Amina Claudine Myers: A Lifetime of Love

aminacoverarticle

FJR founder, Jordannah Elizabeth’s cover article for The New York City Jazz Record‘s July 2021 issue.

79-year-old pianist, vocalist, composer and visionary improviser Amina Claudine Myers is admirably active, continuing to nurture her artistic musical skills as if time was never a factor and utilizing every moment as an opportunity to evolve.

he could be considered an improvisational matriarch simply on the merit of her ability to cultivate and inspire great works of music with a positive and intuitive nature. One does not have to be a woman to be matriarchal; this archetype can be honed by being consistent, trustworthy and reliable in communitybuilding and offering those around them a loving environment. “I grew up in the country in Arkansas. I didn’t appreciate where I grew up until I became an adult. I was exposed to fruit and vegetables from gardens and picking fruit off the trees, riding my grandfather’s horse bareback. The people in Blackwell, Arkansas were about love. That’s something that has kept me going. The people would come together and the women were canning and quilting. There was a lot of love in Blackwell. That has inspired me to be where I am today,” says Myers.

Myers started studying piano at four years old. “My great uncle started me on music and I started taking piano in the nearest town from the white Catholic nuns who gave me lessons when I was a girl.” Myers is most known for her involvement, years later, with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), a groundbreaking collective of creative artists springing to life in Chicago in 1965. It was through connecting and performing with members of this community that she found her improvisational footing, one which has never wavered since her early days with the organization.

“My biggest contribution, after I joined the AACM, I was able to develop my writing skills and it gave me the opportunity to create and work on improvisation and write music that could be expanded every time it was performed,” she says. “There’s what I call traditional jazz where musicians are inspired by musicians of the past and the music continues in the traditional form. Then you have musicians that opened the music up much more. For instance, at the AACM, I was exposed to different musicians creating their own styles, all those musicians took the music and opened it up more and there was more improvisation.”

Myers’ original repertoire is vast. She writes with earnestness and uniqueness, creating works in many different Black music genres, gifting the world with well-rounded and culturally important pieces. She takes the time to reminisce about her favorite pieces: “‘Have Mercy on Us’, ‘Jumping in the Sugar Bowl’, ‘Hard Time Blues’, which is a tribute to John Lee Hooker, ‘Straight to You’, that’s blues. Those are some of my favorites.”

She has been awarded the Arthur L. Porter Lifetime Achievement Award from the Arkansas Jazz Hall Of Fame, inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame and this year, “I’ve been fortunate to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award from Arts for Art and I’ll be performing at the Vision Festival with my voice choir of eight singers and Generation IV, which consists of four female singers honoring the gospel groups of the ‘50s, including a few of my compositions, and a trio. So, I’m preparing for that.”

Myers is no stranger to preparation. She has a method when deciding what she will do for a performance, no matter the format or length. She studies her own collection of original music and decides if she will offer new compositional works or rework the pieces she has written or performed before. “If I’m doing a concert I do a few new compositions but depending on what kind of concert it is, I take the music and look over it and sometimes I do new arrangements and work on them.” This is what makes Myers special: her openness to experiment with work, unfazed by the rigidity of structured concert performance and trusting of listeners to be just as open when engaging her work through a new lens and arrangement.

This is why Myers deserves to engage with the word legacy. Her work is needed because it is graceful and amiable. She takes the time to describe what the word means to her, “It’s making a blueprint of your music so you can inspire others. I don’t know if this is happening with me, but your music never dies. Even when you pass away, you leave a blueprint to still be respected and kept in place because you made a difference and left an impression on other people.”

The impression that Myers leaves on others is profound. She has worked with some of jazz’ great composers and thinks fondly of many of them. “Another [great] thing for me was performing with Gene “Jug” Ammons, that was back in the ‘70s. Also, playing with Archie Shepp in Paris. And there are quite a few people I performed with who were some of my favorites, Von Freeman, Muhal Richard Abrams from the AACM. I played with many people that I have been inspired by.” She in turn inspired many. One of her musical friends, drummer Reggie Nicholson, offered kind words about her work, “For many years, it has been a pleasure and a challenge performing Amina’s music. She has always been an icon of creative music with her soulful approach to composing. Her music has that inner groove and freedom, which is the foundation of her style.”

After living and working in Chicago, Myers moved to New York City in 1976, “God has given me the talent and I’ve been blessed to play music that has survived. It’s through the music. I taught school for six years when I was living in Chicago, but I resigned and moved to New York because I wanted to play music and to play all over the world and try to inspire people. When I went to New York and ran out of money, I was always able to have food and have somewhere to stay. It was a blessing,” she remembers. “If you do what you’re supposed to do artistically, I find that you will make it in life. If you stick to whatever talent you have and you believe in yourself, you’ll be taken care of.”

The humility that emerges from Myers’ words is just as natural as it is for her to create music. She hasn’t left New York City since her move and despite the competitiveness, presence of egoism and hypermasculinity, Myers remains unscathed and grateful. “I’ve never been depressed about not getting any recognition. I’ve never had that kind of feeling because most musicians I know hadn’t had any work, but they were able to create, write and practice their music in their homes. It can be slow but when your time comes you’ll make it. If you try to stay positive and live with love, you will survive.”

She speaks simply, clearly and with the wisdom of sages, exuding a spirituality that is calming and endearingly matter of fact. This wisdom is rooted in her ability to maintain community to this day and by thinking broadly about her life and what is most important to understand about the reality of what it is to be alive. “I belong to a writer’s club now. We Zoom and we can do what we want to do. We look at things we’ve written a year ago or recently. We present it to the host and we read what we wrote and we discuss it. So, I’m writing a lot of things about growing up in Blackwell and the people that lived there,” she says. “I’m really grateful because when I was in college, I would say I was from Louisville, Kentucky but I realized now that how we lived, where we were born and how we grew up plays into the makeup of our entire lives. It’s set up and I think we knew this before we were born. And when I look at my life, I see that everything was supposed to happen the way it happened. It was all in the master plan before we come to this Earth. Everything was planned, everything. This happens to each of us that is alive. Whatever we do in life is planned before we come.”

It is incredibly important to document and think about the art that musicians make. They thrive off the feeling of being seen, heard and written about, but Myers is much more than a musician. She is a creator of works that can and should stand the test of time. Her music is powerful, but what is more powerful is how Myers sees the world in a way that is achingly positive, dramatically simple, unconditionally loving and profoundly graceful. She is a good human being and that is what should make a truly good musician— one who has the ability to be grateful and touch the world with her beautiful open heart.

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