INTERVIEW FOR #IWD2018: Karolina Strassmayer (Saxophone, WDR Big Band)

Karolina Strassmayer soloing with the WDR Big Band, 2018
Photo credit: Lutz Voigtlaender

Saxophonist KAROLINA STRASSMAYER has the unique distinction of having broken one specific glass ceiling: she became the first woman with a salaried post in a professional big band in Germany in 2004, when she joined the WDR Big Band. In this interview for International Women’s Day 2018 she explains the background. Interview with Sebastian:

LondonJazz News: From your biography I see you’re from a small town in the mountains in Austria known for ski-ing and walking… are you/were you a walker or a ski-er… or both or neither?

Karolina Strassmayer: I grew up skiing, hiking, mountain biking, and playing folk music. But I didn’t appreciate the beauty and serenity of the environment then. I couldn’t wait to escape what felt to me like oppressive small town vibes and discover the big wide world.

LJN: Where did the music come from? And what drew you towards the alto saxophone and when?

KS: My grandfather was an amateur musician and conductor, and general well of musical knowledge; my mother a music teacher; my father a classical music aficionado. I started on recorder when I was three years old, could read music before I knew the alphabet. But all my musical activities were either in classical or folk music until I heard Cannonball Adderley on a cassette my girlfriend was given by her older sister. She didn’t like the “awful doodling” and so passed the tape on to me. It was Kind Of Blue and Cannonball’s alto saxophone mesmerized and electrified me like no other sound before. I knew even at that time – I was just 16 years old – that this was a life-changing moment, a fanfare from another world (I named a tune on my current CD after it) that called me and I’m so happy that I followed the call.

I had no idea what I was listening to at the time, not even what instruments were playing. So I consulted my grandfather and after listening to the tape for a few minutes he said, “ich glaub, das ist Jazz!”

LJN: And then..? 

KS: After that experience I was very lucky, because there was a sale in a local store (they were discontinuing the jazz LP department which consisted of a whopping 50 LPs for lack of demand) and I bought all LPs with a saxophone on the cover. Imagine my confusion when I started listening to Charlie Parker, Grover Washington Jr., Phil Woods, David Sanborn, and Ornette Coleman, trying to reconcile all of this diverse music under the umbrella of jazz. I was lucky, again, because I had wonderful teachers and mentors both in my hometown and later at the Musikhochschule in Graz, who helped me make sense of it eventually.

LJN: Perhaps other alto players who have made as big or even a bigger impact?

KS: Cannonball Adderley, Sonny Stitt, and then of course, the tenor players! John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon…

LJN: What were the steps which took you to New York, and how long did you stay there?

KS:  I was lucky (again) enough to get a scholarship after completing my studies in Graz and went to the jazz program at the New School for Social Research in NYC. I was planning to stay for one semester and ended up living in NY for 15 years. After relocating to Cologne I kept a double life with two residences and commuted for several years before I gave up the apartment in NY.

LJN: Is there a highlight from your time in NY? A musician who completely inspired you?

KS: More than any one individual it was the totality of my musical and social experiences, the energy of the city, the drive with which like-minded people from all over the world pursued the jazz life, that impressed me most. Imagine the jolt I got by the change of scenery from the idyllic mountainscape to the boiling cauldron of the NYC jazz scene. The courage required to jump into unknown territory, the generosity of many of the people I met on my journey and the multitude of growing opportunities have helped me to come into my own as a human being.

LJN: And a low point when being there just didn’t add up?

KS:  The low point was after 9/11. But I never a thought of leaving.

LJN: You have the unique distinction of being the first woman to become a member of a salaried European Big Band. Was that what brought you back to Europe?

KS: Yes.

LJN: When/how did it happen?

KS:  I was featured in an American jazz magazine called Jazz Improv Magazine. The WDR Big Band’s bassist John Goldsby was a subscriber, saw the interview and heard some tunes from my debut CD KLARO!. I was invited to audition in 2004 and started the gig later that year.

LJN: Is there a project with the band you are particularly proud of either as a collective or as an individual achievement?

KS:  Again, it is not so much the individual project but rather the totality and diversity of the body of work of the WDR Big Band. If NY helped me to hone my craft and come into my own as a person, it was my joining the WDR Big Band that encouraged me to come into my own as a musician and composer. Having stability in life and work along with the constant exposure to outstanding music and musicians, pushed me to look inward in search of my own music. Without the need to cater to many different gigs, bandleaders, and musical situations in order to get re-hired, I began to investigate the sounds that tug my heartstrings, to cultivate and nurture my own musical imagination and to explore my innermost musical sphere. I cherish this process and intend to carry on for the rest of my life.

I’m very thankful to Michael Abene (our principal conductor and arranger for 14 years who wrote over 1,000 incredible arrangements for us during his tenure!), Bob Mintzer and Vince Mendoza (our current principal conductor and composer-in-residence). Immersing myself in their sounds and those of our many guest artists like Joe Lovano, Maria Schneider, Joe Zawinul, McCoy Tyner, Christian McBride and so many others, has opened my ears and my imagination in ways I could not have imagined. A great privilege!

LJN: I really enjoyed your flute-playing in the Vince Mendoza arrangements in Gutersloh in February. Are you recorded anywhere playing flute? When might we hear more (please)?  

KS:  Thank you! I enjoy the flute but I’m constantly humbled by its capriciousness and the challenges it presents for saxophonists. Somehow, the flute parts in the WDR Big Band always end up on my music stand).

Here’s a video of our version of Killer Joe with Christian McBride:  I also recorded a duo with pianist Rainer Böhm on my recent CD Of Mystery And Beauty. The tune is called Still In Her Ears.

LJN: This piece is for our International Women’s Day feature… did you have role models of women musicians who have inspired you?

KS: Sadly, no. But this is changing and I’m very happy to be part of that change. In my early career I’ve always tried very hard not to be “the girl in the band”, but to be recognized as a musician rather than a woman. As I’ve become more mature and confident, I’ve learned to embrace womanhood and to take pride in being a driving force in these societal changes. I always thought I could only either flaunt or hide my womanhood (a female role model would have been helpful!). But I’m figuring out that there is a way in which I can be a woman in this jazz business without being either a gimmick or a tomboy. What pushes me forward is the discovery of authenticity as a human being, as a musician, as a woman, a friend, a seeker, a collaborator, and a feminist. And perhaps I can provide encouragement for women and contribute to this human learning experiment in which we figure out that we work better together – men and women!

LJN: Do you feel a sense of duty/imperative/joy to bring more women in contact with jazz music?

KS:   I feel it is my responsibility as a musician and artist to move the heart, to create a space for wholehearted presence and joy. I search for beauty in a lyrical ballad as much as in a sizzling uptempo. I long for beautiful melodies and rich harmonies. And I want to share my wonder for music. The more people we can bring in contact with jazz the better, especially youngsters. And I particularly enjoy sharing what I know with aspiring young women jazz musicians.

LJN: Is a bad/antediluvian attitude to women frequent in jazz?

KS: I would not be in this business without a few #MeToo moments of my own. But I am a fighter and my enduring love for this music, the alto saxophone, and, most importantly, the exhilaration of playing, have made me want to push through these barriers. If I could change one thing in the world, I would remove the self-doubts of women, deeply embedded and firmly lodged into our minds by conditioning. The fact that young women today still doubt whether they can kick ass like men is most tragic. I would want to (and DO) tell them that all they need is curiosity, a spirit of adventure and persistence!

LINKS: Karolina Strassmayer’s website
Her most recent CD is Of Mystery and Beauty
Our interview with Shannon Barnett of the WDR Big Band for #IWD2017

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