UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Since moving to New York City in 2010, trumpeter Bria Skonberg has been rubbing elbows with members of the city’s jazz circles. In an interview with ArtsMania, she said that within hours of her arrival, she was performing in a park with friends and got a sign that she was in the right place — a thumbs-up from fellow trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.
Being the “new girl” among a sea of established jazz icons doesn’t seem to have phased her.
The Canadian-born musician went on to co-found the New York Hot Jazz Festival in 2013, and she has been performing with and fronting numerous jazz ensembles ever since. With a command of her instrument that has been compared to Louis Armstrong and a voice in the vein of Anita O’Day, Skonberg has earned her seat among the Big Apple’s jazz elite.
Before making her Penn State debut in 2016, Skonberg had already released two albums. The variety of original compositions and re-imagined standards feature a who’s who of New York City notables — guitarist John Pizzarelli, Jazz at Lincoln Center clarinetist Victor Goines, pianist Aaron Diehl, legendary percussionist Milo Cinelu and more.
On March 22, Skonberg will return to Penn State with Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour, featuring five other must-see, award-winning jazz musicians. In a Center for the Performing Arts interview, she shared insight on what a jazz musician “looks like,” how she defies generalizations and still being star struck in the city.
Question: You have said that there’s nothing physically different between men and women when it comes to playing the trumpet. You and I know that, but has there ever been a situation where you’ve had to assert yourself or say those words?
Answer: I haven’t had to say it, but I’ve had to play it. There have been times when I’d hear a smattering of comments when approaching the bandstand about being female, not necessarily malicious but noticeable enough to make me put my bell up and play aggressively. The comments would dissipate after that.
Q: There are some people who claim that women artists often are judged initially by their look rather than their talent. Do you feel this is still relevant, or do you see progress? Or do you think it’s an overstatement?
A: I think of it more as a general concept. Most audiences "hear" with their eyes first, whether you’re male or female. There are a lot of ways to dress and carry yourself that communicate what attention you want to receive. I tell girl students that getting attention may come easy, but keeping attention ultimately comes down to the quality of your work. It can also be an interesting theatrical tool to play on people’s preconceptions and then break them.
Q: What is more important to you and where do you start when you write a song — the music or the lyrics?
A: As an instrumentalist and vocalist, I go back and forth. Not all songs need lyrics. I collect melodic, groove and lyric inspirations as they come to me on my voice memos and create time later to sift through them and see what lines up.
Q: You say your songs are based on experience or are rooted in current events. What are some topics of some of your more recent works?
A: I have a new song out now called “Villain Vanguard” that was inspired by the women’s marches. My forthcoming album addresses everything from media overload to civil rights.
Q: Who would you choose to include in an all-female jazz supergroup?
A: This is tough because there are so many! I led an all-female group for several years, called the Mighty Aphrodite Jazz Band, that toured the classic jazz circuit that in many ways was my dream band of players and friends. I’ve recently started an all-female project over the last year, called Sisterhood of Swing, that has been a good vehicle to play with some of my favorites, like Camille Thurman, Lakecia Benjamin, Shirazette Tinnin, Sharel Cassity and Endea Owens. I would love to spend more time with Terri-Lyne Carrington, Ingrid Jensen, Tia Fuller and Esperanza Spalding. I always love playing with Anat Cohen and Grace Kelly. All of these women have unique styles, so I would need to consider more of the overall concept to assemble a crew.
Q: This is your second appearance with Monterey Jazz Festival, and each of the accompanying musicians have appeared at the festival at least once. How has the event changed since you debuted, and what’s your take on this year’s lineup that features an equal mix of female and male artists?
A: We had a wonderful time in September at the Monterey Jazz Festival. We’ve never played in this incarnation, so it was kind of like being set up for a gigantic date and then getting to know each other individually and as a unit. I think Tim Jackson and Danny Melnick have assembled an amazing cast of characters, and the conscious decision of gender equality is commendable. I also never think about it when we’re playing. When I look at Cécile [McLorin Salvant], I see Cécile in her artistic glory. Christian [Sands] is a perfect balance of inventive and refined. Melissa [Aldana] is beyond brilliant. Jamison [Ross] is the definition of good vibes and a master of groove. Yasushi [Nakamura] is the solid secret weapon that brings us all together and makes it work.