Crown Heights musician and educator Sarah Elizabeth Charles is stretching the idea of jazz, while bringing light to questions of gender bias, incarceration and police brutality
Sarah Elizabeth Charles, a rising musician, vocalist and composer based in Crown Heights, is carving out her own niche as she stretches the musical edges of jazz. More than “just” a performer, Charles is an educator who works with the Carnegie Hall’s Sing Sing Correctional Facility initiative and the Future Music Project youth workshops and has developed an early childhood music education program with Rise2Shine, a nonprofit organization based in Fond Parisien, Haiti.
Originally from Springfield, Massachusetts, she moved to New York in 2007 to attend the New School where she studied jazz and contemporary music, and sociology and urban studies, the latter subjects alluding to her passion for social issues. Charles, who has worked with jazz greats such as George Cables, Geri Allen, Nicholas Payton and Carmen Lundy, released her debut album Red with her band SCOPE in 2012. Her critically acclaimed sophomore Inner Dialogue followed in 2015, co-produced by equally critically-acclaimed trumpeter and composer Christian Scott, who also co-produced her current and third album Free of Form.
Charles shared with BK Reader her musical journey as well as the motivation behind her work with youth in NYC, children in Haiti and incarcerated men in upstate New York.
When I found jazz music, it was just this new sound, I had never heard anything quite like it and it felt so free and so open.
Brooklyn Reader (BKR): How did your journey into jazz begin?
Sarah Elizabeth Charles (SEC): I started off studying classical piano. When I was around 11 years old I found jazz music. I had a vocal instructor who was a jazz vocalist, and she hipped me to one of her records. I listened to it and was immediately just drawn in. I grew up listening to the radio, popular music like Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Stevie Wonder, Nirvana, Jay Z, Lincoln Park, all sorts of things.
When I found jazz music, it was just this new sound, I had never heard anything quite like it and it felt so free and so open. Jazz became the foundation of my music education.
BKR: You are part of a new vanguard of jazz musicians that is grounded in the genre’s foundation, yet very much creates an own, new sound. How would you define your music?
SEC: Jazz is the root of it. But there’s also soul, rock, folk and even Roman Catholic music. There is definitely hip-hop, too, and even more recently, there are elements of trap music and electronic sounds that find their way into my music. It’s what Christian Scott calls stretch music. Ultimately, you can also just think of it as jazz soul; music that comes out of my soul, my creative space.
People in my generation were not only influenced by the classic foundation of what we think of as being jazz music but also the music that became popular thereafter. The music that my band SCOPE creates is very much rooted in jazz. But we’re taking that foundation, the harmony, the elements of improvisation and oftentimes the same instrumentation that was used in those formative years of jazz, and we’re literally stretching the edges of the genre like Miles Davis did in the ’80s.
My experience at Sing Sing Correctional Facility made me realize all the freedom I have and that these incarcerated men, these beautiful musicians who we worked with, do not have.
BKR: As a teaching artist you are involved in a variety of educational and social projects. Can you tell us more about the issues that find entry into your music?
SEC: My current record Free of Form was created at a time when my teaching artist’s life and my performer/ composer life was starting to merge.
It actually started with my work with Carnegie Hall’s Future of Music project where I lead a composer’s workshop for teenagers aged 14 to 17. I meet these students who fearlessly create music, simply saying ‘I want to do this.’ And it made me think of all of those preconceptions that we can have as professional artists and that can be really detrimental to the creative process. It used to hinder the chances that I would take because I was too preoccupied with other people’s perceptions of what I was doing. When I saw these teenagers just going for it and creating beautiful music, I realized: ‘Wait, why am I not doing that?’
So I decided to write more music that felt free. The first song that I wrote for this current record was the title track Free of Form, inspired by these teenagers.
I then also began thinking about my experience at Sing Sing Correctional Facility which made me see all the freedom I have and that these incarcerated men, these beautiful musicians who we work with, do not have. The kids in Haiti inspired the track Learn How to Love; they made me realize that love is just inherent, it doesn’t really matter what you get back. I’m living in a place where I have everything I need: I have food, I have a shower, I have water, I have shelter, I have a comfortable bed. I understood how fortunate I was. Other topics I deal with are gender bias, bigotry and police brutality as I share on my song There’s Change to Come, which I wrote the day after the homicide of Eric Garner.
If someone comes to one of my performances, experiences what we have to offer and then leaves wondering or thinking about one of those things, then that’s, to me, a successful performance.
BKR: What motivates you to use your platform as an artist for these issues?
SEC: People choose to come and hear what we as artists have to say, and it’s such a privilege. I want my performance to be a space in which the audience can either relate to my experiences or question their relationship with the issues I share. I hope they ask questions that make them realize, ‘Wow, I’ve never thought about what it would be like to be incarcerated,’ or ‘I have never given young people in this country enough credit to understand just how open and fearless their creative capacity can be.’ If someone comes to one of my performances, experiences what we have to offer and then leaves wondering about one of those things, then that’s, to me, a successful performance.
BKR: What are you working on next?
SEC: I am working on a Maya Angelou project. I’ve been writing music to her poetry for two years with the plan to record next year. I want to highlight the voice of the black female, a voice that has often been silenced throughout the course of history in different parts of the world. I also want to celebrate Maya Angelou’s poetry which doesn’t get as much as attention as her novels, her acting, her autobiographies. But I think, her poetry stands on its own.
With my band SCOPE, I’m working on our fourth record and we’re still touring with Free of Form. I am also part of the afrobeat band Ajoyo with which I just toured in Europe. We’re working on our second record now and also have more upcoming performances, including one on September 21, at Bar Lunatico in Bed-Stuy.