"Mastery Over Marketing": An Interview With Patrice Rushen

Patrice Rushen's mix of jazz, R&B, and pop landed her on the pop charts in the late '70s and early '80s, but the classically trained pianist, composer, and arranger used that early success to create all kinds of different music. Taking her cues from Quincy Jones—she met him as a 15-year-old and closely followed his career—she took his encouragement as a "kind of permission to be about the music that you wanted to be about," regardless of what form it takes.

Rushen has been the musical director for tours with artists like Janet Jackson, as well as award shows like the Grammys (three times), the Emmys, and others. She has written and performed symphonies and other classical music works, as well as plenty of jazz, R&B, and other groove-heavy music. Those rhythms, combined with her unique orchestrations, have led her to be a favorite sample source for hip-hop beatmakers and dance producers. (She has been sampled 304 times and counting, according to WhoSampled.com.)

Late last year at the Ableton Loop conference, we met up with Rushen to discuss her history of music-making, why she loves (and fears) being sampled so widely, and the importance of putting your heart and soul into whatever music you create.

What about the piano sonically, aurally is attractive to you? Is it just that you've known it the longest or do you have certain feelings about it?

No, I think I was introduced to that first, in terms of having an actual relationship with an instrument. I like music, and I like a lot of different instruments, but this was the first one I actually had hands on.

What age was that?

Five. And so the more I've played it, the more I understand how it has allowed me to use it as a platform for all the other kinds of things that I like to do musically. Partially because there's a lot there—it's all there. It's easier to be able, for me, visually, to see certain things, and as I got more past the technical aspects of playing and could focus on the ideas, of certain types of timbre and color and things like that, it's been a great tool in that regard for writing, a great tool for interpretation, a great teaching tool, and a great platform for composition.

Is there one approach that you like to go to when you think about writing? Are you going for feelings and you know that there are certain chords and progressions or ideas that give you that?

Well now it just is more of a tool for writing. Now I am at a point where I feel like I write for the instrumentation or the texture of the color that I want to hear. It's more of a guide in terms of pitch or a reference in terms of certain types of things.

There was a time, though—because I played on it a lot and there was a time when there may be a certain type of chord progression or something like that—but I got away from that through the study of orchestration, which I wanted to do. And I did that, kind of ironically. You know, piano is something that when you are learning you play by yourself a lot. And about middle school I kind of rebelled against the idea.

I wanted to play with other people. I wanted a case. The hip kids had a case. You can't carry a piano around [laughs]. But it introduced me to the idea of being able to play with others, and that's when I learned to play flute, because I could be in the orchestra or the band.

Now the idea of music takes on a little bit more like a mass of sound and different kinds of things. All of which are representative of the piano. But instead of having to do everything, you have your one moment, and then the next person has another moment, and blah blah blah. Little by little, when I came back to the piano, in terms of my love of it, I wasn't using it only for the writing—I was using it just as a reference point for what I was hearing.

When was the first time that you kind of really started thinking about orchestration and then thinking about what it meant to write at a piano and the timbre you were looking to get out of the instruments?

I think I was always attracted to the sound of multiple timbre music, multi-timbral music—television and movie themes and all that kind of stuff, and wondering, Who's that? I want to do that. And then playing in small groups, quartets, trios, and things like that—both classical music, jazz, and R&B—hearing parts and [thinking], Oh, the piano isn't playing all the time, but then when they do [sings a short phrase], you know, whatever they're playing. So, starting to hear it, and just increasing my awareness and consciousness about the use of different timbre and color, and having to deal with all the different aspects of it.

Patrice Rushen - "Forget Me Nots"

What's the most important skill that someone should possess who is looking for a career in music?

That's really a great question. I think to develop both your ear and an awareness at least of what it looks like on paper, a certain amount of literacy to be able to use that as a means to communicate faster more complex ideas. That's what the language of the written thing is all about.

It doesn't completely do it, especially for music that we do, modern music and music that now is utilizing as part of that color palette sounds that cannot be described as a flute, a clarinet, a piano—it's [makes a noisy sound] that, you know, and you need to be able to talk about that and where it goes and what it feels like, the texture and stuff.

