Interview: Roxy Coss chats with NWMS

Roxy Coss photo by René Huemer

Seattle’s own Roxy Coss, who plays several woodwind instruments but concentrates on tenor soprano saxes, graduated from Garfield High, moved out east to take NJ and NYC by storm, earning accolades from “All About Jazz,” “DownBeat,” and elsewhere. Her new album Quintet revisits some of her self-composed tunes from her previous albums, re-thunk and re-conceptualized. She celebrates the album release with an all-star local band (see below) on Wednesday, August 21st, 7:30 pm at the Royal Room.  She was kind enough to take some questions.


NWMS:  What are your favorite memories of growing up here?  

Roxy Coss:  Seattle is so beautiful. The water is what makes it really feel like home, growing up near Lake Washington, taking ferries, and eating seafood.  It’s also so green, all of the parks.  Even my parents’ backyard all feel like a jungle compared to Manhattan.

NWMS:  Which neighborhoods did you call home?

 Roxy Coss:  My family moved to Seattle when I was about 1.5 years old, to the Wallingford neighborhood. Then, we moved to Columbia City when I was 4 years old, and my Dad completely rebuilt our house. My parents still live there, so that’s where I consider “home” and where I primarily grew up.

NWMS:  What music made you want to make music–which performers, albums, tracks, shows, etc.?

Roxy Coss:  I always enjoyed making music, from a very young age. There are always artists who inspire me along the way, and that journey of discovering new inspiration is part of the joy of being a musician. The list is never-ending, and growing all the time! 

Some particular inspiration that I find continuous:  Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane, Art Blakey (and all his Jazz Messengers), Kurt Rosenwinkel, and a band that is my first musical memory but I still enjoy listening to:  The Beatles.

NWMS:  How old were you when you started in on the sax?  Were you a tenor player first?  Who were your first teachers and what were their most important lessons?

Roxy Coss:  I started sax at age 9 in fourth grade instrumental music. I had already been studying piano and composition since age 5.

I started on alto and switched to tenor in 6th grade when I joined the jazz band at Washington Middle School. Robert Knatt handed me my first tenor, partially because I was tall for my age. I never looked back! It felt like home the first time I played it.

My first piano teacher was Nan Beth Walton, and she provided my musical foundation–a focus on ear training, composition, and music theory that helped immensely when I started learning jazz.

My first sax teachers were Dan Greenblatt, Tina Richerson, and Mark Taylor, all who helped me start improvising. Dan was my first private saxophone teacher and got me learning how to actually practice and get better. Tina was important to my development because playing for her was the first time I felt comfortable to try soloing and take risks in improvisation. Mark helped push me further into more complex jazz harmony and learning tunes and different saxophonists’ voices. Both Mark Taylor and Mr. Knatt were important to my development because they would show me different recordings, and talk about what made different players unique–elements of their sound, and what I liked or didn’t like.

NWMS:  Did you do jazz band at Garfield High all four years?  What were your auditions like?

Roxy Coss: Yes, I was in “B” band my Freshman year, and “A” band my Sophomore/Junior/Senior years. Auditions were always stressful. I would practice all summer for hours a day, preparing something. In the end I felt like it didn’t matter too much, the point was just to show Acox that I had been working hard.

NWMS:  What were your profoundest lessons taken from Acox?  

Roxy Coss: One thing I learned from Acox is that it is all about the feel–the groove. The rhythm has to come first. Also, we always listened to a song before trying to play it. That instilled the idea that music is about what it sounds like, as obvious as that might seem, much of jazz education these days starts with the theory and paper rather than the sound. Even though the sound is what really matters.

We traveled to Europe and NYC, and I learned that I wanted to pursue jazz professionally. 

NWMS:  Acox retired recently.  Any thoughts on his influence, and his legacy?

Roxy Coss: Acox is a living legend. His lifetime contribution to jazz is incomprehensible. He contributed to creating one of the strongest local jazz scenes in the country, and contributed to countless musicians pursuing a career in jazz, many going on to be world class professionals. Not to mention all the other students he touched who are doing other things. 

