February 3, 2013
An obvious upside of the Jazz Archive experience at Hamilton College has been meeting 300+ interesting artists. Their personalities and stories have been varied in scope and diversity. It is also proving to be a bittersweet experience, as a distressing number of these interviewees pass away. Ann Rabson, blues singer/guitarist/pianist died on January 30. Ann was a successful blues artist, and founding member of Sapphire — the Uppity Blues Women, a group that had a successful run of 25 years. She went on to a solo career that saw her produce her own CD’s, piano books, and original compositions.
During our interview in 2007, Ann stated that she always seemed to be on the fringe of the social scene in middle school and high school. In fact, her classmates called her “Jazzbo” for her out-of-the-mainstream musical interests.
It seems that Ann was destined to travel a road less traveled from an early age. She cited a Big Bill Broonzy recording that caused an epiphany at the age of four. I’m sure she didn’t know the word “epiphany” at the time, but something about the way Big Bill sang and played moved her, and later music filled a need that social interaction never provided.
I had the pleasure of playing with Ann on numerous occasions with my three-piece band. She was an infectious and natural performer whose self-taught instrumental style was a joy to join. I recall with some amusement visiting schools after she had performed, and talking to the cafeteria ladies. Ann’s performance of “One Meatball” apparently inspired the children to ask for only that for the few days as they came through the lunch line.
Like most blues artist, Ann mainly made her living in clubs, lounges, and the blues festival circuit. In 1999, she stated that an interesting thing happened:
AR: There’s this saxophone player who got me started in this great thing with schools.
MR: Well he must have been crazy.
AR: He was nuts. So you know people have been very helpful. And I mean if it was just me I’d still be playing in little motel lounges for fifty bucks a night.
I’m happy to say that that nutty saxophone player was me. For ten years I was the Artistic Director for the Arts-in-Education Institute in Utica, New York. One of my jobs was to find performances in all artistic genres that could be presented to our participating teachers, and subsequently to their students. The entertainment we sought was not your typical kiddy shows. We looked for musicians, dancers, visual artists and writers who could appeal to both adults and children, and be the basis for aesthetic education study. I caught Ann’s act at an art center near Utica in 1999, and thought she would be perfect for our program. When I approached her about performing in schools, she initially did think I was crazy. Blues for kids? In fact the blues genre is a perfect vehicle for children of all ages to embrace. Its musical and lyric structure makes it the ideal platform for teachers and students to manipulate for their classrooms and curriculums. The next summer Ann performed for our teachers, and subsequently was booked solid in our nine school districts. She went on to add this educational component to her repertoire, and I take a measure of pride that I had something to do with it.
In addition to performing classic blues songs made famous by the likes of Big Bill Broonzy, Leroy Carr and Bessie Smith, Ann did a fair amount of writing herself. Her songs ranged from adult topics with titles like “I Can’t Get My Mind Off You,” to songs specifically for the younger set, including “The Barnyard Boogie.” Ann spoke about her relationship with music theory and her writing process in our interview:
MR: At rehearsal you said “I don’t know anything about music.” I think you were talking about the chords or the form of the song or something, but I thought that was so interesting a thing for you to say.
AR: I don’t know the names of the chords. I’m learning them. I mean I’ve learned some of them. I’ve learned sort of the basic chords and what they are, but there are a lot of chords I play that I have no clue what they are. And I’ll ask people, what is this? And I’ll ask like half a dozen people who know a lot about music and they’ll give me different answers. See that’s why music isn’t — it’s not like arithmetic where it’s always — the same notes can be a different chord depending on factors I don’t understand it. But I can hear a lot. I’m not a religious person, I’m not a spiritual person, but I really feel that my music is best when I just get out of the way. It’s a force, or, something takes over. And I know that you’ve experienced that. And that’s when it gets — that’s why we play music, is that moment when you’re not yourself anymore. You’re just a conduit for something.
The music life is not an easy one, and Ann certainly paid her dues over the years. Even with multiple nominations for blues awards, solo CD’s and recordings with the Uppity Blues Women, the life of a blues artist is an up and down affair. Aspiring artists who envied her career would ask, “how can I do what you do?” Ann offered this answer:
AR: I wrote an essay. And every time somebody asks me that I say “here” [gestures giving the paper]. Because as far as in the music business I guess the first thing I would say is you have to really want to do it and you have to — your idea of making a living, you have to be willing to not have maybe a big house or a new car or, you have to be — priorities. And money is important, you have to have enough to live on. But you only have a certain amount of time. You can always get more money. And you don’t want to spend your time doing something you hate. So anyway you have to be willing to make your lifestyle fit what your income’s going to be. When I went on the road when my daughter was finished with college, the first thing I did is I had to have a day job for a while. I still played but not much. The first thing I did was I bought a piece of land and a trailer. So I paid for it, so when I started out I didn’t really need that much income. I had a place to live. Anyway, see the trick is not to go into the business thinking you’re going to make a million dollar. Roy Bookbinder says something like “yeah this is a great business, you can make hundreds of dollars a year.” I know what you’re going to say.
MR: There was something about “how do you get a musician to make two million dollars?” “Give him four million.” Or something like that.
AR: Right. They tell it about the farmers too. Or “what are you going to do now that you’ve won the lottery?” “Well I guess I’ll just keep playing until the money runs out.” Yeah. But anyway so that’s the first thing I tell people, is that you’re not in it for the money, you’re in it because you love the music. And then I think it’s very important for people to realize that it is a business. And if you’re not willing to do the business, or if you’re in a position to pay somebody else to do it, I mean I think it’s very important to find a booking agent for sure, and a manager if you possibly can. And you’ll have even less money. But you have more time to play music. More time. And these people, they know a whole lot more about business than I do. You know? It’s like if you’re going to do your own taxes, you’re going to end up paying more than if you hire somebody to do your taxes. So it’s the same thing. But it is a business. Somebody once said “tell them if they can possibly do anything else that they should do it.”
Ann was an example of a self-taught musician who developed the ability to play what was correct for the occasion. She knew what to play to enhance her vocals, and had a library of piano licks, mostly in the key of C, that fit her grooves perfectly. I’m not embarrassed to say that I borrowed a few of them. While she would admit to limited technique, I prefer to frame it as just the right amount to support her personal delivery.
Ann’s 1997 CD, “Music Makin’ Mama” on Alligator Records, was named after one of her original songs. She managed to combine a driving boogie-woogie groove with a lyric that included musical jargon, clever double entendres, and a healthy dose of blues braggadocio:
Well I can pound the piano/or caress your keys
Stride and boogie-woogie/on your ivories
I’ll be your lady/cross my heart
We can play in third position/’cause I know my part
I’m a Music Makin’ Mama/making music all night long.