the music, and where it’s headed?
Renee Rosnes: I think jazz will continue to expand and develop in a variety of directions, especially with the heightened influences of various ethnic and global music. It’s an art form that may never be celebrated by the masses, but there will always be those who seek a listening experience of depth, and with humanity at it’s core, so I believe it will be around for centuries to come.
VOJ: Any words of advice for a young musician who may be wanting to pursue a career in jazz?
Renee Rosnes: If you’ve decided that being a creative artist is what you are most passionate about and is the direction you must pursue in life, then:
listen and study with awareness, practice (and practice what you can’t do, not only what you can), play as much as possible, be as prepared as you can for eventual opportunities, don’t forget that you’re playing for an audience (not just for each other), be on time, and have the courage to be yourself. There’s also this bit of enlightenment from Bobby Hutcherson who once said that no matter how accomplished a musician might be, if he (or she) wasn’t a “nice person” – then he wasn’t interested in making music with them.