Roxy Coss: ‘The lack of female representation in Jazz is hurting us all’

The phrase ‘Rising Star’ seems to have been coined to describe Roxy Coss, but I’d much rather use the words ‘Shooting Star’. Not to talk about her ascension to jazz stardom – if such a thing even exists nowadays – but to describe the brightness of the stardust that she seems to be shooting out of her saxophone, everytime she plays. Music lovers in Melbourne will have the chance to be on the receiving end of this streamflow on Sunday, when the brilliant artist will take centre stage in the closing concert of the Melbourne Big Band Festival. What are you going to present at the Melbourne Big Band Festival?
Roxy Coss: I’ll be performing a set with the James Mustafa Jazz Orchestra for the Festival’s finale performance, featuring the debut of three brand new arrangements written by James of my original compositions, selected from my latest album, ‘Restless Idealism’. I will also be performing three of James’ original pieces with the Orchestra. I’ll play both tenor and soprano saxes, and the program is turning out to be quite diverse in terms of style and feel. I’m really excited about the music!
AJN: What are your own expectations from the audience?
RC: I don’t typically have any expectations of the audience, as every audience is different. I do hope for the audience to be open, to listen, be engaged and be present. I like to think of performing music as going on a journey, and it is always more special if the audience is along for the ride. I think if a listener can be open, without bringing their own expectations or agenda, the experience can potentially be more rewarding for them, but also for me, as the musician. I learn a great deal from my audiences, so I try not to put too many expectations on what that experience will look like. One of my favorite parts of being a musician and performer is reaching people, knowing that I’ve touched someone, moved them emotionally, challenged them, made them question things, or feel inspired. That being said, I can’t focus too much on what the listener will think, because I don’t want that pressure or expectation to shape the music and art I create, or the experiences I provide. I ultimately want to create and express something genuine, and I can only be my most honest self if I ask what I want to create, or what I need to create. I can’t be honest if I focus on what I think people will want to hear, or what they will feel in response to my music. It’s just an added bonus, if it reaches them.

AJN: You’re one of the still relatively few female bandleaders. What is your take on the role of women in jazz?

RC: Well, there certainly is a huge gap in the ratio of female to male Jazz Musicians. It’s definitely a failure of the system, today’s society, and of our community as musicians. In today’s circumstances, it should come as no surprise that women are not treated equally on the whole, let alone in Jazz. I think the discrimination and sexism is particularly worse in the Jazz community because of the history of the art form, the fact that it is so stuck in tradition, and not regulated by any body that is responsible to an outside party. We are still allowing and even encouraging discrimination, misogyny, sexism, homophobia, sexual harassment, sexual assault, shaming, degradation, belittling, hatred, bullying, ignorance, dismissiveness, and more in the Jazz community. My experience hasn’t been any different. I have definitely faced a great deal of these types of treatment, but sometimes it’s a lot more subtle than you might imagine. At this point, nothing surprises me. My role, my job, is to make the best music I can possibly make. Be the best me, create the art I am supposed to put out into the world. I hope this will serve as a positive example for younger female musicians, because right now they don’t have very many examples to follow. I also hope this serves as an example to my male counterparts and younger male musicians of what a successful female musician can look like. By being active in the artform, continuing to hone my craft, work hard, be seen and heard, and engage in the community, I hope to bridge the gender gap as much as possible. It will take the work of every female musician; but, there is also a lot of work to be done by the male musicians, the audiences, the radio personalities, the critics, the label executives, etc. Female musicians shouldn’t take the sole burden of fixing sexism in Jazz. The truth is that the lack of female representation in Jazz is hurting us all – not just female musicians. Having this unbalanced perspective in the artform prevents us from realizing its full potential. Whether that means reaching a broader audience, or offering a more deep experience within performance, composition, recording, listening, or teaching. I’d love to see where this music could go with a more representative and intersectional body of artists creating.



AJN: What has been the highlight and the greatest challenge of your musical journey so far?
RC: I think my greatest highlights and challenges are often one and the same! And there are so many of both, living life as an artist. I have always been aware that the opportunities that made me the most nervous were often the ones that turned out to be the most fun, important, or pivotal. As I get older and gain more experience, this only becomes more clear to me. The greatest challenge I believe in this profession is to keep doing it! Discipline is one of the hardest lessons to learn. To continue to have discipline over yourself and your dedication to music, even after you learn how to play your instrument well, improvise proficiently, gig regularly, and become recognized, is extremely difficult. There have been plenty of individual obstacles in my musical journey, including financial, personal, or related to being a woman. There have also been challenges that are more directly related to music or performance. But in the end, it’s the challenge to maintain the discipline to keep going, keep working, keep practicing, and show up, to go beyond those obstacles, that is the biggest hurdle of all. Discipline can also be one of the greatest highlights. When you push past yourself in spite of yourself, and show yourself how committed you can be, you get to know yourself more, you go deeper into yourself, and that is the best feeling in the world. That’s where the greatest growth and inspiration happen. I also love dedicating myself and my life to art, to expressing my unique self. I love celebrating diversity and working in a field where every person’s voice is so important. Jazz is a language, and it’s incredible to connect not only with musicians across the globe, but audience members as well. I couldn’t do that without music.

