Giving up a good career to become a musician, especially when it means learning new instruments from scratch without a tutor, can be 'hard and scary'. That's what Jenavieve Cooke told me. And having got to know her a little, I can easily understand what she meant. She said that although it is hard and scary it is also 'very exciting and rewarding'.
The first time I heard of Jenavieve Cooke was in August 2015, when a reader of this Blog suggested I should watch some YouTube videos in which she was featured. With her Band - The Royal Street Winding Boys - she was filmed busking in New Orleans. She played trumpet on That's a Plenty and also sang numbers such as Egyptian Ella.
But before I tell you about that, I must pass on what I learned from Jenavieve about her development as a musician. It is a fascinating story that would make a novel in itself; and I think it illustrates so well the drive, bravery, dedication and hard work to be admired in the new young generation of traditional jazz musicians who have migrated to New Orleans.
Jenavieve was born in Bremerton in Washington State. (If your geography is as bad as mine, it may help to picture that as pretty well 120 miles south of Vancouver in Canada.) Her father was a naval officer on the base there. It wasn't long before the family found itself on the opposite side of the USA, in Annapolis, Maryland, where there is a big naval base to which her father had been transferred. This was one of many moves that must have disrupted Jenavieve's education. She told me she changed schools eight times during twelve years. Her father would be at sea for months at a time.
Throughout her childhood, Jenavieve knew that she had music in her soul. In Annapolis, a friend of the family was leader of the navy band. Jenavieve loved dancing and has fond memories of the dance parties there.
Soon, her father having left active duty to be in the Reserves, they moved to Orlando, Florida. When Jenavieve was only 12, her mother became seriously ill with cancer and successfully underwent chemotherapy.
Her parents arranged for her to have piano lessons, but only for six months. Jenavieve also played drums in the band of one of the Middle Schools that she attended briefly.
At High School, Jenavieve underwent a rigorous International Baccalaureate programme. This left her no time to join one of the school bands. But she was always singing: 'I used to sing constantly in my room or in school and my brother always told me to shut up whenever I sang!'
She told me 'My dad wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer and my mom was very sick. That was the moment I decided I would never be a musician, but rather a music lover.'
However, in the late 1990s, while at High School, Jenavieve got into swing dancing, taking lessons and then attending as many dances as she could. At this time, she discovered the recordings of Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday. And such visiting bands as the Squirrel Nut Zippers (from Asheville) thrilled her and showed what was possible. 'I was in love with it all. It spoke to my soul in a very unpretentious and permanent way.'
Jenavieve went to university, studying medicine for two years before deciding this was not for her and switching to a further two years double-majoring in Advertising and Psychology, while at the same time taking lots of art classes. She moved to San Francisco where, after further study, she found a job in which she could be truly creative: art direction in advertising. She says she loved the job ...... and yet still didn't feel content with her life.
One weekend a group of young musicians passed through. She was so moved by the joy they experienced and gave. This was the crucial moment. She gave up her job, bought a guitar and headed to Costa Rica with a one-way ticket.
Then she spent seven years travelling extensively in Canada, Central America and Europe. She played the guitar, learned music, busked, hitch-hiked, camped, worked on farms, made and sold leather goods, picked up languages, and recorded music from various cultures. She told me 'I travelled pretty much penniless'. Jenavieve believes all of this was a massively beneficial experience.
(And you see what I mean about Jenavieve's life sounding like the plot of a substantial novel.)
She was 25 when she started to learn to play the trumpet. (She can now also play various other instruments, including the accordion). The Jenavieve Cooke of today began to emerge.
She worked immensely hard at her trumpet playing and in developing her vocal skills.
Between working in Europe and elsewhere, Jenavieve in each of 2011, 2012 and 2013 spent a few months in New Orleans. A speciality of hers was traditional Balkan music. And in fact she has never lost this interest: she has founded in New Orleans a Balkan Brass Band called Backyard Belladonna.
In the summer of 2013 she attended the famous Welbourne Traditional Jazz Camp, where the tutors include some of the greatest New Orleans-based musicians.
Then she settled in New Orleans, determined to 'really learn this traditional jazz stuff'! She formed her band The Royal Street Winding Boys (and what an appropriate and memorable Jelly Roll Morton-inspired name she chose for it!). Despite the struggles familiar to any band trying to get itself recognised, she now has the satisfaction of seeing her band firmly established in the local scene.
Jenavieve told me: 'I will probably be struggling the rest of my life but somehow it seems worth it. It's about the people we touch, all the people who benefit from the music we're playing. Just how I am touched and was changed by the music I hear.'
Jenavieve's concert with The Royal Street Winding Boys that I attended on 9 April 2016 was extremely enjoyable. She played not only standards such as After You've Gone and I've Found a New Baby but also some of the obscurer numbers from long ago, such as Fourth Street Mess Around, Do Your Duty, Bogalusa Strut, Delta Bound, Mean Blue Spirits and Michigander Blues. Arrangements of the tunes were neat and uncomplicated. She fronted the band with that excellent stage presence that I had noted in the videos. She had become a very good singer indeed and also a confident trumpet player, able to state a melody with a little tasteful decoration and then in later choruses to improvise lustily and fluently. She had obviously developed a wide repertoire of both standard and less common tunes.
She is a fine musician with a fine band. If you are ever in New Orleans, may I urge you to seek them out?
|Jenavieve at The Dragon's Den,|
9 April 2016.