A True Leader Lets the Light In: Ariel Glassman Big Band

Ariel Glassman feat

Taking a page from big band’s heyday and running full throttle with it takes courage and strength. Both are apparent when listening to Ms. Ariel Glassman’s Big Band, whose full, soaring sound immediately tells the listener that he or she is about to be treated to some serious jazz. Recently appearing at the Fulton Street Collective in Chicago, Glassman has put out some amazingly complex and engaging music that definitely stands shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Sammy Nestico and contemporaries.

The noir-ish tone in the first bars of “Approved” explode into a dizzying, swinging ride that shows the band can truly get down while staying hot. Sultry and melancholy, “Too Good to Last” is absolute acoustic perfection with vocals that transport to a place of beautiful anguish, lyrics (by Kandace Spring) that are painfully real (“You’re still the best/mistake that I made”) and a sax solo flooding its space with emotion.  An unexpectedly clever pairing of big band with rap works like a bead on a silk thread in “Finish Line” and one of the best hooks ever punches its way through “Wake Up Douglas.”

What is your primary instrument? Do you have to be able to play every instrument in a band in order to conduct?

My primary is actually guitar, a little unusual since it’s a less-utilized big band instrument! I also sing a bit. I don’t know how to play every instrument (can’t play a brass instrument to save my life) but I think it’s necessary to know what you’re dealing with for every instrument. Knowing the basic mechanics and ranges as well what is and isn’t possible on any given instrument is definitely something every band leader should familiarize themselves with every chance they get. Gary Lindsay’s “Jazz Arranging Techniques” gives breakdowns of each instrument and I go back to it time and time again, as well as just talking to my peers whenever I can. 

Best takeaway from your early music education?

My music teachers emphasized a lot on empathy, emotion, and feel. That’s something I lost sight of for a while, but I realize I’ve always gravitated towards things that feel good to me and that bring up certain emotional reactions more.

Most useless advice you’ve received about music itself or the business?

That’s kind of a sassy question and I’m here for it! It would probably be not to do big band. Obviously, there’s not a huge call for it right now and it costs a lot of money, but clearly that’s advice I’ve ignored because it makes me happy. It’s the medium I enjoy speaking through! 

On the other hand, the most useful was definitely not to be afraid of rejection. I get “no” or no reply at all way more than I’ve gotten “yes,” but if you don’t put yourself out there the yeses will never find you.

How did you come to lead a big band? 

Big band was my first experience with jazz in middle school and I just fell in love with it right away. There were so many people and sounds. It was just chaos and I loved it. I continued being in big bands through high school but in college I wasn’t placed in one because there were limited spaces for guitarists.

I didn’t realize what a negative effect that had on my mental state until I was placed in one the following year and looked forward to it more than any other class. Some of my favorite memories from school were in that band. Then, when I was feeling down about everything I was doing for school, I decided to write a big band chart for the first time to try and distract myself. It was a long process, even frustrating at times, but I had never been prouder or happier than the first time I stood in front of 17 people playing something that started out in my head. I got addicted to the feeling and kept writing.

Now that I’m out of school and have some other styles I want to explore, having my own big band to lead is a necessity to get my music played. So here I am, a year out of school putting on a big band show! 

Besides the sheer number of instruments, what defines the actual “sound” of big-band music; is it in the melody and harmonies, the rhythm…?

That’s tough because I feel like people like to put big band into this kind of archaic box. The truth is, it’s stylistically as fluid as any other form of jazz. I think there’s a lot of power behind the sound, it’s very full, but you have so many combinations at your disposal it could be a trio for a section of the chart or a quintet or a tentet or the full band. But if we want to get technical about it there are universally accepted forms of band harmony that are common (Basie voicings, drop 2, drop 2-4, etc.).

If there are a lot of instruments filling out the sound and people are working together to create it, I’d probably call it a big band. 

Is it important, enlightening, or unnecessary to highlight the fact that you are a woman in a non-traditional role in terms of leading a big band? Should we be getting away from needing to say what gender a musician is in the first place and only focus on the musicianship, skill and creativity it takes?

Well there’s a loaded question! I honestly think it’s important to acknowledge that the separating of those things probably isn’t possible at this point in time. I don’t think it’s a coincidence Maria Schneider inspired me to want to start writing for big band. On a psychological level, we automatically connect more with people that seem like us. That goes for teachers, students, role models, heroes; it just kind of is what it is.

I didn’t have any female guitar role models (I still don’t actually), but Maria Schneider was the first woman I saw being praised for her musicianship and skill, and I thought “I’d love to be like her someday.”

More than highlighting just the fact that I’m in front of a band, I think it’s important for others to know that sexism and racism still exist, just in different forms than we may be used to. It’s shaped in a way to try and covertly fit into society today, so just because it’s inconspicuous doesn’t mean that it’s not there.

Have you performed at the Fulton St. Collective before?

I had not performed at Fulton before but it was incredibly exciting. It’s one of my favorite venues.

