By Fiona Ross
When I first started thinking about writing this article, I was going through words in my mind that would best describe Camille Thurman to you. Strong, fierce, humble, talented, beautiful, kind, generous – all of these words immediately came into my head. She is all of those things and more. You don’t often come across people like this, especially in the music industry. Talented people, yes, but people whose experiences have shaped them into artists that truly give back – and mean it – are rare. The challenges Camille has faced and the barriers she has broken down are significant. Community music programs were cut when she was just starting out as a child. She was laughed at during her training. She had to fight to have her voice heard and felt she had no safe space to learn. What she has achieved cannot be underestimated. She was the first woman to work an entire season with Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and is now on her second season. She has worked with artists including Chaka Kahn, Alicia Keyes, Harry Connick, Jr. and Louis Hayes. Al Jarreau famously said he was scared of her scatting. I could go on. She is an absolute force to be reckoned with. A legend developing before our very eyes.
I spent some time talking to Camille a little while ago and we discussed her incredible career and what she felt was missing from her educational experience – and what was present. It really affected me when she said she felt she had no space to learn. But, thankfully, she found her inner fierce and developed into an incredible role model for so many people. Many young musicians go to her for advice and guidance and we discussed Jazz education and what advice she gives young musicians.
‘How do you expect young people to be excited about this music if they can’t even access it? Jazz education has come a long way but the funny irony I think, is there was a time when it didn’t exist in an institution you learned it by going into that world and figuring it out. Learning how to sink or swim, and that was the school – going to hear people, watching their every move, seeing how they not just perform but how they interact with the audience how they pick their tunes, how do they arrange, how is one night different to the next whereas today we’ve kind of truncated it to ok, maybe spin the recording but there is a whole history behind that – why does that person sound like that? This was a culture, this was a language you were immersing yourself into this world and you try to teach kids how to play but yes, I teach them to be in touch with their world first. They don't know that world.
I always say find mentors – find people you admire. For me I admire how Ella and Sarah looked because a lot of time in entertainment, I didn’t see a lot of women that looked like me. When I saw pictures of Ella, I was like wow, she’s so beautiful. This is how I want to strive to present myself. She looks elegant and she shows me that you can be elegant and beautiful and have beautiful chocolate skin too, and even for me playing saxophone - you can sound amazing and be a woman. It made an impression in my mind as something to strive for. So, find those people that you admire, find those people you would like to get to know and the internet is great now because you have access to everybody. So, if there is somebody you really admire – ask questions – always ask questions. And sometimes, they might actually take you under their wing. Also try to listen to as much as you can, try to read as much as you can especially about the music, the history, the culture, because if you think about it from the standpoint of it being an ongoing thing, it will kind of give you ideas on how you fit in the picture. A lot of times you look at this music and if you want to be part of this music you are part of a continuum. So, find ways to support yourself with that knowledge with that information so that you can have something to identify yourself with.’
Well, Camille goes so much further than giving advice and I wanted to explore an example of the huge love and generosity Camille has and how she is always giving something back, supporting and helping. Launched at the end of May this year, Camille created an inspiring mentoring program for female musicians called ‘the Haven Hang’. Live streamed Q&A sessions happen every month to support young women musicians, who she refers to as lionesses, with an overwhelming group of guests – and I do mean overwhelming. The purpose of these sessions are:
‘to mentor, share advice and support young women pursuing careers in music and the performing arts. Topics discussed include advice on making a career in the arts (and being a woman), self-esteem, confidence, musical/personal development, strengthening your skill, how to study, navigating life as a musician and much more’
I attended these sessions and was completely blown away – and in fact, I was in tears by the end of several of these sessions. There are two sessions that I would like to highlight. The second session of the series focused on ‘Trusting Your Intuition and Managing the Comfortability of Resistance as an Artist’ and had a stunning line up of guests that inspired and empowered. The atmosphere was warm, inviting and the generosity of all of those involved, breath-taking.
