Bassist Linda May Han Oh is a musician with intention. That’s what came to mind when I first heard her play, almost a decade ago, at The Cornelia Street Café in lower Manhattan: it was around the time she released Entry, her 2009 debut trio album with drummer Obed Calvaire and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, and her playing was as deliberate and succinct as a perfectly reasoned argument.
The same sensibility shapes Oh’s involvement with the We Have Voice Collective, a group of fourteen female musicians that captured headlines earlier this year when it released a code of conduct to help reduce sexism in jazz. “We are advocating for awareness, and our topics go way deeper than whether or not something is harassment,” Oh recently told me over the phone. “It’s more on a higher level of power: who holds the power and the evaluation of that power? If you have power, what can you do with it? We’re not trying to encourage any sort of witch-hunt mentality of calling out men. It’s about reassessing power.”
We spoke in depth over the phone in June, shortly before Oh commenced a European tour with the jazz guitarist and composer Pat Metheny. The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and concision.
—Whitney Curry Wimbish
What has been the jazz community’s response to the We Have Voice Collective? What are some of the things that need to happen for there to be equality within the community?
For the most part, we’ve had quite a positive response. A lot of people have signed onto the code of conduct. Many have thanked us for taking the initiative, and many have said that it is necessary.
We speak about having certain moral standards around how to treat people. It’s a reminder that inequalities still exist, whether you are rehearsing at someone’s home or playing a gig somewhere. We put the code together because it seemed the best thing to do for this moment. The code itself is a reminder of the values we hold and how we ought to treat others. It’s a proactive, preventative measure. We don’t want a society that’s just pointing figures and accusing people; it’s about everyone pulling their own weight.
At one of the round-table discussions, a lot of questions revolved around what we can do to enforce the code, and ultimately … we’re not lawyers, we’re not therapists, we’re not policing the masses. This code is something that should be enforced; if a venue or institution chooses to take it on, they then have a responsibility to make sure it is carried out. But it’s more of an aspirational document, not a legal one that holds people liable.
Some institutions have posted the actual document on walls. I even spoke to someone whose institution put it in bathroom stalls, which is where people sometimes go when they feel they’ve been harassed or abused, because it’s where you go to feel safe; it’s where you can be alone, where you can feel protected to some degree. People have put it in their riders, as a reminder, in addition to their hospitality rider. We’ve also spoken to people who have been reading it out loud. Language carries different meanings when it’s written as opposed to when it’s spoken. To actually sit and read and talk through the code can give it more weight and more clarification.
What do you think it will take for there to be equality within jazz?
We all have different ideas around this. The best way for me to explain my perspective is by talking about how I came to the collective, coming up as a female Asian musician.
Were we talking ten years ago, or even six or seven years ago, I would have really hesitated to be part of the collective and to speak about such topics. It was a difficult topic to approach. People would ask me, “What is it like to be a woman musician? What’s it like to be an Asian musician?” and I’d pretty much say, “Next question.” Interviews with men were centered around the music and what they were working on; with women, the focus would be on the female part of it. I wanted to be known for my art, my music, more than anything else.
When you’re in a male-dominated sphere and you’re one of the few females, there’s a lot you have to ignore to get through the day and accomplish what you want to, musically. I read somewhere recently—this was in a conversation about race and what it was like to be an Asian female, and one response from the young Asian woman was, “If I thought about it every day, I wouldn’t accomplish anything.” A lot of energy has to be spent ignoring and pushing back.
I wanted to just focus on the music, and any issue of inequality, I thought, “The best I can do is to do the best I can do. Be the best at my instrument. I can lead by example and be the best I can be.”
But a few key experiences changed my perspective. One was when I was in an all-female combo, Sisters in Jazz. It was super inspiring, and the mentors thought it would be good to talk about being some of the few females in a male-dominated field. And I had an inner eye-roll. Teach me a scale! Teach me something! But hearing the experiences of some of the other women really changed my perspective, and I realized that this mentality of blocking things out isn’t healthy. It’s not right if a teacher makes a comment about something physical, or a comment about your appearance. It’s not okay.
That was one of the turning points for me. So I went back to my hometown and I decided, “I had such a great time, I’m going to start a female big band and we’re going to feature female writers.” So I tried to scrape together a group. It was a relatively small version, with three trumpets, three trombones; we didn’t have a female drummer, so we had a male drummer.