Talk about the use of spoken word in your music.

During my junior year in college, I was feeling lost. I didn’t like the music I was making, everything felt monotonous, and it was just a real drag. Then I was introduced to rap music and it opened up a whole new world of possibilities. Listening to the emotion and passion of people like Kendrick Lamar and Common pulled me out of this apathy I had towards music at the time. Then I heard Chance the Rapper’s album “Coloring Book” and I thought….that would sound good with a bunch of horns behind him. It was just jovial and brought people together and I thought it would fit together. So, I started transcribing the beats from his songs and orchestrating them for big band. Eventually I wanted to branch out with originals, so I took what I learned from those transcriptions and started writing my own charts and asked people to write their own verses and rap with my band. Then I asked the rappers I knew and had worked with to send me verses they wrote and I made charts to fit their rapping. It’s been a process trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t in this setting since I don’t have too many examples. (Heisenberg Uncertainty Players did a few videos with rappers/spoken word, the Chicago Yestet uses Keith Harris for Spoken Word who is an absolutely amazing artist, and there are some recordings of the spoken word artist Gil Scott Heron with a big band.) These are all wonderful, but they’re completely different from each other and different from what I envision.

What is the difference when you compose for the big band vs. the trio?

I definitely have to make sure to limit myself when writing for the trio. In a setting like that, at least for me, it gets too clunky if it’s arranged or written too much. So usually I’ll just scribble out a tune or reharmonize lead sheet style, and we’ll figure out the arrangement on the fly as we play with each other. It’s more organic that way and give the guys room to be creative. I’ve played with them a lot and trust them, sometimes more than I trust myself.

With big band, I get to be as creative as I want with all these colorful sound and harmony possibilities. It’s like the trio is floating down a river on a raft and big band is controlling the water. But even then, the ebbs and flows are always a surprise. It’s a lot of fun to hear whenever I put music in front of a new group of people. The energy is what becomes the group effort rather than the arrangement 

Who are the personnel in your trio?

I most often play with Henry Dickhoff on organ and Daniel Beckwith on drums, the two absolute most swingin’ guys I could ever ask to play with. If I want bass instead of organ for whatever reason, Ben Dillinger is the man. He always takes the music in a way I don’t expect. I’m lucky enough to have all three of them in the band as well! 

Is the big band a static group or does the personnel change?

The personnel changes a lot. It’s such a big group and people are so busy I always have to fill out parts when someone can’t make it. It’s just not enough money for people to drop their other things for, which I respect. Hopefully one day I’ll have enough to keep the same people, since it’s more fun to write for a band you know. But there are some people I always ask. Trumpet player Henry Smith has been on a lot of my stuff and I adore his playing, Conner Eisenmenger is an amazing lead trombone and soloist as well as a great hang, Gerald Martinez has played sax on a lot of my stuff and he’s a great energy to have around.

When you hear your own music played for the first time, how does that feel?

Make fun of me if you want, but there’s no way to describe it other than magical. Absolutely magical. 

What have you been working on most recently?

This and Three For All (my trio) and my two big projects right now. I’m trying to figure out next steps for both, getting in the studio and making something I’m proud of that’s not as ephemeral as a live performance. I’d love to make the charts on this show into an EP so I can promote it more, but that takes planning and money. Hopefully I’ll be able to raise the funds soon!

A lot of the music I’ve written for this show is inspired by the way I’ve felt since graduating school. Insecurities, frustrations, sadness, optimism, loss, grief, gratitude, hopefulness.

I have two favorites right now for different reasons. One is a chart named “Juno” that I wrote with Frankiem Mitchell (one of the rappers). I’m not going to lie, I think it’s kind of a banger, which is so fun to say about a big band chart! Frankiem  has some amazing bars he’s gonna spit on it. He loves challenging his audiences and is really an incredible lyricist. I’m so glad I get to work with him. 

My other favorite is “Swing Sets.” This one took me months to write and kind of morphed with me through a lot of dark times. I would write one section, put it away for a while, something tragic would happen, and I’d take it out and write a new section. This particular chart was almost like my way of reorganizing the world without the people we lost in it. Things didn’t make sense, but this piece of music existed through all of it and was able to change through it, so why couldn’t I? It’s just meant a lot to me to have that piece of music with me and it’s been a comfort to write.

What do you most want to convey to audiences?

I would love if people feel something and enjoy it. I want people not to feel alone in the difficult things they go through, to be able to leave those feelings at the door for a couple of hours. That’s what some concerts have done for me and I’ll remember those for the rest of my life. 

What is most exciting to you about a jazz-filled life?

You literally never know what’s going to happen. There’s not a linear career path. Things stop and start; they move forward and then back; and then you don’t know where they’re going. It’s always exciting. 

For more information visit https://soundcloud.com/ariel-glassman and on Instagram @arielshglassman.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of Ariel Glassman.
© Debbie Burke 2019


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