AJN: If you could go back and meet your teenage self, what would you tell her?
RC: I would tell her to keep working, not to listen to what anyone else has to say, really, and to stay focused. Never give up! There’s that discipline again… Also, ‘you’re just as good, if not better than this’! I always thought there was a secret club of people who knew the tricks of the trade, who were better than me. I wanted in, so I made myself feel like an outsider, but I’ve grown to realize we are all our own secret clubs. The most successful people create their own universes to be the center of. I was way too worried what everyone else thought about me, about what was right, about how to get better, and about what you’re supposed to do, what the path is supposed to look like. I followed my peers, my teachers, and my heroes. I only attempted what others asked of me. Under it all, I have always had such a strong vision of what I wanted for myself and my music. I thought if I followed outside influences I could achieve my vision, but I was always getting slowed down and distracted by outside forces. I wish I could have told myself to ignore those external expectations I imposed on myself, and to just work hard at what my inner self envisioned.

AJN: What drives your creativity?
RC: I find inspiration in a lot of places. Hearing live music is irreplaceable. There is something that moves your molecules when you listen to a live performance. As a composer and instrumentalist, I find great inspiration from watching other people play. Often I will see or hear something during a concert that makes me get an urge to create. But, everyday life is also a great source of my creativity. Most of my compositions are direct responses to things I am going through. My relationships, personal experiences, travels, politics, self-growth, interactions, and cultural and social events all fuel the fire. I also love to read, watch TV and movies, and hear my friends stories. Imagination is a great asset in music. All of those methods of research serve to hopefully expand my tiny consciousness, which helps me to create a larger universe from which to draw ideas, when I’m creating my music.



AJN: What is your main aspiration?
RC: I’m living it! One of the things I love about being a musician is that it is all about the process, not the result. I am already living the process. My goal is to continue on my path, going deeper into what it means to be an artist, finding my voice, expressing myself more accurately and uniquely, and getting more fluent and well-versed in saxophone and music along the way. Performing, composing, recording, teaching, learning, listening, and reaching larger audiences of more diverse people, are all a part of that process. I hope to stay open to life and opportunity – I don’t want to miss anything!
AJN: Who are your heroes?
RC: Some of my favorite saxophonists and musicians include Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane, and Joe Henderson. Overall, my heroes are people who stand up for what they believe in – who are honest, strong, and able to affect those around them. Those who leave the world a better place than they found it. People who aren’t afraid to be unique and themselves. I also admire those who challenge the status quo and go against the grain. It’s our quirks that make us interesting, and in music, those differences make the art beautiful. I don’t think it’s healthy or helpful to idolize anyone. The idea of having heroes in Jazz has contributed to the misogyny and backwards thinking that is so prevalent in our community. It has also created a hinderance on any forward movement of the artform. So many players get stuck trying to learn every tune written or solo played by their hero, and they don’t create any music that reflects who they are as an artist. To idolize the Jazz Giants ignores the fact that they were real people – humans, with flaws. Charlie Parker and Miles Davis were some of the most brilliant musicians to ever live, but as people they had their flaws. I think we need to remember this when remembering our heroes – it’s always disappointing to meet your heroes! Plus, there’s something comforting in the knowledge that these guys were just like us, with the same human fears, doubts, and challenges. That knowledge can give us the courage to attempt to contribute something on that scale.
AJN: What does jazz mean to you?
RC: Jazz is a language, which allows strangers to communicate through imagination, openness, creativity, and love. It is made up of Swing, with a focus on strong rhythmic concepts; the Blues, that feeling that you can’t define but that gives it that certain something, an edge; and Improvisation, making things up on the spot from your heart and soul, within a given context and structure, which follow a set of understood rules. Jazz is the American art form, which incorporates democracy, inclusivity, and diversity into a means to express ones self. It demonstrates cooperation and community. I first got into Jazz when I joined Jazz Band in 6th grade, and had a fantastic teacher, Robert Knatt, who showed me some great recordings of different tenor players. He showed me what it meant to have your own voice, by asking me the differences between each players tone and approach. As a musician, you’re always discovering your voice. I have always had a strong concept of what I wanted my tone to sound like. But, the more music I am exposed to, the more my sound concept grows and changes.

AJN: Which song best describes your current state of mind?
RC: Probably ‘Moanin’ by Charles Mingus, in response to the current state of affairs in my country.


Roxy Coss will be joining the James Mustafa Jazz Orchestra on Sunday 12 February at the Cross Street Music Hall for the Melbourne Big Band Festival Finale. Get your tickets here.