Ellen Rowe, jazz pianist and composer, is currently Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation at the University of Michigan. She is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music, where she studied with Rayburn Wright and Bill Dobbins. Prior to her appointment in Michigan, she served as Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Connecticut. Her latest project, “Momentum – Portraits of Women In Motion”, featuring Ingrid Jensen, Tia Fuller, Marion Hayden and Allison Miller was released in the January of 2018. Also active as a clinician, she has given workshops and master classes at the Melbourne Conservatory, Hochshule fur Musik in Cologne, Grieg Academy in Bergen and the Royal Academy of Music in London, in addition to many appearances as a guest artist at festivals and Universities around the country.
What are all of the musical activities you do besides teaching?
I have a trio that I play with that has members that rotate in and out depending on availability. I also have a quartet and a quintet with Prof. Bishop, and we have several albums out including “Wishing Well” and “Courage Music”. My latest project is an all-women octet called “Momentum – Portraits of Women In Motion” with an album that was just released last year, and right now I’m trying to get that band booked as much as possible. I compose and I do a fair amount of arranging, so I’ve been doing a lot of commissions for junior high, high school, and college big bands. I have about 7 or 8 pieces published and I’m trying to grow that. I also do a lot of service-type stuff. I coordinate the Sisters in Jazz Collegiate Competition for the Jazz Education Network (JEN), I’m the education chair for International Society of Jazz Arrangers and Composers (ISJAC), and I’m on the board for the Southeastern Michigan Jazz Alliance.
Is that the main way you network?
Yes, especially when I first got out of college because it was a chance to meet people. Now I am involved mostly as a way to do service and help out the organizations.
What extra-musical skills have gotten you to where you are now?
Definitely being organized. Trying to juggle everything is super difficult, as many students know, and things like answering emails can seem trivial but are very important. Very soon after that comes having a sense of humor, and enjoying being around people. We call them “get-along skills” in the Jazz Department.
What was it like being a woman in jazz in your early years of college?
During that time, the awareness level was low, shall we say. I was almost the only woman in the jazz department at Eastman. I didn’t focus on that because I was just trying to do the work, but a lot of issues still came up. I had a graduate assistant director who would be fired today (if you could fire a graduate assistant) for the way he treated me. Issues of sexual harassment. Issues of not being taken seriously. I would be described as having “a lyrical, feminine style of playing,” in a derogatory way. And at the time I thought it was a failing on my part. There was also a time when I discovered I was being paid less than the guys in a band I was working with on the weekends.
Is this what inspired your latest project “Women in Motion”
Partly. The real genesis of the project is that people are always asking me what woman musicians inspire me. The truth is that while there are certainly were a few, it was more the women that I grew up idolizing in sports, politics, social justice, and environmental causes who really had an impact and inspired me to become who I wanted to be. And those women gave me the confidence to pursue what I wanted to do. I always want to pay tribute to the women jazz musicians who came before me, like Marian McPartland and Mary Lou Williams, but in addition there were all of these other women. It was very eye-opening for me to realize I am not who I am just because of women musicians, it’s because of this big, beautiful collection of women who have been powerful and inspiring. One example is Connecticut’s first woman governor, Ella Grasso, whom I campaigned for when I lived there. I look back and it was people like her who really inspired me. Other women I wrote tunes for on the album include First Lady Michele Obama, environmental advocates and animal rights activists Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall, distance runner Joan Benoit Samuelson, jazz pianists Geri Allen and Mary Lou Williams and my mother.
Is this record on a label?
Yes, it’s on Smokin’ Sleddog Records. It’s not a huge label, but they were very enthusiastic about having me and it’s a good partnership. Their main base is folk and blues, so jazz is new to them.
So you are doing a lot of the work yourself getting this music out there?
Yes. It’s a lot of emailing, sometimes cold calling. There seem to be a lot of people who would love to have us but can’t quite afford it. If I had more time I would be writing grants to get some more funding. That’s probably one of the most stressful parts of my life right now; trying to get this band booked.
Did you always want to be an educator or did you want to be a performer? Or both?
Playing music was just always what I did. My parents both went to Juliard. My dad had perfect pitch, and I inherited it from him. He founded the school music program in my hometown. When I was getting ready for college, I knew I was going to go into music and I didn’t really consider doing anything else. I got into Eastman and followed the music education track.
Here’s something I think is important: A therapist once told me that she finds that many women are contingency oriented. For example, once I got into Eastman I followed along the path that was laid out for me. I took my classes and did my student teaching, and I was successful. But I never stopped to consider what it was that I would truly like to be doing, or what my true goals were. I got offers to do certain things and so I agreed to do them. I got offered to go play on a cruise ship, so I did that for a while. Then a part time job offer came up at the University of Connecticut, so I did that. Then my job at Michigan came up, and of course I was thrilled, and now I’m doing this. I’ve been very lucky because I’ve had great jobs and I’ve loved doing them. However, nobody was ever asking me, “what is it that you really want to do,” so I wasn’t asking myself that either. I’m not upset about the way things worked out, but I often wonder how things could have been different if I wasn’t locked into going from one contingency to another. For instance, it might have been amazing to be Joni Mitchell’s music director, for example. That might have truly been a career goal, but I never let myself dream about what my perfect job might entail and believed in myself enough to pursue it. I do look back and wonder why I didn’t ask myself what I truly wanted to do.
So tell us more about your running.
I’ve always been athletic. Around junior or senior year at Eastman I got really into running. I started running 3 or 4 miles at a time, then the mileage just kept increasing. I ran a 10k in grad school. Then when I got to Michigan, a drummer friend Pete Siers convinced me I should train for a marathon. The Detroit Marathon was my first marathon, and I’ve run a lot of marathons including New York, Boston, and Chicago. I also was doing some serious mountain climbing. Then I found trail running which has been the best discovery ever because it combines the two. Trail running is how I found ultra running. I’ve run four 50 milers and two 100Ks. I turned 60 last year so I decided to run a 100K to celebrate that.
It’s beyond fun. I really just try to stay healthy. The discipline aspect involved in running ties right into the discipline it takes to write music or practice. It’s also confidence building. And you’re also out in nature, so it provides incredible perspective.
What advice do you have for students today?
Be versatile. Everyone needs to have as many crayons in their box as they can. Everyone usually has one specialty that they’re drawn to, but in this day and age it’s important to have the flexibility to play or compose different kinds of music. Be entrepreneurial and find skills connected to your art that can provide for you as a viable source of income. I’m seeing people put together really interesting careers doing a variety of activities that might include teaching, singer-songwriter performing, writing music for Japanese anime, writing grants to start a musical collective, creating apps, etc. There’s so many ways to put together a career doing what you love. Finally, it is so important to be healthy. Take care of yourself emotionally and physically. It is critically important to be healthy so that we can express ourselves in a meaningful way and withstand the rigors of teaching, performing and travelling.