Interview with Christa Grix
the iJHF interviewed Christa Grix, who will be playing at the opening recital of the World Harp Congress 2011, by email.
When did you start playing the harp, and do you remember why?
I began studying the harp in high school. I was a piano student, and very much in love with music. I knew I wanted to make music my life choice. My piano teacher, as it happened, also played the harp! And when she introduced me to the harp, I knew we were meant for each other. I loved the richer sound that the harp produced, and how engaging it was. In my opinion, jazz harmony, for example, a C major 7th chord is so much more expressive on the harp than it is on the piano.
Who was your teacher / were your teachers?
I only studied with classical harp teachers. Nadia Marks started me on the harp, and Velma Froude was my first major influence as a harp teacher. (She also taught Harvi Griffin and Dorothy Ashby) I did graduate study with Lucile Lawrence, who collaborated with Carlos Salzedo.I learned to play jazz first and foremost by doing it! I have to thank all the bass and drummers who were so kind and patient with me in my first tentative days playing jazz!
But also, I really learned so much about jazz from Carl Alexius (now deceased) who grew up in New Orleans, where he worked with jazz legends Bill Evans and Carl Fontana. He then received a Fulbright scholarship and studied with Arnold Schoenberg, and finished his career as a professor at the University of Michigan. I coached with him fora bout 15 years (private lessons, not as a student at the University), and he taught me so much about jazz harmony and arranging.
Which music did you grow up with?
Well, I grew up outside of Detroit, so Motown has always been a strong influence and love. But also, studying classical piano for many years, the piano works of Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart and Bach were an early influence.
When did you start to include jazz influences in harp your playing and why?
I always wanted to play jazz on the harp, probably because there were some great jazz musicians that taught at my high school, and I thought it would be so much fun to play jazz on the harp (and it is!).
But during my formal study of the harp, through graduate school, I never did much with jazz, probably because I had my hands full just trying to learn the classics, and to play them well.
After my formal studies were completed, and it was time to really get out there and play the harp professionally, I wanted to make my own statement as a harpist. That’s when I started to play jazz, in my late twenties.
Did you have trouble to find your place in a jazz band with the harp?
Oh yes! And I don’t think that I am alone! The sense of time is so demanding in a jazz situation. It’s so easy to lose your place at first, no matter how good your rhythm is. There’s an entirely different concept of time than there is for classical musicians, and I think anyone who has been classically trained would be surprised at the rhythmic demands of playing in a jazz trio.
I have been really lucky, though, in finding some fabulous jazz musicians to work with, who are also committed to working with me. We have been playing together for years and years, and as a result, we have a rhythmically tight ensemble.
Which (jazz) musicians inspire you most?
I’m drawn to the pianists the most, I guess, because harmony is so important to me, so Fred Hersch, Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans. I think Esperanza Spaulding is fabulous – I heard her last year before she became “famous.” Michel Camilo – his spirit is so inspiring. So is Tierney Sutton. And I have to say that the two musicians that I regularly work with, Kurt Krahnke on bass, and Pete Siers on drums, are really inspiring to me.
What do you think about when you improvise? Do you think about harmonies and form while playing, or do you rely on only ears & flow?
A little of both, I guess. Certainly harmonies and form. That’s first and foremost of course. You have to be in the right place at the right time playing the right notes. But once the structure is set in my head, then I think about melody. What can I say? Where am I going with this idea? These are the questions going through my mind as I play. Hopefully something worthwhile comes out, but that’s the challenge every time I take a solo.
How do you practice?
I also play classical music a lot, so much of my practicing is learning repertoire for concerts that I’m giving. I always start my daily practice sessions with exercises to warm up, then on to repertoire.Writing and arranging is also a priority these days. When I do arrangements, I try to hear the form of the entire arrangement, before I begin writing any section.
What are you trying to improve these days?
I’m trying to improve my creativity at the harp. I’m constantly wrestling with the question “What am I saying to the listener?”
Are you working on a new CD?
Yes! I’m working on a Christmas CD!
What are your plans for the years to come?
I want to write and arrange more, and I’m trying to make that a priority in the next few years. I hope by producing arrangements with “gentle” opportunities for improvisation I can introduce jazz on the harp in a nurturing musical environment and encourage more harpists to expand into playing jazz.
Do you have any advice for beginning jazz harpists?
Listen to as much jazz as you can. Transcribe as much as possible. Enjoy the music, and have fun!