FJR founder, Jordannah Elizabeth’s cover article for The New York City Jazz Record‘s August 2021 issue.
New York City native Camille Thurman has been making an impact on the jazz world for the past decade as both as a tenor saxophonist/flutist and vocalist. She is the first female member of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO) and is ascending into jazz stardom with infinite grace and creativity. Thurman can be heard on her own recordings for Hot Tone Music and Chesky as well on albums by the JLCO, Dianne Reeves, Mimi Jones, Rachel Eckroth, Jerome Jennings, Shirazette Tinnin and Michael Olatuja. Among the honors she has received are runner-up in the 2013 Sarah Vaughan International Vocal Competition, ASCAP Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composers Award, Fulbright Scholars Cultural Ambassador Grant and Chamber Music of America Performance Plus Grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.
As with all the other musicians working to readjust and bounce back from the isolation of the pandemic, the past year-plus has not been easy or linear for Thurman. “The toughest thing that I had to overcome was being still,” said Thurman. “As musicians we’re always moving, we’re always working on projects, especially as freelance artists, we’re always creating, figuring out how to make it work and how to present and where to present it. The pandemic kind of put everything to a halt and made all of us try to figure out what was really important, but also made us think about what we’re actually doing and reevaluating the things we do that keep us busy and the meaning behind it.”
Matters became more triggering as the pandemic was layered with social justice issues, spawning international unrest, leaving Thurman and her musician husband feeling a bit helpless and unable to serve their community in ways that were hands-on and collaborative. “We found a way to speak out by composing music and getting out the emotions and the thoughts that we were processing during the time of being in quarantine. It became an outlet and a way to bring discussion to those issues. We’ve known for many years artists like Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln and Nina Simone used music as a conduit for expression but also conversation on those things that hit home. I found myself diving into that and focused on a few pieces that dealt with what was happening with Breonna Taylor and people who were senselessly killed.”
Thurman has ways to combat the hardships of the world when day-to-day life becomes tense. “I love nature. I majored in geological science, so I always feel at home going out into nature because there’s something honest about it. Despite everything we have going on in life, when you go out in nature, there’s nothing else but that to deal with. You can’t help but to be in awe of the wonder and beauty around you and being able to take time and inhale the fresh air and seeing the interaction between the animals and sounds. It transports you out of the hustle and bustle into a world of peace.” Thurman continues, “In nature there’s music all the time whether it’s the rain falling or the rumbling of the earth or even that still eerie feeling you get when in nature, but at the same time, it’s at the brink of creating something new. The weather system is so dynamic. You can see how beautiful this world is and music is that way too. It’s dynamic and it’s beautiful to see things change.”
Thurman has had to come to terms with her early experiences as a jazz student in high school, where she experienced sexism, causing her to take another route in college before delving deeply into a conscious pursuit of jazz. “Part of the reason why I didn’t go right into pursuing music was because of an experience I had in high school that discouraged me from wanting to play, which was sexism. For me, it took having to get out of that environment and finding a safe space to learn where I could get the encouragement and support that I needed. For a lot of young women in their teens, those years are so critical as they try to find their confidence and figure out who they are. Sometimes, it can be intimidating being in an environment where you’re the only one or they might encounter people who are very extroverted and confident in their expressions.”
Thurman reflects on her own experience as a young musician: “In my situation, I was dealing with outright sexism. It was verbal and exclusionary. There were instances where a few of us girls had to wait to play. We had to take turns playing in the saxophone section because there were only five spots in the big band and we had seven players. There are times when me and another young lady would find ourselves waiting to play for 45 minutes just to play one tune and that was if the guy who was playing in the chair decided to let us play. This was way before #MeToo so the administration wouldn’t do anything. Because we weren’t being assaulted there was no problem.”
It is fortunate that Thurman found a community of musicians and teachers who nurtured her. Without the serendipitous experience of meeting scientists who were also immersed in the world of music, she may have missed the chance to become a thoughtful and successful artist who deserves respectful treatment as all women and femme beings in jazz do. “It wasn’t until I left high school where I met great mentors and was able to find my musical family that helped give me the confidence I needed. They were helpful in helping me to find my strength. In order to move forward in that you need people in your life that are willing to invest the time to give you the tools. I unfortunately found that much later, after high school, but it was just in time to be able to encourage me to actually pursue it.”
With live performances returning, Thurman is keeping busy and moving forward with her work. “Right now, I’m working on a few things, I’m working on a project I’m looking forward to and I guess you could say testing the waters a bit. It’s the music of Burt Bacharach. It’s called Burt Bacharach Revisited where I take a few pieces that I like and reintroduce the music in a different way, an interpretation of the popular songs that a lot of people recognize, love and enjoy.”