“Mothers In Jazz” is a new series, started by vocalist Nicky Schrire. The initiative aims to create an online resource for working jazz musicians with children, those contemplating parenthood, and jazz industry figures who work with and hire musicians who are parents. The insight of the musicians interviewed for this series provides valuable emotional, philosophical and logistical information and support that is easily accessible to all. “Mothers In Jazz” shines a light on the very specific role of being both a mother and a performing jazz musician.
Drummer Allison Miller is always at the heart of the music whether she is playing alongside jazz greats, keeping time for some of today’s most beloved singer-songwriters (such as Brandi Carlile and Sara Bareilles), or as a renowned bandleader/composer in her own right. Her career includes extensive work with Toshi Reagon, Ani DiFranco, and Natalie Merchant. She’s also forged creative alliances with pianist Myra Melford, guitarist Wendy Eisenberg, bassist Scott Colley, and saxophonist Dayna Stephens. She toured and recorded widely with Hammond B-3 legend Dr. Lonnie Smith and bassist Ben Allison, and composed music for Showtime’s cult series, The L Word. On top of releasing more than a dozen albums as a leader or co-leader, she’s the engine powering the acclaimed Blue Note recording group Artemis. Allison lives in New York with her six and nine year-old children.
LondonJazz News: What is the best advice you received about balancing/juggling motherhood and career?
Allison Miller: The best advice I received about balancing motherhood and career came from my friend and colleague Marcelle Davies Lashley. Her three kids are now grown but when they were youngins, Marcel was raising them while managing her career as a touring vocalist and choir director. She somehow managed both beautifully, raising three stellar human beings while simultaneously advancing her career. Back when my kids were babies I asked her how the hell she did it. I was having a hard time…always tired, stressed, and frazzled. Of course I don’t remember verbatim what she said cause I don’t remember much from those early days of parenting, but I do remember the overall message. It was simple and clear: Don’t change your life so it only revolves around your kids. Take your kids with you while you do your thing. They will adjust and go along for the ride. Don’t lose yourself in your kids.
LJN: What information or advice do you wish you’d received but didn’t (and had to learn through trial and error or on the go)?
AM: I wish I had learned how to work through the guilt of going out on the road and leaving my kids at home with my now ex-partner. The guilt consumed me. I would come home and spoil my kids because of it. That spoiling worked against me, the wellbeing of my children, and my relationship with my ex-partner. Careering and mothering became opposing parts of my life. I felt guilt for playing music and having fun out on the road. The spoiling worked against my kids learning, at an early age, essential skills needed for independence. I also wish someone would have really hammered in the importance of setting up a regular schedule at home. ie. bath time, meal time, bed time, etc. Sure, I read all the self help parenting books but, for some reason, none of that material stuck. Both my ex and I are musicians. Before kids, we were not used to establishing any kind of a regular schedule. Boy, did we learn that scheduling is number one for a happy child. They feel safe with a regular schedule. They need steady sleep.
LJN: Your top tip(s) for other mothers in jazz:
AM: Take your kid/s with you on the road…as long as you can. It’s exhausting and sometimes prohibitively expensive but those early years go by quickly and the parent/child bond in those early days is essential. I wish I had taken my babies on more tours. Also, kids learn more in one week on the road than they learn in a month at school. Say NO to gigs that aren’t really worth it. Rest is key and taking every gig that comes your way will only exhaust you and take away from that parent/child bond. Having children really helped bring focus to my long term career goals and showed me what was worth my time and not. Oh, one more thing: SLEEP WHENEVER POSSIBLE! Nap when your child naps! I have never been a napper so it was difficult for me to do but I wish I had. I am now paying for it. For a long time I tried to maintain my “night owl jazz musician” status. Then I got sick and it has been hard to bounce back.
LJN: Baby/child gear tips for travel/gigging/touring:
AM: Always have SNACKS! And more SNACKS! Always have an extra diaper stuffed away somewhere. One time my ex and I were on a flight to Italy with our then 2 year old daughter. About an hour into the flight we both realized we didn’t have any diapers. I had assumed she brought them and she had assumed I brought them. Wow, let me tell you, that was an extremely stressful and anxious seven hour flight. Fingers crossed that our Josie didn’t have to go No. 2! And flight attendants don’t have extra diapers onboard. Oh, I have 2 more pieces of advice; Don’t overpack. If you have too many things and more than one or two bags it will just get confusing and stressful. We used to pack way too much and then couldn’t find anything when we actually needed it. Strollers: don’t travel with your Mercedes Benz version of stroller. Get a cheap one for flying. They fold up smaller and then you won’t care what happens to it when it’s loaded into the cargo compartment. And those travel protector bags for strollers are a waste of money and a pain in the ass to use.
LJN: Best general travel//gig/tour-with-child advice:
AM: Don’t be afraid to ask promoters for babysitting services. Put it in your rider! Times have really changed and most folks in this business are open to this request. They want to help. In general, ask for what you need. The more we, jazz moms, ask for what we need to feel rested and comfortable, the more normalized mothering on the road will become and be accepted in this business. It takes a village as they say. If enough moms are out there on the road advocating for themselves then the entire industry will be changed and any kind of mom-shaming out on tour will become ancient history. Touring is hard enough without children. Jazz moms need to advocate for themselves to feel as comfortable and rested as possible.
LJN: What has surprised you about becoming a parent and remaining engaged with your professional activities and ambitions?
AM: I’m constantly amazed that I’m even able to do it! This archaic myth that women are not as strong as men is absolutely preposterous. All one needs to do is witness a jazz mom on the road; throwing down on stage, managing the travel, keeping on top of road biz, and keeping their little human/s safe and cared for. Honestly, it is a fucking miracle! Parenting is the hardest and most fulfilling thing I have done, and will continue to do, in my life. I feel so grateful for it and am appreciative to all the other jazz moms out there kicking ass! Being a mom no longer has to hold us back from doing what we love; making music for a living.
LJN: What boundaries have you set for yourself as a mother in jazz (could be related to travel/touring, riders, personal parameters, child care decisions, etc.)?
AM: Sleep is number 1 for me! I no longer care about “making the hang” after shows. I give 110% on stage and then I go to my hotel room, take a bath, and focus on getting a good night’s sleep. It feels glorious. Time with my kids is also no. 1. I used to fight the urge to take care of myself because I thought it would take away from valuable time with my kids. Now I realize taking the time to do the things that make me feel good (sleep, exercise, practice, read) makes me a better parent and allows me to be more present with my children.
Allison’s new album “Rivers In Our Veins” is out on The Royal Potato Family on 6 October 2023. The record features Allison alongside longtime collaborators, including violinist Jenny Scheinman, Ben Goldberg on contra-alto and Bb clarinets, pianist Carmen Staaf, trumpeter Jason Palmer, bassist Todd Sickafoose, and tap dancers Claudia Rahardjanoto, Michelle Dorrance, Elizabeth Burke, Byron Tittle, and Orlando Hernández. On Rivers In Our Veins, Allison culls inspiration from the cultural histories of five East Coast rivers that have been polluted nearly beyond repair through industrialism and commercialism-the James, Delaware, Potomac, Hudson, and Susquehanna rivers.
LINKS: Artist website
The complete archive of Nicky Schrire’s Mothers in Jazz series