This summer, trombonist/singer/composer Emily Asher had planned on touring with her band Garden Party, in support of the group’s newest album If I Were a Window. She released the album to the public last month, right in the middle of 2020’s global pandemic. COVID-19 disrupted the traditional path for promoting a new album by playing the new music for audiences.
Asher, though concerned for the well-being and finances of her bandmates and musician friends, sees the pandemic rather wistfully as she quarantines in her hometown of Seattle, Washington, away from her adopted home of New York City.
“I consider myself fortunate because I was already at a point where I was thinking about a change in my life with a new direction by incorporating more of my education background,” Asher said. “In January, I started looking for more full-time teaching jobs. There was already a shift where I wasn’t just looking for more gigs, more gigs, more gigs. It was more saying ‘here I have this band that I love—we have been together for a long time—and how I can I integrate that into education?’”
Asher earned multiple college degrees (the proverbial having something to fall back on if show business doesn’t work out) though to say she hasn’t been successful in jazz would be to unfairly discount the growing number of outstanding reviews for her work. She is a highly respected trombonist and singer who heads up a band of outstanding side musicians. Asher’s involvement with music began at young age when her father, a pianist and college choir director, gave her piano lessons. Her first exposure to jazz came through watching the jazz choir at Edmonds Community College where her father worked.
When she was 10 years old, Asher told her father that she “loved jazz and wanted to listen to jazz.” Her father placed Wynton Marsalis’s The Majesty of the Blues record on the turntable for her to hear. It wasn’t what Asher was expecting.
“I said ‘this isn’t jazz, Dad. I know what jazz is—it’s 16 vocalists with individual microphones singing a vocalese of a be-bop tune,’” Asher recalled. “I think he just laughed at this 10-year-old telling him he was wrong about a music genre.”
While learning music on a piano—an instrument she said she’s wasn’t particularly good at no matter how much she practiced—she found her Dad’s old trombone in the closet. The long, shiny instrument intrigued Asher not only with its look and sound but the fact it annoyed her brother. Her Dad allowed her to play the trombone starting in the 5th grade. She wanted to start earlier but her father, ever the music teacher, felt she wasn’t disciplined enough.
There were not many famous women trombone players at that time, however, two of Seattle’s most prominent trombone teachers were women. Asher learned classical trombone from them. She wouldn’t play jazz until joining “Rise and Shine,” a group comprised of child musicians and featuring Mike Dorr, a trumpeter who became playing professional at age seven. The band played dance band arrangements of 1930s and 1940s tunes. Asher says they stuck closely to the arrangements and didn’t improvise for fear they would sound like what they were: kids playing jazz.
“I understand the rationale of why we weren’t improvising then but it made for a really early understanding of performing in a dance band, and performing for dancers, and the function of dance music—in terms of creating solid tempos and transitioning to songs and the novelty of having kids play this old music. We would light up those Elks Clubs,” she said.
Asher performed with “Rise and Shine” from 1994 to 2000, helping her hone her skills as a musician and performer as well as make her a fan of early jazz.
“We did some Kid Ory, some Chicago-style, but it wasn’t until later on in high school that I was listening to specifically jazz trombonists like J.J. Johnson. But I remember listening to Trummy Young’s ‘Huzzar Cuzzah’ (aka The Faithful Hussar) hundreds of times and playing transcriptions of his parts. He, and the Louis Armstrong All-Stars, was really impactful in my early teens,” Asher said.
She also played trombone in her high school marching band where her crush on the handsome captain of the drum line pushed her further into jazz.
“One day at lunch, I asked him what was his favorite kind of music and he said jazz and big band. He asked me so I said jazz and big band. I started listening at that point to Glenn Miller—getting into a real Glenn Miller phase. I bought the Essential Glenn Miller double CD set,” Asher said. She remembers as the rest of Seattle having “this incredible affair with Nirvana and Pearl Jam,” while there she was—baking cookies in her kitchen, listening to Miller, and thinking “Song of the Volga Boatmen” was “the hippest thing ever written.”
As for singing, Asher’s sang almost nightly with her father and brother at home. Ella Fitzgerald records also influenced her.
