For the first time, Jazz Right Now is featuring an artist who does not explicitly create music or sound, but one who choreographs some of her dance to jazz and especially to free improvisation. Dancer Jinah Parker, who began dancing in her home of Buffalo, NY, at the age of four, trained at University of Buffalo and New York University, and is presently a member of Alpha Omega Theatrical Dance Company and Annabella Gonzalez Dance Theater. Most recently, Parker put on a stunning performance in concert with the William Hooker Trio at Firehouse Space on October 3. Parker has been collaborating with Hooker over the past year in a project titled Evidence: The Baldwin Suite, among others. On November 30, she is showcasing three of her works titled, “Statement Pieces” at Dixon Place:
I had the opportunity to speak with Jinah Parker about her work and how it relates to and has been inspired by jazz and free improvisation.
Cisco Bradley: What was your first experience with jazz or improvised music?
Jinah Parker: I have always loved jazz. I was introduced to it by my parents, specifically my dad. I grew up in a house where music always seemed to be in the background. When my dad did work at his desk, cooked, or cleaned alone there was the blues, rock, or funk. And for my mom there was the iconic music of Motown. And those special times when my parents cooked dinner together there was always jazz playing. I loved it! It was a kitchen that smelled good and sounded good at the same time. It created a warmth that I grew to love and understand more and more as I grew older. I would describe jazz as warm music. It gets in my bones and makes my soul feel good. When I was in college I would listen to jazz on the radio and come home playing jazz artists and I would hear my dad say, “How do you know about that?” ……. Well needless to say a large seed was planted. I cannot remember my first experience with improvised music however I do recall seeing a lot of live music especially in college and I’m almost positive many of the bands/ensembles would vamp and do some improvising.
Cisco Bradley: What jazz artists have you found to be most inspiring?
Jinah Parker: Wayne Shorter – I have set work to his music several time (most recently to “Time of the Barracuda”); Max Roach – have also used on several occasion. The reason is, when I hear these artists I immediately see movement. Vocal jazz- Sarah Vaughan
Cisco Bradley: How did you train as a dancer?
Jinah Parker: I started dancing when I was four. My mother says that I used to make up dances and sit on her lap to watch full dance productions, films, and TV shows. My mom once told me that she prayed for a daughter that danced and her prayer was answered. My parents put me into ballet and tap lessons when I was four. I was a shy kid but had a burning desire inside to be free. Dance had been my vehicle of freedom and continues to be. For years I only took ballet and tap. I’m not sure why I wasn’t in other genres but nevertheless I was happy to be dancing. In addition to outside classes during the week and sometimes weekends I also danced at school. It was my favorite class outside of math and I wished we had it everyday. I went to the University of Buffalo for undergrad and majored in dance. They had a relatively diverse curriculum that included ballet, modern, jazz, tap, and musical theater dance. There are not many schools that I know of that offer all of these forms equally. There tends to be more of a concentration on ballet and modern (at least when I was in school). At the end of my Senior year in college I auditioned for Dayton Contemporary Dance Company (well known in the dance world) and got into their 2nd company. It was my first job out of college and a multi-angled learning experience. As I worked with more companies and choreographers I grew and continue to grow now. The journey of learning is a continuous one and I welcome it.
Cisco Bradley: When did you first begin doing dance performance to live music and jazz/improvised music in particular?
Jinah Parker: My first performance with jazz was in college, I believe my Junior year. We were given an assignment to choreograph a jazz dance to jazz music since jazz dance originally came from jazz music. We had to purchase a double set CD of classic jazz. I remember many of my classmates hating the assignment, but I was thrilled. Much of my current choreography is set to jazz. We just mesh well together. While I have performed with a live band on several occasions through the companies and shows I have been a part of, October 3, 2015 was the first time I have ever performed with a band improvising.
When William [Hooker] asked me I was delighted then I realized, “Yicks this is going to be different….” Never have I gone on stage completely unscripted. I had not heard the music and I did not have a choreographed dance or phrases. This was truly art being made in the moment. I loved it, it challenged me to be free! One of my greatest desires is to become completely free and to use my art as my vehicle to get there. This is one of the reasons I admire Bell Hooks so much… She is a black woman who is the epitome of what it means to be fearless … To be free!
Cisco Bradley: What are the challenges of being free? And what does that freedom mean to you as a person and as an artist?
Jinah Parker: The challenge in working with William the first time was simply working with the unfamiliar. However, it was fun. I love trying new things and I enjoy a healthy challenge.
The challenge with being free:
1) being willing to take a risk and being brave enough to defend it.
2) being strong and confident enough to love yourself, your creation and your art
3) rejecting the norms and being okay with the consequences
As a person and as an artist I would love to say I have achieved all of the above but I am still working towards them. I would love to say I have reached the point where the views of others do not affect me but I would be lying. I certainly love myself and am willing to take risk but I question the consequences of rejecting the norms. I am however willing to stand by my art. I will tell you when I love it, when I feel it’s incomplete or when I dislike it.
