“I focused on the composing”: The gifted, celebrated jazz guitarist talks about her new album 3, additionally outlining her journey to date and the roadblocks—among them, the subtle but inherent sexism that the jazz milieu harbors—she had to overcome. (Photos by Sandrine Lee)
BY ROBIN E. COOK
Jazz guitarist Leni Stern’s musical journey has taken her from her native Germany to Berklee College of Music and the Sahara Desert. She’s a musical omnivore, happily absorbing disparate musical influences. On her new album, 3 (released on CD, vinyl, and digital this past April), Stern taps into African music along with Alioune Faye (djembe, sabar, calabas, backing vocals) and Mamadou Ba (bass). The result is a warm, seamless collaboration—an international sound in the very best sense. Stern talked about her music teachers, her discovery of jazz, and the assumptions that women in jazz still confront today.
BLURT: Could you give me some idea of your background? You were an actress before you became a musician, right?
STERN: Well, I was always a musician, but I also had a love for acting, so I actually had two roles in the acting company that I founded. I was a musical director and I was an actress. And I wrote music for theater and created music for film. But I was always a little singer-songwriter with a guitar and many songs that I wrote. And many Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan songs that I sang. The theater composing and film composing really took off, so I came to America because I had heard of a school in America—Berklee College of Music. It had an association with a film school, where you could score the student films and you could use all the musicians in the college to write your scores with. So that sounded perfect. And it turned out to be perfect.
So the music sort of took over from the acting. But I still worked as an actress. I was a VJ for BET—Black Entertainment Television—for many years. I went back and forth to do an acting project every once and a while. But it’s really hard to do both at the same time. And I really wanted to perfect my music in many directions, so I would take guitar classes and then I started playing percussion and took percussion classes. And I took singing classes and composition.
And also I married another guitar player—Michael Stern. And he didn’t want to move to Europe. And I actually liked America. I never decided to stop acting. And I would act again if there were an opportunity that is compatible with my music and touring and recording schedule. And right there is…a problem because I am now playing with many bands and I have my own band and many recording projects, so as it is there isn’t enough hours in the day. (laughs)
You’ve been working with African musicians lately. Could you tell me a bit about that?
You know, I had on my bucket list these festivals I want to play, and one of them was the Festival in the Desert, in the Sahara Desert, because it’s four hours away from any civilization. I had seen a film about it. And I said, “Okay, I want to play this festival.” And I got to play at the festival. And I met a lot of African musicians that asked me to play in their bands. So I ended up spending a lot of time in Africa and playing in that style of music, because they were interested in my guitar style. African guitarists play different. It’s not, how should I say? It’s a different kind of guitar, it’s different sound on the guitar. It’s a more percussive sound. They love our rock and blues sound, or jazz soloing. They love that. So they invited me to play in their bands, with them, to create a mixture of styles.
And I just did my best to learn their approach to it. It was a very cool exchange, because they were flipping out over my playing and I was flipping out over theirs. It was a continuous “Show me that!” “No, you show me that!” (laughs) “No, you show me that!”
I started writing in that style and combining our musical principles with theirs. In my band, I have two master musicians from Senegal and they all play in western bands because they’re based in New York. They’re originally from Senegal and they’re familiar with the rhythms of Africa, particularly Senegalese music, which is my project 3, what my new record is all about.
When you first came to American and to Berklee, was there a huge culture shock?
Yes, there was. There was, but I loved America. You know, Germans love American culture, because you liberated us from fascism, and protected us against the Russians. Now you got your own Russian problem, but you know, we were very afraid. I mean, there’d been a war for our main cities. The Americans protected us.
My mother was so happy when I married an American. I mean, I thought she’d be more unhappy about me being far away, but just the fact that I married an American…American culture, especially in Munich, was very present, ‘cause Munich had an army station and it had a big band. And all the musicians in the big band played in the jazz clubs around Munich.
When did you transition to playing jazz guitar?
