Canadian bandleader, singer-songwriter, educator, and Juno award–winning recording artist Bria Skonberg is one of New York’s most knowledgeable and in-demand jazz artists. Her work on the trumpet has primarily focused on the hot jazz and swing music of the ’30s and ’40s, but her omnivorous interests are on full display in her newest full-length release, 2017’s With a Twist. That album, her fifth, shows an equal familiarity and panache with bop, lounge, and Broadway cabaret.
WSWD music expert John Seroff recently had the opportunity to speak with Skonberg about her upbringing, how she handles being a bandleader, and the best new artists on the jazz scene today.
What Should We Do?!: Why did you choose the trumpet?
Bria Skonberg: My father played back in high school, so we always owned an old horn. When it came time to choose instruments for my middle school band, Dad told me that I was going to want to play the melody. I really did love the trumpet right from the get-go.
WSWD: When did you first hear jazz music?
Skonberg: I grew up in Chilliwack, British Columbia, where I had the opportunity through a public school jazz program to play in big bands and perform in the local jazz festivals. We played music by Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton, which was challenging and fun. I realize now how lucky I was to have been introduced to improvisation through those fundamental artists.
I really fell for music at age 15, when I attended a jazz camp in California that’s now called the Teagarden Camp. I loved the spontaneity, the energetic rhythm, the melodies—and the historic characters who created them. Honestly, I loved the experience of making music with friends and making friends with music…and maybe a boyfriend or two! All of those elements came together for me at the right impressionable time and I found my calling.
WSWD: You have a deep understanding and awareness of pop and jazz history; how much of that is self-taught?
Skonberg: The love of music came first; I didn’t know why I loved playing jazz so much, but I was curious enough to pursue it in college. I always enjoyed pop music, R&B, hip hop, teenybopper hits, grunge rock, and electronic dance. I’m most drawn to a healthy balance of rhythm, harmony, and melody.
I had excellent musical mentors along the way, but the actual awareness of the history and its implications came later, through my own searching and understanding of the responsibilities of playing music. Younger students began to look up to me. I knew there was so much I didn’t know and hadn’t experienced yet; I was playing New Orleans jazz and I hadn’t even been to New Orleans! So I decided to make more of an effort to go to the original sources and ask questions of the people I looked up to about the history and lineage of jazz, even if it’s only partially to understand my place in it. The more I learn, the more I understand the deep responsibility that comes with playing America’s original art form. Jazz reflects humanity and the blues, joy, spiritualism, immigration, and migration by force or choice that is the story of America’s people.
I’m lucky to be a member of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Jazz for Young People program, which teaches kids about social issues such as democracy and civil rights alongside the music. I’m a new immigrant myself, so to teach these subjects to students who are descendants of the story is both incredibly humbling and sometimes intimidating.
WSWD: Do you ever feel bound by genre?
Skonberg: I think jazz sensibilities pull everything together; I play music by everyone from Cole Porter to Ernesto Lecuona to Leonard Cohen. I also codirect the New York Hot Jazz Camp. It has just partnered with the Gotham Jazz Festival on April 8…so I’ve got enough on my plate for the moment!
WSWD: What are the most unexpected challenges involved with being a bandleader?
Skonberg: You’re the mom and the dad at the same time. You need to set boundaries and expectations for people, but encourage them to flourish as individuals. There’s a balance of dealing with that and keeping a positive attitude, as well as always being prepared to bring it musically. As the bandleader, I’m always scrambling to get my warm-up in, my charts ready, and the set list just right. But I get to choose who I work with and have surrounded myself with people who are understanding and professional. I also have an awesome management and production team that helps me stay organized.
WSWD: The jazz world has a reputation as something of a boys’ club; are you at a point in your career where you no longer have to deal with people’s expectations of you being biased because you’re a woman?
Skonberg: You tell me. I don’t ever hear it directly, and I’m too busy with my own expectations to worry about anybody else’s.
WSWD: Do you feel a kinship with other horn players?
Skonberg: Despite our reputation of having massive egos on a solo instrument, trumpet players love being around other horn players. I chair the jazz committee of the International Trumpet Guild, so I know what it’s like to be around brass players: It’s a blast! When we’re together, we get to commiserate openly about the challenges of playing the brass beast.
WSWD: Are there specific traits you consistently see in performers on trumpet?
Skonberg: There’s historical pressure on trumpeters to be the lead instruments, to make a call to action. And who doesn’t love fanfare? So I’d say the majority of us are extroverts, transparent with both our strengths and flaws.
WSWD: As a Canadian, what’s been the biggest adjustment to living in NYC?
Skonberg: I see my career aspirations getting larger but my living situation getting smaller. When I first came here, my thinking was, “I would never live my full life without owning a house,” which became, “I could never not have a backyard,” and then, “I couldn’t deal without some private outdoor space.” And now I just feel lucky to live by a park. I miss nature.
WSWD: Tell me a bit about the run of shows you’re doing at Joe’s Pub.
Skonberg: I’ve been writing a lot and will be presenting a ton of new original music at Joe’s with a salty blues flavor. As an example, the first show on February 28 was called Grit. It’s a space to showcase my new material with an edgier sound. This performance will be one of the first with my new guitarist, Lily Maase. She’s rad and is opening up a whole palate of sounds that take us into funk and jam band territory. It’s really fun and satisfying. The rest of the band lineup includes Darrian Douglas on drums, Mathis Picard on keys, Devin Starks on bass, and Evan Arntzen on reeds/percussion and more.
WSWD: What advice would you give to an aspiring musical artist looking to make a living with a horn?
Skonberg: Work hard all day, every day. Make money. Practice as much as possible, but don’t think you get off from working hard like everyone else in the middle class because you’re an artist. I work at least 12 hours every day. Create a schedule that includes pursuing opportunities, because that’s what it is going to take. Don’t expect anything to come to you.
Bria Skonberg’s Faves…in a NY Minute
Sex and the City.
It’s such a novelty to be home, that I just love hanging out on the Lower East Side.