For the most part, people were cool with it, though some women were kind of opposed to having an all-female band. I didn’t force anyone to be a part of it—it was something I wanted to do, plus I wanted to write for a big band. The idea was to do workshops, clinics, performances, and so we did some for all-girl high schools. At that point, it wasn’t necessarily geared to only females; it was just easier to pitch the idea to private schools for workshops, because they had a budget for these things. At one point, there was an all-boy school that expressed interest. They wanted to set up for a concert, and I thought, “This is a great idea!” I was really impressed by how progressive it seemed. This was thirteen years ago. But the concert got cancelled because people complained. Why should an all-female band play for this school? They cancelled us and hired an all-male band. It wasn’t pitched as an all-male band, it just was all-male, as most of the bands were. They were of a high standard, they had been together a lot longer, many of them were the best players in town, so it was understandable, but it was a realization that maybe what I was doing wasn’t openly accepted. I had auditioned for the Manhattan School of Music in New York and it was time for me to leave anyway. So that was the end of that.
But it was tricky for me at the time because it made me think, “Is what I’m doing wrong? Am I really excluding men? Is it wrong to focus on female musicians?” But I’d seen the dropout rate of female musicians during their late teens and early twenties; it was quite high. You’d see these people enter college at a really high level, and then you just wouldn’t see them again.
This profession isn’t for everyone. You can’t expect it to be. But I don’t think it’s necessarily because some women prefer not to do the work. There have been public debates on certain topics like women in science and women in engineering, during which it’s said that women are more interested in people than they are in things, and men are interested in things rather than people. If that’s true, then music should be more balanced.
Fast forward a number of years to when I started teaching at the late Geri Allen’s residency in New Jersey. That marked another turning point. It was incredible to work with Ms. Allen and to see what she was doing in that program. That first year, we started at 8 a.m. with a staff meeting, teach from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., then Geri had a residency at The Stone. Every evening, Geri would drive us to The Stone where we’d rehearse from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m., then play two sets. I played six out of seven nights. Geri drove us there and dropped us back at home. She’d make sure people got home safe. There was a beautiful sense of community, and she did it so effortlessly. That week of her residency, I remember asking, “How do you do it? This is intense!” And she said, “If you’ve given birth three times, this ain’t nothing.”
I had a lot of conversations with her about teaching. I remember confiding that I was really frustrated, because we’re strong, we’re tough, we don’t need to be coddled. It was my fear that people sometimes assume that young female musicians can’t handle it, and I appreciated those teachers who were really hard on me. It made me tougher, even though at certain times it was a little much. I don’t want there to be an environment where female musicians are coddled, because it can lead, at least to some degree, to a second-rate education. To this, Geri said, “Look, a lot of people haven’t had the same experience as you; they’ve been traumatized by different experiences. They aren’t you.” That was a real wake-up call to me. Not everyone has my experience.
What do you make of persistent stereotypes around women in jazz? I’m thinking of Robert Glasper last year saying in an interview on Do The Math that women “don’t love a whole lot of soloing” and prefer a groove, which is “like musical clitoris.” (Glasper later apologized.)
Those stereotypes are getting old quickly. But if someone has those opinions, I’m not offended by them straight away. I have the right to not be offended, but I try to think about the reason the person said this.
We did this show recently where we played more ballads in the set than hard-hitting tunes, and someone remarked that it worked really well because there were more females in the audience than usual. That was his viewpoint; that was his take on things. It really confused me, though, because I grew up listening to Rage Against the Machine and Public Enemy—that’s what I would blast. I think that education—and exploring the notion of diversity and getting to know people—helps refute stereotypes. If that person met a lot more women similar to myself, his viewpoint would be different. The best thing to do is educate and encourage diversity so we can get to know people as individuals, rather than lumping people in groups.
Do you think there’s a difference in terms of how men and women relate to improvisation?
Some people argue that women have a specific aesthetic, but I have to say that in one blindfold [listening] experiment someone thought I was Christian McBride. I think there should be more of those tests because I think people aren’t biased that way, when they listen with their ears and not with their eyes. I was once told that I sounded great: “You sound just like a man.” I remember posting that comment online a while back and laughing at it.
What appeals to you about improvisation?
