Herbert Meets: Lady Jess

Lady Jess by Zach Hyman 

Lady Jess is a New-York based violinist who between touring with Beyoncé, Max Richter and the The Roots also co-artistic directs the Urban Playground Chamber Orchestra, whose mission is to promote the work of underrepresented groups in classical music with a priority on music by women and people of colour. I wanted to get an insight into Lady Jess’ ethos and background and what had contributed to making her the committed and unapologetic artist she is today. 

What was that the music you grew up with? 

My father is a visual artist by trade, but he’s also a jazz percussionist, so we grew up mostly listening to experimental, avant-garde jazz and some classical. It’s interesting because jazz comes into factor in my work more than ever before because we really absorbed it as kids. I didn’t really listen to music with lyrics as a child because our parents raised us very religious and they didn’t want to us to be influenced … they didn’t want us dating or experimenting and although that kind of music wasn’t forbidden, it felt very far away. So, it became the music I was most interested in (laughs) so as soon as I started earning money at 15, I went out and bought ‘The Boy is Mine’ by Monica and Brandy and since then I haven’t stopped …my heart, body and soul is really in soul, funk and r&b.  
So, when did you start playing the violin?
Just before my ninth birthday, I saw a young black kid playing violin on Mr. Rogers neighbourhood…and I was like, ‘I can do that.’ I told my mom that I was better than him (laughs) and she was like ‘okay, let’s get you some lessons.’  And that was that, it was a wrap.
Did you possess this same confidence when you actually started playing?     
I always knew I loved the violin but because I am naturally an introverted person and have a studious nature, I started to see it more as a craft that I wanted to get better at and eventually perfect. I remember playing a movement of Vivaldi’s A minor at an audition and that was one of the first pieces that I found some ownership with, but for so long I was trying to do what I was supposed to do, as opposed to trying to learn things so that I could play things in the way that I heard. It was more about ticking off boxes for my teachers, and I didn’t really click until conservatory.
What was your experience like at conservatory?
I will always hold it in a special place, because when I arrived, I was a very different player and my professor essentially broke my playing down and built it back up again but in general, I resist boundaries and I don’t like hierarchies. Despite the good things that came from the experience, I’m very weary of the institution  
What do you mean by that? 
I mean, it’s hard when you feel like you would like a support system and there’s no one who you can relate to around you. I’m very used to feeling like the odd woman out and that’s not always a bad thing but after a while it gets wearisome. I think sometimes, I don’t want to feel like I have to lead things, or to be the only person in the room that’s read… you know?  I just want to get on with it.
I get that…do you think there’s hope of a shakeup of the institution and the industry more broadly with this new generation of artists?  
I think the industry is overdue for a shake-up. I do think it’s happening right now, and I believe that this generation has all of the potential, creativity and resources to really make sure that that that what happens beyond the shake-up is something that benefits everyone. The thing that worries me is that we’ve become a generation reliant on instant gratification and we are very individualistic. Art requires patience and practice that sometimes can’t be confined to time– so, does this generation really have the patience? And do they understand that if we don’t approach the shake-up with a group mentality that it will not work?

Lady Jess by Zach Hyman 
That’s a really interesting point, do they really have the grit ?
Yeah, it never fails to amaze me how artists jump into a deal right after conservatory because they fit within an ideal of what classical music should be – when that happens you don’t have the same appreciation of struggle or how it feels to make a living as a freelancer. My moves as an artist have been determined by necessity – I had to really work at breaking into the session music scene on the East and West Coast and I’ve had lots of different jobs…. I played in a classical string trio on a luxury liner and even worked in the marketing department of the company right after when I found myself in a bind financially… I’ve needed to develop my hustle and a pretty thick skin to be successful as a working musician and I think that’s important for anyone to learn.
Has this time given you clarity about what you want to achieve as an artist?
With everything going on my wants and desires have definitely fluctuated. I want options and stability, because stability is something that I’ve never experienced in my life, so my ambition is to continue working to get to a point where I have choices and I don’t have to rely on any one thing. 
I know you have collaborated with great artists during your career, was there a defining collaboration for you?
I was part of a string quartet at the North Carolina School of the Arts during my undergrad that was assigned to accompany a performance by Alonzo King Lines ballet who were doing residency at our school. It was the first time I had worked with a black  contemporary ballet company, so it was amazing because I love dance,  but also it was a dream to work with Alonzo King, who is a force in his own right and the first major choreographer that I’d ever worked with…it was so many cultural things I loved converging in one situation, which was very special. It was also a completely improvised performance, so each show that week would take a completely different form and  Alonzo King had had enough knowledge of the mechanics of our instruments to direct us and the dancers and the dialogue between us. It was really  the first time I had done an improvised performance, and it showed me that I could actually do it! So, it was pretty major experience for me.
Without the visual aid of dance what do you draw for inspiration in improvisation?    
It varies…I had a gig in a large cemetery in New York recently and while I was playing, I saw a spider spinning a web right in front of me like huge, gorgeous spider. I’ve always been extremely arachnophobic, but in the moment, I felt like I was communicating with it and I started playing what I saw the spider was doing on my instrument. Other times, particularly when the aim of the improvisation is storytelling, I visualise shapes.
Can you tell me about the Urban Playground Chamber Orchestra?
Sure, I am the artistic director of the Urban Playground Chamber Orchestra and I’m currently in the throes of programming the series. There’s a lot of stuff that comes with the job that’s new to me, but it’s all very exciting –
What’s the ethos of the group?
The focus is on collaboration with a with a priority towards working with black composers and female composers –  we focus the programming on showcasing these works – unusual and new representation –
And lastly, if you could put on a show tomorrow, what would you play and who with?
I was actually talking to someone yesterday about how I would love to tour with Megan Thee Stallion – she’s just dropped a new album. So, I would say probably her and my sister, Kelsey Lu.



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