Angelika Beener, the award-winning Journalist, Writer, Film Producer & DJ joined the event. Her achievements are inspiring, and she creates work that allow people to actually think about Jazz, race, gender and social activism. Angelika thanks Camille for organizing the session ‘Thank you Camille for this moment, in a time when we can all do with some serious healing and grounding and connectedness and when everyone can do with some serious healing’ Angelika then talks to us about her passion for writing and how it was always connected with music, from stories of her family losing cabaret cards and the impact of racism on artists and their ability to work, was all very apparent to her from the beginning. She told us about a time when she was working for a record label. She attended a meeting when a Monk & Coltrane album had just been released and the sales had surpassed a major pop artist. She explains that staff members referred to these giants as ‘two dead guys’. She realised at this point that the record industry was not for her and that she couldn’t deal with that level of disrespect – ‘they were profiting off the blood, sweat and tears of my ancestors and being reduced to two dead guys in a meeting’ This inspired Angelika to use her platform ‘to write from a prospective that was black, from a woman and remind people that this music is inextricably tied to our experience, our struggle, our joy, our oppression, our perseverance – all of it’
Also, joining this session was Melanie Scholtz, the South African born, award-winning Jazz singer and composer and had been working on a project ‘Freedom’s child’ with 91-year-old iconic poet Dr James Matthews. He was at the forefront of South African political poetry and in fact some of his work was banned in South Africa in 1974:
I scorn the arrows of marginalization showered upon
of the blacker-than-thou
arrogance displayed by the
proudly, I accept my beginning born of
I am a reflection of the colours of the
Melanie tells us of her experience as a South African woman, exploring her creativity and tells us to ‘go and search for things that will enlighten and awaken your spirit and reclaim your space. Especially in African culture, as women, we are told to know our place…when we walk into a space, we have a lineage of people walking with us’
I have never been in a room filled with so much inspiration, wisdom, understanding and warmth. Camille brought together a simply astounding group of women and the words they shared with us all, invaluable.
The other session I wanted to briefly talk about, was with the special guest Dee Dee Bridgewater. Oh my. Camille has met and been mentored by some outstanding musicians over the years and one of those is the legend that is Dee Dee Bridgewater. Camille met Dee Dee Bridgewater through another legend Maxine Gordon and in fact, I first heard of Camille, when Maxine Gordon suggested I listen to her work. I asked Camille how she managed to get two absolute legends in her corner.
‘I met Maxine 2/3 years ago through a friend of mine who was working with Louis Hayes and Maxine managed Louise Hayes. - my friend was saying you have got to meet Maxine! I was a huge Dexter fanatic. I came to see them perform and I sat in with them and played and sang, so I met her there and then I also met her again at a gig honoring Ella. Afterwards she said she remembered me from sitting in with Louis and she introduced herself, and I was like oh my god! We kind of stayed in touch here and there, but then she ended up inviting me to sing to Louis Hayes for his birthday and Dee Dee was there – her and Dee Dee are really close. I guess I did a good job because afterwards Dee Dee said, man what you did was so beautiful, what you did with Horace… and she was like yes, I knew Horace too …Afterwards everyone was ready to go home and I asked her if she had a ride home and I took her home. She was like are you ok? Are the guys treating you good? I was like, yes, I’m ok and I think, there was this article talking about sexual harassment that had just come out and Maxine and Dee Dee just came to me and they were like ‘look, we are both looking out for you out here, ok? We’re making this pact tonight. Remember this night. Dee and I, we have your back and whatever you are trying to do with your career, you got us in your corner’
Dee Dee Bridgewater’s presence at Camille’s Haven Hang, was so many things and I could easily write an entire article just on that. Her words brought so much to the table. Her energy brought excitement and belief in possibility. Her strength made you realize how hard you need to work in the industry and how much respect you need to have for yourself and your legacy. Her fierceness was contagious and helped you believe you could achieve anything, with hard work and the right attitude.
‘The better armed we as women, the stronger we can present ourselves. So if you don’t come into the situation with knowledge from your own personal research , you are not going to get the respect that you want… you are the one that owns your space, nobody can take that from you unless you give it up. As sure as I am sitting here in front of you, with this name, Dee Dee Bridgewater, I have worked my ass off to get to this point’
Camille is the role model so many young musicians need and deserve, and it is an honour to share some of her work with you all.
About Fiona Ross