Especially with a group, it’s about connecting with the other members of the group and exploring what can be done: the group interaction, the group compromise. That’s a big thing for me. Aside from that, the actual framework you’re working with fascinates me. If there is some sort of structure, then it’s about getting deeper into that structure. How do I navigate it? It’s like a really cool puzzle you’re trying to figure out.
You began as a classical musician. What was it like for you to go from playing notated music to playing extemporaneously?
I started with the Yamaha method, and during my early years on piano it was a combination of classical piano and exploring other elements, like emotion and colors. We were encouraged to dance and sing, and to “hear” pictures. My early training was centered around that approach, and teachers encouraged us to improvise.
When I was a little older—six, seven, and upwards—the focus shifted toward something more disciplined, more focused on executing repertoire. That shift was quite distinct. By the time I was ten or twelve, the focus was on competitions and board examinations, and the aspect of improvisation, which we’d been encouraged to do earlier on, was put to the wayside in lieu of studied execution. By the time I got to mid-high school, I wanted a little more freedom of expression.
I don’t like to think of classical and jazz as distinct disciplines. They have a lot of similar elements and I’m not going to draw a clear line between them. There’s an element of risk in jazz I wanted to get into, and when I started to explore that I realized that the entire repertoire is built on similar harmonies in certain aspects. Learning to improvise over a seven chord helped me learn what its function is.
My sister had a diverse record collection—Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew, Meshell Ndegeocello…—that inspired the same exploratory study. I was also influenced by various local musicians. There were a lot of great musicians in Perth whom I respect and who set a high standard for me. They were going to expect as much from me as they were from the men.
Is there a psychological shift or a shift in perspective that must take place in order to move between genres?
There are certain genres I’m more comfortable with and others that I’m not. I try to be as honest and sincere as I can be. It’s a good thing to think of music as a whole, rather than compartmentalizing. I think that will inform, to some degree, your own individual voice, as opposed to being someone wears different hats.
How do you approach a new solo or improvised piece?
One thing I’ve been going back and forth about concerns ideas repeating over time. Obviously we like to keep things fresh and in the moment, but it depends on whatever solo or piece you’re working on. The solo is a standalone thing in terms of the structure in which it operates. There has to be some sort of respect for the structure, or for the composition itself. This is, for me personally, paying respect to what a composer has done for a particular piece and its intention, rather than just the solo on its own. It depends on a lot of factors; it’s not clear-cut. It can depend on the environment you’re in, and what is happening with the other musicians.
I like to keep some sort of logic, interspersed with spontaneity, so there is a grounding element. And there are other times when I’m feeling a certain way, and that might lead to a particular improvisatory moment that any other day would be completely different.
What I really love about playing this music is a certain sense of resourcefulness. You have to be ready for what’s going to come to you, and that flexibility transfers into other parts of your life. The skills you learn when you’re first studying music serve you in different ways. Resourcefulness, compromise—those are useful tools for good human beings.
How does improvising inform the way you compose?
I think they go hand-in-hand. It’s often said that improvisation is composition in real time, so a lot of the things I explore in improvisation can often get translated into composition, and vice versa. Going back to the notion of repeating ideas, I’ve come to the point where there are certain things I’m questioning in my own writing—that aspect of creating your own voice, allowing yourself to gravitate towards certain elements that you like. Perhaps they are more of a signature than a default.
How would you describe the hallmarks of your sound?
The idea of sound, my sound—it’s kind of a broad area. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I want my electric bass to sound exactly like an upright, but I think there are certain things I want to hold true for them both. In terms of sound, it’s that constant balance—that push and pull—of keeping grounded and stoking the fire.
There are some instances when there is so much fire being stoked that I don’t have to do that. I can be the one who’s rooted and grounded. On both instruments, there’s a degree of clarity that I like to have; I also like to generate ideas that propel the movement forward.
How has your musical sensibility or approach to playing evolved over time?
One particular thing has to do with the upright bass. I’ve been living in New York City for about twelve years, as an upright bassist, doing a lot of sessions and gigs around town, and trying to produce the biggest sound you can get. To a degree, some of that is compensating for being a woman. People will assume a woman is smaller in sound. I wanted to have a big, loud sound. Everyone wants to have presence.