I always loved jazz. I was a blues guitarist first. My little brother had an immense influence on me because he was an avid record collector. And he was crazy about certain things. If you wanted to make him freak out, you’d scratch one of his records. He would lose it completely. And he had an amazing blues collection. Like John Mayall. The English blues guys. But also like Mississippi John Hurt. He was a keyboard player. He is a keyboard player (laughs). He’s a very good keyboard player! I played the guitar and he played keyboards, so I had first dibs at the blues, because those were guitar records that he was imitating on the piano. And I thought like, “Oh, I win. I got this! I got the blues!” So that’s how it first started.
And then I started hearing Wes Montgomery and jazz musicians. I was very intrigued by the way they could play long solos.
Just curious: was that the first instrument you started playing—the guitar? What was your first instrument?
My first instrument actually was the recorder. All German children played the recorder. And then I played piano. Because that’s also sort of a tradition in Germany, because it allows you the easiest way of understanding harmony. And we have a very big repertoire–classical music–that we’re very proud of. Generally in school, music is like a very important subject in school in Germany. If you flunk music, you have a problem, you know. It’s a major subject in school, just like math or history. And you have to sing in this choir, whether you can sing or not. And so it’s really encouraged to play an instrument. I played piano and classical music, but I always had a love for the guitar. And my mother had a guitar, so I took that guitar and I taught myself how to play it. But then she kind of realized after a while that my love was for the guitar. So she organized for me to have guitar lessons. Classical guitar lessons. But I had a very understanding teacher. She was good with teaching kids. And she said, “What would you like to play?” And I played the blues for her. She said, “Oh, that’s so interesting!” She said, “So expressive”! She was a real artist. She encouraged me to play guitar and sing the blues. And I was like, eleven.
She had her soirees of all her students. Some of them would sing a classical repertoire. And I would get to sing the blues and play guitar. But I still played piano at the same time. But the guitar was always my reward. If I finished my classical repertoire on piano, I could play guitar all I wanted. And then when I was fourteen my mother bought me an electric guitar and an amp to go with it, so that I could play with my brothers. Nobody could hear me in my acoustic guitar. So she bought me an electric guitar.
I know that you’ve been asked this before, but women playing jazz guitar is still very infrequent. Have you had people who ever tried to discourage you?
All the time. All the time. I actually just came from playing in [jazz pianist] Monica Herzig’s band. And we were exchanging stories. And it’s funny how people insist that you are a singer. A guy in the audience came up. It was one of those universities. Monica is a professor at Indiana University. It was one of those university guys that came up and said, “Yeah, I’m here to see Monica Herzig. She’s the singer, right?” I said, “No, she doesn’t sing at all. I don’t even know if she can sing! She’s a pianist and a composer!” And he said, “Really? I thought she was a singer!” And I said, “What makes you think that she’s a singer?” And he said, “Well, I dunno, she’s a singer!”
We think that women are supposed to be singers. Even though there is no recording of Monica ever singing.
I imagine you must have had to learn how to take all that in stride. How did you deal with those reactions from people?
I founded my own band. Because I’m also a composer. Sometimes I think sometimes that’s my biggest gift, is composing. ‘Cause I’ve been composing since I’m very little. I didn’t call it composing, I would call it making songs, when I was six. “Make a song!” (laughs) And I was encouraged by my teachers. I had very, very special teachers. They were great artists themselves. And I guess they were entertained by me. My piano teacher—I really didn’t want to read. I really didn’t like to read. It had nothing to do with the music for me. And she recognized that I felt music deeply. So she didn’t scold me. She said, “What did you do at the piano?” I said, “I make up songs.” And she said, “Oh, so you’re going to be a composer! That’s easy!”
So you know, I focused on the composing. And actually, there’s been a lot of discrimination against women composers, too. Most of the people who know Mahler, for example, didn’t know that his wife was an equally good composer.
I came from a panel at South by Southwest and there was a guy that performed at the same showcase we played last night, and he was very funny. He said, “I was so surprised!” And I said, “How come you were so surprised?” And he said, “You look like a nice mommy, a nice lady, and then you come out onstage and you play like panther!” And I said, “That’s a very nice compliment!”
So I guess people still, when people see me, they assume I’m a nice mommy! Even though I have a side shave and a head tattoo. (laughs) That’s what we’re supposed to be! And they can’t imagine that we would be a complete human being with all sorts of feelings inside ourselves. You know, it’s very difficult. But I see it getting easier for the next generation. Because people like me raised the next generation of children.