But I think what it does do when people can hear things and then identify or at least get another person in the neighborhood of what it is they're talking about, it allows for there to be a continuation and sort of an exchange of ideas, as opposed to only one way of thinking. It allows for that collaborative moment, that collaborative communication, to build yet something different than any one of us could have done by ourselves.

And one of the concerns that I have, and one of the reasons that I love teaching so much, is because a lot of young people want to know how we used to do it back in the day. And being able to apply sort of augmented definitions and utilize the color palette that they are accustomed to, but help them understand that—you know, in order to make music there are just certain things that have to be. And to be able to give them that information with which they can use an extended palette of colors and instrumentation possibilities is pretty awesome.

That's very poignant. So speaking of somewhat back in the day but also relevant, your relationship with Quincy Jones—how has that evolved over time?

It started when I was in high school—he used to adjudicate a lot of high school jazz competitions. You know, your jazz band would go and show up and play Battle of Bands or something like that. He was, a lot of times, an adjudicator, and our high school played quite a bit of them. We played a lot a lot a lot, all the time, because you could win stuff—you'd win a trumpet, you'd win a kick drum—and we needed stuff. So we did a lot of them, and it was exposure for us as well, and he kept seeing me at these different things. They would write you up occasionally. They'd say, "Oh, I really liked the solo of such and such player" and so on.

Patrice Rushen

So one day, he just asked on one of these adjudication sheets to see me. I think the band had played an arrangement of mine. I think it was an arrangement of like, "Watermelon Man," the Herbie Hancock tune. And he asked, "I'd like to talk to Patrice for a few minutes after." And I'm , "OK." So we talked, and he said, "What do you want to do?" I said, "Oh, I want to write"—that's really where I was going with this. I thought I wanted to do music for film and television.

He was shocked and he says, "Oh you are going to have to be really, really good." And I'm looking at him like, "Yeah, why wouldn't I want to be really good?" Well, there was so much more he was saying— at 15, it just went right over my head—but it did stay with me, and the encouragement I got from him was not direct. It was in the form of "Quincy told me to call you" or "Quincy told me about you"—it was always at an arm's length. It wasn't directly from him, but it was him talking about me to someone. And that continued for years. I mean, I really didn't have the one-on-one sit down with him for a really long time, and yet I kept hearing about "Oh, Quincy told me to tell you" this or that.

Following his music, it was also like being given this certain kind of permission to be about the music that you wanted to be about. Don't let the categories define your pursuit of music making and your voice or multiple voices of expression to that. The common denominator is to just be true and to be excellent.

The diversification of the kinds of musics that he has touched over the years, and just following that as an idea of what it feels like to be able to do that, just seemed to me to be amazing. That's what I want. So that's the kind of influence that he's had on me for years.

What were some of the highlights of musically directing the 1993 Janet Jackson world tour?

I think the biggest one was just that it was the most massive production, where there was just a lot of stuff to have to do in every area. Choreographers were busy, the people making costumes were busy, and then musically, and just corralling how we were going to get all of that done in a capacity where you know that it's all arenas and all big places. Expectations are really high, and everybody is on edge, and you know you got a lot to do.

What I enjoyed most about it was in sitting down, kind of deconstructing the music so that it would be able to be realized and played live, where, at that time anyway, it wasn't totally dependent on having everything running in Pro Tools. I liked the idea of the band being integrated in such a way that you know that energy is there, that experiential aspect of a concert is still there, even though a lot of it is where, obviously, a show that big is massively preprogrammed and things like that.

Speaking on a different kind of note, your times at the Mancini Institute—what were some of the things that you enjoyed about that?

Just the whole thought about being involved in something that again—Henry Mancini—big, big influence on me, just in terms of the different types of music and the permission to just go for it. So one year they played a movement of a symphony of mine. Another year I played in one of the concerts. And George Duke was artistic director for a little while, and he was a friend, so a lot of times we could talk about it.