“That’s when I found the fun of transcribing and being able to sing whole lines of music, scatting the horn-like solos along with her from an album,” she said. “At that point, I was in the high school jazz band and we were doing some competitions. I got into the 1998 All-State Jazz Band which was cool because there are several people whom I am in contact with now.”
Some of her teachers were pushing for her to continue with classical music study, and attend a conservatory like Oberlin. She joined the Seattle Youth Symphony, gave private music lessons and taught at a music camp that she attended as a child. While the classical world and music education enticed her, early jazz intrigued her. Asher decided on pursuing a jazz studies degree at the University of Washington because she liked the jazz community more.
“I remember in high school reading one of those descriptions of being a jazz musician which said ‘you will hold really late hours and you won’t get paid very much while being in smoky bars with very few people listening.’ I was like, ‘that doesn’t sound so bad,’” she said.
The hardest part for Asher was overcoming an academic bias against early jazz.
“Much of the phrasing I had developed was pooh-poohed when I got to college and there was more focus on later (as in mid-’40s and beyond) jazz,” she said. “It was cool to talk about Armstrong in terms of history and analysis but not cool to incorporate his style.”
Asher completed her jazz studies degree and retained her affinity for “the old music.” It took her six years but she also earned a music education double degree. In 2004, Asher found a job as Director of Bands at Ballou Junior High School in Puyallup, WA, bought a house and prepared to settle down with jazz as a side job. She believed it was only realistic path for a trombone player playing jazz. However, before she graduated, Asher met Canadian trumpet player Bria Skonberg, and with their mutual friend Claire McKenna Piersol, a clarinetist, they formed the all-female band “Mighty Aphrodite.” For the next three years, she’d teach full time and tour with the band when on break. It wasn’t long before the Big Apple cast its spelling on her.
“I went to New York City with those women and just fell in love with it. I thought I needed to move but I didn’t want to leave my teaching position after a year and a half, so I decided to stay for a third year. Primarily, I wanted to see my kids, who had been seventh graders, go through ninth grade. Professionally, I also knew it was good to have three years of full-time teaching. Plus, I loved the little house I bought,” Asher said.
In Jan 2008, Asher packed everything up, rented out her little house and drove across the country to NYC. She also enrolled for a Master’s degree in music performance at CUNY Queen’s College’s Jazz Studies program. She had hoped to substitute teach in New York public schools but quickly found herself shut out of a school system that operated differently than the one she left on the West Coast.
At Queen’s College, Antonio Hart and Michael Phillip Mossman, her professors and professional jazz players, were more supportive of Asher’s musical passions. Alto saxophonist Hart, in particular, encouraged the study of early blues and jazz musicians. While Asher didn’t perform that first year, her life did resemble the lyrics of the blues songs she studied in class.
“I was working at Trader Joe’s from 4 a.m. to 10 a.m. and then going to class,” she remembered. “That first year was really rough. It was lonely. I lived in a part of Queens where most of the people primarily spoke Russian and Romanian. I didn’t have any friends. I got bed bugs—it was horrible. I was broke. If I wanted to be broke and lonely, I could have done that living in my parent’s basement.”
Then, she began meeting other musicians in New York’s thriving trad jazz scene through sousaphone player Jason Jurzak, whom she knew when they were both kid musicians. Asher was invited to a house jam session where she met The Baby Soda Jazz Band, a trad jazz group based in Brooklyn. A few weeks later, the meeting led to her travelling to Washington DC to busk with other jazz players during President Barack Obama’s first inauguration. She also began playing with Baby Soda. A year and half later, her “Mighty Aphrodite” bandmate Bria Skonberg moved to New York.
“It was really that moment—January 2009—that I really became involved with the New York trad scene and ever since, it has been a snowball effect of having this incredible community,” Asher said. “At some point in there, the New Jersey Jazz Society asked me to lead a band. I remember saying to Bria that I didn’t know how to lead a band. She said, ‘Sure you do and I’ll play on the gig with you. It will be great.’”
