A few weeks ago I received a text message from my wife. As she was nearing Barnes & Noble on Broadway on New York's Upper West Side, she heard the sound of a jazz flute. Wriggling through the small crowd gathered around the musician, my wife was surprised to see a young girl swinging away. My wife's text message was simple: "Get out and see this kid before she heads home. Ron Carter and his trio played on her CD." Curious, off I went. When I arrived outside the bookstore, there was 14-year-old Rachel Rodgers playing Charlie Parker's Anthropology. Her sound was, indeed, remarkably seasoned. [Picture: Rachel Rodgers at Avatar Studios in New York]
But wait, before I continue this post I think it's only fair that you be able to hear what I heard that day...
See what I mean? After I introduced myself to Rachel, I met her father Jonathan. Like any great dad, he was out there with her keeping an eye on things. Jonathan told me that Rachel pays for her own musical education and buys her own instruments with what she earns from gigs and CD sales. Impressed with her determination and swing, I asked if I could call and interview her. Rachel was game:
Rachel Rodgers: I like the sound. It sounds so sweet. It makes me feels great. While I’m playing, I’m mostly thinking about what I’m hearing. Then at some point I just play and let my feelings out.
JW: Who taught you how to listen to jazz?
RR: My dad is a big jazz fan and played jazz a lot when I was a baby. He played so much of it when I was little that I got used to it. I really liked the sound and wanted to find out how jazz was played. My dad also plays the drums, so I think his love of playing jazz rubbed off on me, too. [Pictured: Rachel, with her father Jonathan on drums, in Nashville]
JW: Did you have a good first teacher?
RR: Yes. In 5th grade, my teacher in school, Mr. Arbiter, exposed me to jazz playing. Now I have three music teachers. For jazz flute, my teacher is Ali Ryerson. Amy Kilroy teaches me classical. I also play piano, and my piano teacher is Cary Brown.
JW: Is jazz exciting?
RR: Definitely. When I listen to jazz, I feel really energetic. I also get ideas. The other day, I had to transcribe on the piano the first part of Miles Davis’ So What. He’s the best soloist ever. [Pictured: Rachel with flutist Hubert Laws]
RR: He has so many ideas and a great feeling. You can tell he really loved what he was doing. He’s very thoughtful with his ideas. You can hear that he thought really hard about his solos.
JW: How did you get such a mature feel on the flute at such a young age?
RR: I’ve been studying for five years and listening a lot. Playing with energy isn’t that hard for me. I have really good endurance. Once I start I don’t stop. I stay focused. I love what I’m doing, and my friends support my music.
JW: Do friends ever ask you why you work so hard at it?
RR: A few have asked me why I practice so much. I just tell them I’m into my thing, like they’re into theirs. Then they understand.
JW: How did you get Ron Carter and his working group to play on your CD?
RR: It’s a funny story. My dad is in the advertising business. He had done a couple of ads with Mr. Carter playing the music in the background. My dad called Mr. Carter and asked him. First my dad sent him a demo of me playing. Mr. Carter listened and then said he’d love to. I couldn’t believe it. [Pictured, from left: Payton Crossley, Ron Carter, Rachel, Stephen Scott and flutist John Ragusa]
JW: Were you nervous?
RR: Not at all. Mr. Carter inspired my playing. His music pours through his heart. He didn’t treat me like a 13-year old, either. He treated me like any other musician. When I asked if he wanted to take solos, he said he just really enjoyed playing behind me.
JW: What’s the meaning of your first album’s title, Summer After 7?
RR: It means two different things. First I recorded it over the summer after 7th grade. It’s also the kind of music you’d listen to during the summer. [Pictured: Rachel with flutist Sir James Galway]
JW: Why does the flute sound like summer?
RR: It’s the sweet sound, the sound of the outdoors. Butterflies, heat, fun—it's nice to listen to the flute in the summer.
JW: What’s next for Rachel Rodgers?
RR: I hope to record my second album next summer, after ninth grade
JW: Who would be your dream star artist?
RR: Esperanza Spalding [pictured]. I love how she plays. She is such an inspiring, thoughtful and creative player. Not to mention an awesome songwriter. And I don't know anyone else who can play the upright bass and sing at the same time. Or at least that well.
It would be such an honor to record with her. Share a little girl power! Girls are a big part of the future of jazz.
JW: What about you recording on her album?
RR: I'd love to do a great bass, vocal and flute track on her next CD. No group—just bass, vocal and flute. That would be cool. Ms. Spalding really is outstanding.
JW: Is the bass the most important instrument in a group for a lead flute player?
RR: Bass players are important, but not more than other players. But the bass is the pulse of the band, so you're listening to the bass. But when you play with someone great like Ron Carter, the bass becomes the heartbeat of the band. If you know what I mean.
JW: What’s the secret of getting kids your age interested in playing jazz?
RR: Listening is important, of course. And your parents need to encourage you. But most important is taking lessons from a jazz teacher at a young age. Classical is essential for the basics, but if you enjoy jazz you need to add a teacher who will show you how to play it.
JazzWax tracks: Rachel Rodgers' Summer After 7 is available as a download at iTunes and other online retailers. Or it's on CD here. On the album, Rachel plays four jazz songs (including one original) backed by Ron Carter's trio. Flutist John Ragusa appears with Rachel on Herbie Hancock's Maiden Voyage. On the remaining four tracks, Rachel is accompanied by a range of musicians, including vocalist Lynne Robyn. The album ends with Rachel playing a slow rag called Miz Tuttle Shuffle. And as you'll hear, her keyboard work is as impressive as her flute playing.