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  • Donny Thompson, M.S., NPA

JOI's Gary Cordell Interviews virtuoso drummer, bandleader, composer, and educator - Sherri Maricle

In this column, JOI Vice President Gary Cordell asks questions to well-known jazz artists. The artist featured here is American virtuoso drummer, bandleader, composer, and educator - Sherrie Maricle.

On March 30, 1993, drummer Sherrie Maricle and The DIVA Jazz Orchestra gave their first performance at New York University. This performance was the culmination of months of auditions and rehearsing under the discerning eye of long-time manager for Buddy Rich – DIVA co-founder, Stanley Kay; Buddy Rich composer/arranger John Labarbera and Sherrie, DIVA co-founder/leader. Since then there have 12 albums, numerous national and international tours, and a performance at the Newport Jazz Festival. In March of 2018, the all-women orchestra celebrated its 25th anniversary with a stint at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola at Jazz at Lincoln Center. The ensemble marked this anniversary with the release of a new album, DIVA: 25th Anniversary Project consisting entirely of original large ensemble compositions by DIVA Jazz Orchestra members. Sherrie has been the DIVA Jazz Orchestra’s drummer and leader for most of her career. Other groups she performs with are: Broadway star/tap dancer Maurice Hines, The New York Pops, FIVE PLAY and The 3D Jazz Trio.

As a trumpet player and lover of everything about big bands, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to speak with one of the premiere big band drummers and leaders of our time.

JOIful Notes(JN): The first thing I ask her is: “What are you working on at this moment?

Sherrie Maricle (SM): “Right now? Right now I’m working on brush technique. I’ve been down the rabbit hole for the last 2-3 hours sweeping, swishing, and swirling! (laughs)”

(JN): “So, I guess the best place to start is at the beginning. Can you tell me how the DIVA Orchestra began?”

(SM): “Sure. The precursor to that is I was in a pick-up orchestra for the 75th anniversary of the Schubert Theater in New Haven, CT. The music director was Skitch Henderson and we performed for classic show-biz icons like Charles Nelson Riley, etc. Then along came a singer/dancer named Maurice Hines and his music director was a man named Stanley Kay. I knew of Stanley and his association with Buddy Rich but it was the first time I had met him. I stayed in touch with him and 2 years later he called me and said he had an idea to start an all-women big band. I told him I knew of many women that would be fantastic for this. He said OK, let’s try this then. So in June of 1992, we held auditions and 40 women showed up and from those 40, we picked the original 15 members and off we went. Of the original 15, besides me, we still have founding member and world-class lead trumpet player Liesl Whitaker.” Many band member have been with us over 20 years.

“The reason I was interested in Stanley’s proposal is because his sole focus was on the music. Aside from the limited amount I knew back then about bands like the Sweethearts of Rhythm, the other all-women groups I knew about seemed to care more about the way you looked rather than about the way you played. In the beginning it was hard for some “listeners” to override the “you have a gimmick” way of thinking, but not anymore. I believe that DIVA has shifted that way of thinking in a major way; and we’ve been doing it for 27 years now.”

(JN): “You have 15 of the top musicians in the world in your orchestra. As a leader, how do you keep these artists musically content? “

(SM): “That’s a really good question. I don’t believe anyone’s ever asked me that question before. When I first started out as leader of this band, I called all my friends that had led bands and asked for their advice about this very thing. Leaders like Jon Faddis and Dennis Mackerel. They said tell ‘em if they’re complaining and not happy, to go get their own band! (laughs)

Seriously, I see it as my responsibility to make sure that every member of the band is happy and has a great musical experience. DIVA commissions all of our charts, so they are originals (arrangements or compositions,) and are written to feature specific members of the orchestra. I do my best to feature everyone on every concert. I have 15 amazing musicians on stage and everyone’s solo voice is unique and inspiring.

(JN): “I’ve had the opportunity to see DIVA 4 times in concert. Every time I have come away with the feeling that there is a synergy about the band. I believe that synergy comes from you. You’re more than the leader of the band, you’re the heart and soul of the band. And that feeling stretches to envelop the audience.”

(SM): “Thank you, I really appreciate that and it means a lot to me that it comes across to the audience because that is where I put my heart, soul, and energy. When I first moved to New York in 1985, my first teacher was Mel Lewis. He was one of the most swingin’ drummers I had ever heard. I asked him a lot of questions about his band and he told me that it wasn’t a dictatorship to him. He wanted contributions from everyone in the band. I feel the same way. I want to hear what everyone in the band has to say. Sometimes I agree. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes they have a better idea than I have. Sometimes not. I believe that gives everyone an ownership of the product that we are creating. I trust the artistry and friendship of the members in the band.

