By Anita Malhotra
Born in 1983 in Chilliwack, British Columbia, trumpet player, singer and composer Bria Skonberg has been featured as a bandleader and guest artist at more than 50 jazz festivals in North America, Europe, China and Japan.
In 2010, she relocated from Vancouver to New York, where she has headlined at Symphony Space, Birdland, The Iridium and Dizzy’s. She has released three albums, one of which peaked at #7 on the U.S. National jazz charts. In addition, she has earned a New York Bistro Award for Outstanding Jazz Artist, four Hot House Jazz Magazine Awards and is a 2015 recipient of the Swing! award from Jazz At Lincoln Center.
Anita Malhotra spoke by phone with Skonberg, who was at her home in Brooklyn, N.Y., on June 10, 2015.
AM: Where did your love of jazz come from?
BS: I was introduced to jazz through the school big band and the local Dixieland jazz festival. Chilliwack had a jazz festival for over 20 years and they did a really good job of incorporating the youth bands of the district into the festival. So we’d get our set and then we’d get passes for the whole weekend to go and watch professional players do their thing. That was a much more organic introduction to jazz as opposed to listening to it because the old-style scratchy recordings don’t always translate to young listeners.
AM: Your last name sounds Scandinavian. What is your family background?
BS: I am a third-generation Canadian and my great-grandparents on my father’s side came from Sweden. There isn’t an “umlaut” on the “o.” Sometimes people put that. I don’t tell them to change it because it looks exotic!
AM: Was your family musical?
BS: My family always loved music. My parents were teachers but they gave us a lot of options through sports and events and also music. My older brother played fiddle – Old Time fiddle – and we would travel around as a family going to fiddle competitions. I grew up on that social atmosphere – the kind of dancing and fun times involved with music. My sister and I took piano lessons in elementary school, and in seventh grade I picked up the trumpet.
AM: Often in your songs you’re switching between singing and playing the trumpet. How do you express yourself differently with each of those instruments?
BS: It’s been an interesting journey for me learning the different voices that you get on both of those instruments and finding the right material to access them. The basic thing is that they’re both about air support, so that’s good. But I find my trumpet playing is usually more out-front. It’s definitely got a more fiery nature to it, more confident. And my singing voice is a little bit more on the subdued side. Because if you’re singing it’s the most personal thing you can do, especially when you’re singing lyrics.
AM: Have you faced any obstacles as a female trumpet player?
BS: I really want to give kudos to my parents and my band directors growing up because they didn’t treat me or any of the multiple girls playing trumpet in the classes any differently than they would have the boys. So I just kind of went into it from a point of confidence. I think that there are a lot of women that have played in the decades before me that have worked really hard to make that possible, and the best thing I can do is not give it any more weight. It’s a funny thing. There’s nothing physically different between men and women when it comes to playing trumpet.
AM: When you moved from Vancouver to New York in 2010, were there any surprises?
BS: I had a reasonably easy set-up. I had been touring in festivals and those sorts of things for five or ten years before, so I knew a lot of people that already lived in New York City, and one of my great friends lived here.
The very first day I moved to New York I took a red-eye flight from Seattle and it was a very emotional experience because I kissed my parents goodbye, grabbed my bags, and got on the plane with the intention of not coming back. When I got to New York, I crashed on my friend’s couch for a couple of hours. She asked if I wanted to go play in Washington Square Park in the band she was in. About an hour into it, we were playing some old jazz tunes and Wynton Marsalis, the world-famous trumpet player, walked right by. He gave a thumbs-up and sat there and listened for a little bit. It was such a sign of, “Okay, that wouldn’t have happened back home.” It was really exciting and affirming of my choice. I’ve since gotten to meet him and play for him a few times.
AM: What are some other highlights from your time in New York?
BS: The house where Louis Armstrong lived is here in Queens. They’ve turned it into a museum, but it’s not a stuffy museum, it’s just the way he kept his house. And they have backyard jazz concerts, so I’ve gotten a chance to play in his backyard and put on a concert, which was very inspiring and special.
The funniest one was probably doing the sit-in with Woody Allen’s band. That came about because he plays every Monday night at the Café Carlyle and I knew the people in the band. It’s not a cheap ticket to go there, so one night I just bit the bullet because I was curious and they invited me to come sit in.
AM: In addition to performing, you write your own music. How would you describe it?
BS: It’s rooted in the blues and New Orleans jazz, but has contemporary modern jazz sensibilities and also a little bit of world music, kind of like a Spanish tinge. I’ve travelled a lot and so I’ve been influenced by a lot of different things I’ve heard along the way. But my home base is jazz and swing and New Orleans style. I was influenced early on by the music of people like Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet, and so there’s a kind of an earthiness to it.
AM: Where have you travelled?
BS: I’ve gotten to go to many different countries like China and Japan, and lots in Europe – Spain, Hungary, France, Switzerland, Germany, Holland, United States, Mexico. I’m going to Israel for the first time this year.
AM: What do you write about in your songs?
BS: It’s usually a reflection of experiences that I’ve had – matters of the heart or circumstance. I also try to include at least one piece on an album that is a snapshot of what’s going on today. So on the last album there’s a song called “Go Tell It” that is a throwback to “Go Tell it on the Mountain.” But then I listened to Peter, Paul and Mary’s version, which was done as a civil rights movement song in the ‘70s. So this version is all about the LGBT movement, which is kind of the civil rights movement of our generation. I was writing that at the time when there was a lot of controversy over the Russian Olympics.
AM: In addition to your performing and writing activities, you are also the co-founder of the New York Hot Jazz Festival. What is that festival all about?
BS: That really stems from the Chilliwack Jazz Festival, which I helped co-ordinate before I moved to New York. The festival is a celebration of the community here in New York City that focuses on the music of the 1910s, 20s and 30s. For me that’s really special because I think a really important part of having a complete jazz education is not skimming over the building period. I’ve also got a Kickstarter campaign to launch a jazz camp next year so that amateurs can come in and learn how to play the style of music from that era.
AM: What can we expect to hear at your performance at the Ottawa Jazz Festival?
BS: We have a five-piece band and they’re really wonderful guys. We’re all really good friends and I think that’s evident in the music. It’ll be fun, it’ll be high-energy, There’ll be nods to Louis Armstrong, there’ll be a little bit of a Latin influence. I’ve been having some fun incorporating some electronic effects – I put my trumpet through a guitar pedal. It all falls within the blanket of jazz, but I stretch within it.
Bria Skonberg will be appearing at jazz festivals in East Lansing (June 19, 2015), Ottawa (June 21), Medicine Hat (June 24), Edmonton (June 25), Vancouver (June 26), Victoria (June 28), Newport (June 31), Oakville (Aug. 8) and Markham (Aug. 14). Her tour is partly sponsored by the Canada Council. For more information about Skonberg and her music, please visit briaskonberg.com