That gig led to the creation of her current band, Emily Asher’s Garden Party. She said it became her whole identity—leading that six to seven-piece band and touring with musicians she loves playing with, like trumpeter Mike Davis, whom Asher taught at band camp back in Seattle.
Other members of the band have included bassists Sean Cronin and Rob Adkins; pianists Jesse Gelber and Dalton Ridehour; guitarists James Chirillo, Adam Brisbin, and Adam Moezinia; Jay Rattman on reeds; and drummer Jay Lepley.
“The nice thing about having a long roster of people to play with is that you can create these different little ecosystems of band members,” Asher said. “I know what everyone’s tendencies are when they play, like this person rushes when they play with that person, or this person tends to me more harmonically adventuresome with this person. I kind like putting together those different combinations to create a different energy within each.”
Emily Asher’s Garden Party features an intoxicating mix of vibrant early jazz, with selections from such jazz luminaries as Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives, Hoagy Carmichael, Duke Ellington, to the soulful sound of New Orleans’s brass bands. They have been described as “creating fresh growth from vintage roots.”
The band first recorded a 6 song EP titled Carnival of Joy!, that paid tribute to Carmichael in 2013. They followed it the next year with the full length, and critically acclaimed, Meet Me in the Morning. Asher also recorded Dreams May Take You, a solo album, in 2012.
The physical CD of her new album. If I Were a Window, will release on August 14th. It contains more new material by Asher than any of her previous records. A trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, to learn Spanish in November 2019, inspired her to write more original songs.
“I just completely fell in love with the culture and the people. I been telling myself for ages that I need to write more music, and I’d even booked the studio time before going to Mexico, but I didn’t have very many tunes written. Then, all of a sudden when I was down there, so many songs just came to me, jumping into my creative headspace,” Asher said.
Asher compares her songwriting process to meditation where she sits with an image and waits for something to manifest in her mind. For instance, she points to “Chico Mezcalero,” the third track on the album, which came from a visit to a family-owned Mezcal plant where she met a child who worked there.
“After I got back to New York,” Asher recall, “I was thinking about how every step of the mezcal is made—where the boy picks up pieces of the agave plant and throws them into a big smoking fire. I also thought about how his family makes their living, creating this spirit that is precious to the community there. I just sat and listened for what the melody of that little boy…the Chico Mezcalero, which translates into ‘little boy mezcal maker.’”
The song became a peppy, salsa number thanks to the arrangement by Mike Davis. Other band members, Jay Rattman and Chris Stover, also helped Asher write arrangements for the album’s 13 tracks. The result is an eclectic mix of trad jazz filtered through the sunny skies (and sounds) of Mexico, all punctuated by Asher’s fiery trombone and sweet vocals. Only five tracks, “Tea for Two,” “There Ain’t No Sweet Man (That’s Worth the Salt of My Tears),” “Kansas City Kitty,” “Small Fry,” and “Did I Remember” are covers while the remaining eight songs are Asher originals.
Asher credits the album’s completion to her talented bandmates and to the 151 donors on the Kickstarter website who helped pay for it. “I was able to pay every single person who worked on the record and make it something that I am really proud of,” Asher said. She also isn’t bitter about her current situation. Instead, she is filled with love and appreciation at how the album turned out, and the people who made it with her in a pre-pandemic world.
“For me, it feels like a care package that came from the past,” she said. “Hopefully, it can provide some joy and distraction from all of the difficulty that is going on right now. It is not only a reminder of what we had before but what will come back and the music that we will be able to make together again.”
She is now promoting the album as best can but it looks like a full-scale tour is out of the question for this year. In the fall, Asher plans (coronavirus willing) on putting all of her degrees back to work with a full-time teaching job. While that may sound like a big loss for jazz fans, she believes that it can help Garden Party by giving her the financial freedom for larger projects.
“I can focus more on concerts as opposed to bar and restaurant gigs. I think the immediate future is going to be live streaming without audiences. Hopefully, we will be able to play together soon whether it is outdoors or in a space with social distancing and stream those concerts. For me, I’m not interested in making a bunch of videos on Zoom solo—playing music with my friends is why I keep playing music,” Asher said.