(JN): “Where do you draw your inspiration from now? Both as a bandleader and a musician?”

(SM): “As a bandleader, I draw a massive amount of inspiration for the members of the band. When I was trying to think of what I wanted to record for the album marking the 25th anniversary of DIVA, I realized that I had 15 amazing composers and arrangers in the band. That was inspiring for me to have music by them, for them, and that featured them. As a musician, I am certainly inspired by other musicians, friends and colleagues. I am a big fan of leader/drummers Mel Lewis, Louis Bellson, Philly Joe Jones, Buddy Rich and Jeff name a few.

(JN): “What are your musical roots?”

(SM): “I am deeply from the tradition of straight-ahead swing. Count Basie, Woody Herman, Buddy Rich, that lineage of concert big band is where my heart and soul feels at home and swings. While I feel it’s important ( and inspiring) to have an awareness of all the great music happening with “large ensembles” in 2020, it took me a long time to settle into my voice, the best I have to offer the jazz world; straight-ahead. I want to make music that makes me feel good; most of that comes from the neck (heart) down vs. neck up (head!) A core goal of the DIVA Jazz Orchestra is to swing hard, make our listeners smile and snap on 2 & 4. (laughs)

(JN): “You are highly involved in music education. Was that always a passion or did it come later?”

(SM): “I remember back in high school, I was always getting everyone together for sectionals because I thought it was fun to share information. But I did have a huge breaking point when I was in grad school in New York. I was playing club dates and weddings, schlepping my drums a lot for long gigs and short money. One gig in particular was the breaking point. It was a wedding and I had played ‘Pop Goes the Weasel ‘ for 15 minutes waiting for the bride to cut the cake! After that, I threw my drum sticks down, went to the bar, and right then I made the decision that I just couldn’t do this anymore. I spoke to one of my mentors, the head of NYU Jazz, the great saxophonist Tom Boras, and he told me I needed to focus on what was going to make me happy in music. I thought then that I love jazz and I want to share what I know about jazz with other people. So I made a conscious choice to stop playing crappy gigs and start teaching a lot more because I knew if you do something that you’re really passionate about, you are going to give the best of yourself and it would make me a happier person. And it did. It really did.

(JN): “Our organization, Jazz Outreach Initiative, was created to raise public awareness about jazz music. JOI strives to promote diversity of ethnicity and gender in jazz. From your perspective, how can an organization like JOI reach out and promote these ideals?

(SM): “Having all known resources made available front and center to young people. Even as young as elementary school. I believe 90% of the disinterest in jazz by young people is because of their inaccessibility to hear and learn about the music; basic lack of awareness. You would think that in today’s world it would be easier to find anything with the advent of the internet but, somehow it’s not. People need to hear and see musicians talking about and performing jazz in a live setting. Jazz by all ethnicities and genders. It’s been my experience performing for a young audience and also teaching them about the music, talking about jazz legends like Louis Armstrong, they go wild and get excited for it. I believe experiences like this are 100% crucial for young people to experience early in life.

(JN): “What would be your advice to a young musician right now?”

(SM): “To listen to music as much as you can. I’m always surprised when I hear a student say they’ve never heard of jazz greats like Sonny Rollins, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, etc. I’m not sure if it’s a lack of interest as much as a simple lack of awareness, but jazz music has so much to offer on so many levels… if you will just listen. Some kids, especially as they get into their “tweens” become afraid to improvise and I (I think most people) consider improvisation, self-expression and spontaneous creativity to be a crucial component in jazz. To help young players overcome fear, I suggest focusing on rhythm and limiting melodic content; sometimes even to 1 note. I find that rhythm is the first thing to go out the window when students are terrified by chords, arpeggios, licks and scales. When you strip those things away and focus on rhythm, no matter how complicated the chords are, it can be very liberating. If you’re groovin’, swingin’ and it feels good…you can’t go wrong! I believe all musicians should take a class devoted to rhythm.

(JN): “JOI is excited to have you be a clinician and performer for the next Las Vegas Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Festival, February 12-13, 2021. We look forward to seeing you then!”

(SM): “I can’t wait! I’m happy to be a part of it!

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