The lesson that music can teach is so valuable to learning about discipline, joy, community, and lifelong learning. He created an environment where studying these things through music was “cool”, and everyone wanted to be a part of it in whatever way was possible for them. He created a place for artists to be celebrated and people who are different to feel at home.

NWMS:  When did you arrive in NYC?  What were your most profound culture shocks?

Roxy Coss:  I moved East to attend William Paterson University, which is in NJ about 20 minutes from Manhattan. I would say most of my culture shock happened then, when I was 18. 

People on the East coast are culturally so different than on the West coast, it is different enough to feel like a foreign country. People’s values, the pace, the food, how things work–everything is different. Everyone here always asks me “what are you?” There is such a focus to categorize and define yourself here in NYC, whereas in Seattle I never really thought about it through those types of filters. People in NJ are much different than in Seattle, whereas New Yorkers are more similar to Seattleites. I think this is more about people who choose to live in a city versus the suburbs. 

In NJ, there was a conscious decision from people around campus to not go to the city. Also, people in NYC are always on top of each other because it’s so highly populated, so you see the disparity in income, class, and privilege more strongly than any other place I’ve ever visited. There are so many people living in poverty, right under the richest people in the world. The wealth is incomprehensible to most people in the rest of the country, because the way other cities and towns are set up, you mostly only see people on a daily basis who are more similar (or in similar situations) to you.

NWMS:  Which players, woodwinds and non-, were most influential to you?  Why and how?  Do you consider yourself a vertical improviser, a horizontal improviser, or something else?

Roxy Coss:  This would take too long to answer! Every player I check out in any depth will have an impact on me. Anyone who I’ve transcribed has left a mark. Especially those recordings that I listened to over and over, so I can sing along with all the solos. 

At this point in the music, I don’t think of myself as a vertical or horizontal improviser, I think the music has gone beyond those limitations.

NWMS:  You’ve recorded all the tunes on the new album at least once before. Could you say a little bit about each tune, and how each one compares/contrasts with how you’ve done it before?

Roxy Coss:  On my first four records, most of the tunes were written close to the recording date, so I had an idea of what I wanted it to sound like, and the band recorded pretty much straight from that original idea. But, as we perform gigs, the music evolves over time. 

We chose this group of tunes based on a selection from the book that we perform regularly in our tour sets. Over time, these tunes have developed to best fit the live format, and naturally change a bit from the original recordings. I wanted to capture that energy that the band has on these tunes–not necessarily a “best of”, but a collection of band and crowd favorites. Hopefully there was more of a comfort and ease on this recording date that allowed a different type of creativity, spontaneity and honesty to come through on all of the tunes.

NWMS:  I saw Stanley Clarke once, and he explained that although instrumental musicians don’t have lyrics to express such sentiments as “We hate the war!”, they try to make their points through what they do.  Do your tunes contain elements of social commentary?  If so, what techniques
do you use?

Roxy Coss:  Yes, all of my music is a reflection on real life. The themes are varied, but for example, pretty much all of the music on The Future Is Female, was protest music to what’s happening now in our society with women. When I compose, I am holding an idea in my mind, and the music I write represents something I’m feeling and thinking. So, although I’m not utilizing lyrics, the emotional content is still there, and each composition attempts to communicate something to the listener through the sounds I create.

NWMS:  Tell me about the Women in Jazz Organization (WIJO).  What lead you to put it together?  Who were/are your collaborators?  What issues is the organization designed to strike at?  What about the condition of women and non-binary folk in jazz would surprise the average person the most?

Roxy Coss:  The Women In Jazz Organization is a collective of over 400 professional performing Jazz Musicians who identify as Women or gender Non-Binary. Largely a New York City-based organization, with connections to other individuals and groups nationally and internationally.

Our mission is: Women In Jazz Organization intends to help level the playing field in Jazz, so that women and non-binary people have equal opportunity to participate in and contribute to Jazz, leading to an improved and more rich, diverse, and successful art form.