And having music that was with a larger ensemble or orchestra, but that whose focus was to be able to play music that was not just classical music, but to put on the quote-unquote legitimate concert stage large forms or larger works in an orchestral context that weren't strictly [classical]. You could do a pop or a jazz thing or whatever and have access.

Patrice Rushen, Wayne Shorter, and Carlos Santana - "Shhh," live at Montreux 1988

What are your feelings about the immense amount of sampling of your work?

I'm really happy about that [laughs]. I mean, I'm happy about it from this standpoint: Certainly everybody—I think composers and songwriters—we want our music heard, and you certainly would like it heard for a long time. If other people find it of value decades later, that's awesome. You're on your way to the same kind of pleasure that would come from someone doing anything else that you've done, hearing it over and over, and in slightly different contexts. Different generations. It's very, very cool.

If there is a down side, it is now—away from what it does for me—it is the realization that there are some people who don't know how to do that. Sometimes sampling is because they really, really like it, and they are not recreating it. It is what it is and they are using that. And sometimes it is a situation where they can't recreate it or find something that is like that on their terms that maybe could have that same kind of value.

I had this conversation last night. We had one of the discussions at [the Ableton conference] Loop, where the writers brought material in. One of the questions I asked—and I don't have an answer to it—but I laid this on them for us to think about as creatives. Most of us do this because we would like for someone else to enjoy it. It's not just a process for us. We're kind of doing it because it gives us a certain amount of pleasure or joy, and it's kind of cool if somebody else can relate to that. But then we have to ask ourselves: Are we doing something that would be worthy of, five years from now, somebody building on that?

We are all building on the work of other people whose process was similar, who may have a different set of tools, but whose level of mastery of something allowed for something to happen that we are now building on. Are we doing that? Or are we just hunt-and-peck, cut-and-paste, press play?

Patrice Rushen and Leon "Ndugu" Chancler

I mean, that's a great question to ask.

That was it. There's a down side and an upside. Upside: Anybody can make music and have access to some amazing stuff. But is music making solely just the act of organizing those frequencies and just putting them out there, or is it the act of them also being organized in terms of a thought, a feeling, a point of view, or an expression? And how much of that is getting—I won't say lost, but perhaps deemphasized—as it becomes so easy for us to just pull the menu down, hit it, and go.

How does your participation at an event like Loop have an impact to the creative world?

I think it gives a platform for a different take, for different people, for different sides of the same subject. The subject is music—and the subject is creativity, using our common language and our common love of music as the platform for that communication, for that expression—and people have different ways in which they address it. To have an event like this gives us all an opportunity to be able to talk about it. Not from a judgmental standpoint, strictly a communication about different kinds of processes to arrive at something that is bigger than yourself.

So I noticed recently you had done something with Joey Negro a couple weeks ago that came out on his label.

Oh, it did? It came out? I didn't know. This is news. What did I do? [Laughs]

He had done a mix of an older single. It makes me wonder: Are you done with dance music? Are you done with R&B?

I don't know. I mean I may be done from the standpoint of the way that I was in it before, as a participant, in terms of being on the label and putting stuff out on a regular basis like that for that particular purpose. Now, that doesn't mean I won't put something out. But then I had to put something out. You're obligated to put something out, and I enjoyed it—it was really, really great. The whole thing: the touring, the playing, the performing, and all of that. There are parts of that that I still do get to do, so I never really know.

But I mean other people, like in this situation, asked me to be involved, to do something, to use some of my music to be able to do something. So I am not by any means out of it, but in terms of my current passion, that's not it—to make things to put out there—that is not my current passion. That's not to say I don't love it. It's just not my current passion.

Patrice Rushen

What is your current passion?

Man, I've had such an amazing and varied musical career that has allowed me to work with the best of the best and just about every genre, or at least come in contact with what people do because of being in it, and invited to attend certain kinds of things, or see different kinds of thing—from live to the studio to television to movies to large form symphonic music and ballets—and all these different aspects of the music that I have been allowed to participate in and to touch. From a performer's point of view, from a music director's point of view, from a producer's point of view, and all this stuff, and, man, what am I supposed to do with all this information?