This quote sums it up nicely:
“I am passionate about everything in my life–first and foremost, passionate about ideas. And that’s a dangerous person to be in this society, not just because I’m a woman, but because it’s such a fundamentally anti-intellectual, anti-critical thinking society.” — Bell Hooks
Cisco Bradley: Have you incorporated themes of her writing about structural violence against women, people of color, and her critiques of capitalism into your performance work? Or is her inspiration more as a trailblazer?
Jinah Parker: No, I have not incorporated her themes into my choreographic work as of yet. It would be in interesting project though. I have used her thoughts on education in my teaching philosophy. She is honest and that is an inspiration.
Cisco Bradley: What would you say are the main meeting points between jazz/improvised music and free form dance? Why does that appeal to you as a dancer?
Jinah Parker: Jazz dance originally came from jazz music. The music informs the dance. Both are heavenly based on the use of improvisation, call and response, syncopation and poly-rhythms. Both have a strong rhythmic structure. I did this performance to try something new and to be challenged.
Cisco Bradley: In your experience, what impact has jazz dance had on jazz music?
Jinah Parker: Ummm that’s a tough one …. In terms of improvisation specifically with William and the trio, I am not sure but I might say that my movement may have influenced where they went with their music. I would like to believe that we were all working/vibing together. Feeding off of each other similar to how the performer feeds off of the audiences’ energy. We might have been creating accents in the music together.
Cisco Bradley: How did you first begin to work with William Hooker? What challenges have you had to overcome in bringing free jazz and dance together in your collaborations?
Jinah Parker: I met William last February while working on a project called Evidence: The Baldwin Suite. This is a multi-genera project exploring the writings of James Baldwin. He and Juan Micheal Porter II (choreographer) created the project and brought me on as the female dancer representing all women. It was an interesting project. Even though we had set the work in rehearsal and dress rehearsal when we got on stage the show seemed completely different. The choreography was the same but that was about it. I recall coming off stage after a solo and saying to myself …. “Where are we in the show?” I didn’t recognize the music. (I’m literally chuckling as I recall this) This was the “challenge” – the music. William’s music. It didn’t sound like it did before. I was not accustomed to working with “free jazz” musicians. Never the less I was hired to dance and perform so that’s what I did. However knowing that there was a possibility to work on this project again I wanted to understand William’s music so I did some research on free jazz and went to see one of William’s shows. It was then that I started to understand his music.
Cisco Bradley: Could you talk about the dance elements of Hooker’s Baldwin Suite? Did you look to Baldwin’s writings when choreographing for the piece?
Jinah Parker: I did not choreograph the first run of the Baldwin project. I was hired as the only female dancer. Once the former choreographer moved on William brought me on as the new choreographer. The show is currently in incubation. But yes I have read and continue to read the work of James Baldwin. As a dancer in the show I wanted to be able to understand their vision as it connected to Baldwin so I could emotionally connect to the work. An emotional connection is key for me.
Cisco Bradley: What other music-related projects have you been involved with as a dancer?
Jinah Parker: I am currently working on a huge project entitled “Statement Pieces.” This is a full evening of my choreographic work. I am fortunate to have been chosen out of a pool of artists to be presented by Dixon Place and I couldn’t be more excited. They are known for supporting the creative process and presenting original work. Something that I love about them is that they encourage the artist to take risks and I’m all about risk taking so it’s a wonderful fit. The suite involves three works that explore universal themes including privilege, self- hate, anxiety, and depression but ultimately look to love as a foundation. I am using a wide variety of music which includes jazz. The other genres include classical, rock, and soul. The music along with the show is pretty eclectic.
Cisco Bradley: What is your thought process when improvising as a dancer? Have you found there to be a common improvisational vocabulary between dance and free jazz?
Jinah Parker: My thought process was to take a deep breath and trust myself. I thought about going in with some phrase work but that would have taken some of the challenge and therefore some of the trill out of the performance. I trusted my years of dancing and trusted my ear. I allowed the music to tell me where to move, how to move, and who to be in the moment. I love working with a story even during improvisation. I work best with a narrative of some sort. It’s something to motivate movement in addition to the music. I allowed the music to inform my narrative on the spot. Based on the tone of the music and how it made me feel I spontaneously generated a story for myself. I would imagine something similar must happen for the musicians. One element that was used between me and the musicians was the use of isolation. I naturally use isolation due to the fact that it is a strong characteristic of jazz dance but I noticed the musicians would also isolate notes which would be the impetus for me to do an isolated movement. We also both use accents. I created some of my own and somehow followed the ones that were created in the music. I never really knew the exact moment that they were coming however at the same time I could kind of feel them coming. Maybe we created the accents together.
Cisco Bradley: I can’t wait to see your performance at Dixon Place on November 30. Thank you!
–Cisco Bradley, November 11, 2015