WIJO aims to improve the experience of women and non-binary people in jazz through focusing our work on three main goals:

To empower individuals within the organization.

To create an inclusive environment that fosters solidarity, connects, and strengthens the intersectional community of women and non-binary people in jazz.

To address inequalities in Jazz culture and on the Jazz scene.

The idea for WIJO started because I realized I didn’t have many women in my life on a regular basis. All of my colleagues/peers/friends were male, due to the imbalance in the jazz community. So, it started with a desire to build a community of women. 

I had been doing a lot of reading on feminism and women in the workplace and wanted to create a regular group that met to discuss the issues we were facing in the jazz world. After Trump was elected, I really wanted to do something to change things.  So WIJO was also formed in reaction as a protest. I thought that the best way to give back and create change is within my own community in jazz. 

I got together with one of the Leaders, Aubrey Johnson and sketched out the ideas for our first meeting, and it only grew from there. Tahira Clayton, the third member of our Leadership Team, attended that first meeting as well, and the three of us are now the core organization members of WIJO. We are also moving toward a committee-based organization this Fall, where members can lead their own projects. Emily Pecoraro and Elsa Nilsson have been instrumental in running the WIJO Mentors Program, and there are dozens of other active members who have helped keep us going.

WIJO isn’t designed to strike at anything. We are primarily focused on our members and the helping create equity for the entire community of women and non-binary people in jazz. This starts with the self-education and empowerment for the individual. It also means strengthening the community of female and non-binary jazz musicians, including building opportunities for us. We also address issues in the general jazz community, but are more focused on building a world we want than tearing anything down. 

I think the biggest thing about being a woman or non-binary person in jazz that people don’t understand is that your gender influences and effects every single part of your experience of being a jazz musician.

NWMS:  You’re performing at the Royal Room with an all-star local band.  Who are they, and how/why did you pick each one out?

Roxy Coss:  Randy [Halberstadt, pianist] was a teacher of mine when I was in middle school. I attended his improvisation workshop at Music Works Northwest, and it really changed the way I understood improvisation. We’ve had the chance to play together quite a bit in the past few years, starting with a gig I did with SRJO [Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra] featuring Billy Strayhorn’s music. 

D’Vonne [Lewis, drummer] and I sort of grew up together–he was at Roosevelt when I was at Garfield, and he is only a couple years older. So, we would see each other at festivals and concerts. There was a great community between the two schools, a healthy rivalry. 

Michael [Glynn, bassist] is a fellow Garfield High alum, so I knew about him growing up and looked up to him. I have also been playing with D’Vonne and Michael quite a bit the past few years whenever I’m back in Seattle.

This will be the first time Milo [Petersen, guitarist] is playing my music; I haven’t featured the Quintet [music] in Seattle yet with the guitar instrumentation in the lineup. I’m excited to play together in this capacity for the first time!

NWMS:  What are your plans for the future?

Roxy Coss:  I will be doing a bit more touring to promote the Quintet album release, including a show in NYC and one in Phoenix, AZ. I also have a Northwest tour lined up in November with my NYC Quintet, including Spokane, Bainbridge Island, Vancouver, and Seattle once again. 

I will be back teaching an ensemble at Juilliard this year, and starting a guest residency at Arizona State University. I’ll also be continuing my duties as a Board of Director for JEN (Jazz Education Network). I’m also excited to be moving forward with a lot of new projects with WIJO in the Fall.


Andrew Hamlin

Andrew Hamlin likes to photograph shoes and write about dog shit. He was born and raised in Seattle, Washington, where he resides today. He attended the Evergreen State College, where he wrote and edited arts coverage for the Cooper Point Journal. He is the film critic for the Northwest Asian Weekly, and he’s published arts coverage and criticism in the San Diego Reader, Village Voice, Seattle Times, Seattle Weekly, Goldmine, and other publications. He misses Helen Wiggin. Hamlin’s website is https://andrewhamlin.org.