So being able now to be part of things that allow for me to contribute to an organized way for young people to be able to take that information, learn certain things that build on their innate talents, and learn skills that can give them different points of view and different points of entry to their dream—it's kind of cool. And I'm kind of digging that right now.

It's creative, because it's different to be part of that. It's challenging, because I know the impact that it had on me for people to sit down and show me something or talk to me about stuff. I've already begun to see its effect on another generation of performers. And having information is very valuable, especially when it's coming from people who lived that. They are not transplants from somewhere else telling you stuff. No, this is what we did, this is how we did it, this is what you need to know and blah blah blah. And being part of something like that feels very exciting right now.

Where do you teach?

I am the chair of the popular music program at USC, University of Southern California. I've been there 10 years. And I am also an ambassador for artistry and education at Berklee College. So the idea of being able to take what I have done and what I've learned and be allowed to participate in, with support, developing curriculum for the contemporary music side in this area and use all the resources is kind of cool.

Interview for USC Thornton School of Music, where Rushen chairs the popular music program

I think I read something a while back. Didn't Kashif have a little bit of a part at USC, or was it UCLA? He participated early on in a popular music program.

I don't know. It wasn't USC, but he participated early on. We were contemporaries, and so our generation was particularly fortunate that so much of the tradition of the popular music area was stuff that we saw or learned from some of the architects of it.

We also had this background in other musics that were the influencers of what became the popular music. All of us had certain parts of the jazz tradition that was part of what we did, and most of us had also gone to college. So the idea of something being organized as far as the curriculum and stuff wasn't foreign to us, while they didn't talk about what we wanted them to talk about, we still did go through a disciplined, organized study to be able to able to converse about the music that we liked on a level where we could do it academically.

That was who we were, that is who we are, and I think that's why so many of us now really do enjoy the idea of clinics and workshops and teaching. Because we remember what we hated about it [laughs]—so let's take that out of it and let's put in it what we know are the most important things and what really can work.

What does it mean to be a contemporary musician in the world today?

I don't know that that definition has really changed in terms of why people choose to be in music. They say music kind of chooses you or art chooses you. You think about all the kinds of things that there are to do in the world, the kinds of work and time you put in, and the practice and hours and all the kinds of stuff that happens before anybody is happy about it other than you [laughs]—that's a long time. That's a lot to ask of anyone. And you can say that about all the arts.

Patrice Rushen

But particularly coming from the area of music, there has to be that love of it, where it just resonates with your truth so much that you know that that's going to be the best platform for your contribution, that you're making a dent in the fact that you were here. You got to really love it, and I don't know that that's changed.

What may have been altered is that—what has maybe gotten away from us—is that there is a part of that that is in service to something bigger. Music has this very important healing power and it's very, very influential, and it's super powerful, and since most people have some kind of relationship with music one way or another—whether as a consumer or as a practitioner—everybody thinks they know everything about music. It's that powerful.

So I think that one of the things that's important is that we still tip our hat to mastery over marketing. And in so doing I'm not downplaying marketing, because. especially today, you have to let people know what you are doing and find a way to get it out there. But we also need to be conscious about what we do in front of them. Because music is that powerful.

So I would emphasize that it's important to kind of keep evaluating why you're doing what you're doing. It will keep you on a path of being a little less self indulgent and a little bit more conscious of what it is that you're doing if you keep saying, Why am I doing this and what am I doing this for?

If your answers start to be away from the love of it, if they start to look like "Because I want to be famous." If it starts to seem like "Because this sounds good to me" or "This is glamorous to me" or "This is something that I feel like is cool," and it sounds more like that than it does "Because I love it," "Because I have to," "Because this is the way I express myself," "Because this brings me a certain amount of joy," or "This gives me a certain means by which I communicate my feelings and resonate with my fellow man."

If your answers start to look more like the other thing, then you're getting away from the foundation of what music is about. And that hasn't changed. From one generation, from one decade, from one century to another—that part, why you do it—that hasn't changed.

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