That was very important to me, having a full sound, having a good humph to the beat. One thing that has changed is the notion of having to pull so hard to get that sound. At this point in my life, there’s something to having presence and sound without having to pull so hard. I learned that through various interactions. I started taking lessons from Ron Carter, and when I first took out the instrument and started tuning, the first thing he did was put his hands up to his ears and say, “Aaaah!” And I said, “What did I do?” He said, “You don’t have to play so hard. We’re in this small room, you don’t need to use so much force. Play to the room; I want to hear the quality of sound, not just volume.” So, the quality of sound versus volume—I think about that a lot.
What are some of the themes or subjects or techniques that you’re focusing on now?
Because I transitioned from classical bassoon to electric bass, there are a lot of classical elements of the double bass that I haven’t explored. I’ve gone back to some of the basics, to [Franz] Simandl, who wrote a series of books that are foundations of classical double bass playing. This year I’ve taken more lessons than in the past. I’m trying to make more time for that.
My husband, Fabian Almazan, and I have spoken a lot about being a professional musician but also having music as a culture. It seems like there can be a strange separation between the two when music becomes work. He’s Hispanic and I’m Asian, and we talk about what that means to us.
I’m Chinese in terms of ethnicity but I was born in Malaysia, and it’s interesting because both of us, my husband and myself, we sit in this weird grey area. For example, although I’m Malaysian-Chinese, I grew up in Perth, which is predominantly white. I had some Asian friends, but we were never integrated into the Malaysian-Chinese community, but I also never felt like I was as integrated into that white Australian culture. It’s interesting who you gravitate toward. Growing up in Perth, there was a lot of pushing away of Asian culture and heritage in order to assimilate, and as you get older and start to explore that culture a little more, you realize it’s getting lost a little bit.
Tell me the story behind a piece I wouldn’t know just by listening to it.
I wrote the piece “Deepsea Dancers” for Walk Against Wind very shortly after my manager Izumi Uchida passed away from a brain aneurysm. It was my dedication to her. Not only was she a great manager, but we often had lots of conversations about what it’s like to be an Asian woman in the industry. She was someone I could relate to, and she encouraged me to pursue certain collaborations in Asia.
One was in Gwangju, South Korea, and the group included myself, some traditional Korean musicians on percussion and haegeum, musicians living in Japan, and an Australian man who has moved back and forth to Korean to study Korean drumming. Not everyone spoke the same language, so we would kind of communicate in a train: I would speak English to someone who could speak English and Korean or Japanese, and they would translate. It was beautiful because everyone was coming from such different backgrounds. Izumi encouraged that. Another time I took a trip to Malaysia. Vocalists there would speak-sing pieces and some of these melodies were very diatonic and long. I have a very limited understanding of the genre but what struck me was that the melodies were so long and intricate, but had a logic to them.
“Deepsea Dancers” is inspired by all of these experiences. It is pretty much in the key of E flat, and it’s a melody that winds and repeats itself, kind of like the tune “Nefertiti.” As it progresses you hear harmonies popping out, and at the end there are harmonies you would not have expected. It’s a piece where at first the foreground is super in-focus, with the background out of focus, and then the background gets clearer and the foreground fades away.
What do you see as the major themes in jazz and improvised music now and moving forward?
There’s a need to explore the fusion of various genres. I think it’s interesting that many of the musicians coming up now arrived through a different route. A lot of musicians I know started in rock and are coming to jazz—or they came up through R&B, hip-hop, rap…
I also think there is more need for social commentary in the music, because of the U.S. election and the sorts of things going on globally. We’re all affected by our environment. Jazz music doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Everyone is questioning their beliefs and everyone is trying to hold onto them strongly.
Linda May Han Oh (1984) is a bassist and composer living in New York City. Born in Malaysia and raised in Australia, Oh studied piano, clarinet, and bassoon, and upright bass before earning a master’s degree at the Manhattan School of Music. Her performances and recording have been awarded many prestigious awards, and she has performed with some of the brightest lights in jazz, including the late Geri Allen, Terri Lyne Carrington, Dave Douglas, Joe Lovano, and Pat Metheny. Oh teaches at the Manhattan School of Music and is currently at work on a variety of projects, including a trumpet trio album, her double string quartet Aventurine, and music for National Public Radio’s StoryCorps, among others.
Whitney Curry Wimbish is a writer and reporter living in Scotland. Her interviews, essays, and journalism have appeared in The Baffler, BOMB magazine online, The Cambodia Daily, The Financial Times, Guernica and elsewhere. Her fiction has appeared in MIROnline.
Banner image courtesy of Linda May Han Oh