Charting Her Own Course

Jazz trumpeter Ingrid Jensen ’89 has learned to navigate between an international music career and her deeply-rooted family life.
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Whether Ingrid Jensen is on the bandstand leading her group or at a playground with her child, being a jazz artist has had a pervasive effect on her. She lives in the moment and for the moment with an infectious joie de vivre. Jensen, her husband Jon Wikan (a noted jazz drummer), and their young daughter Karina make their home in Westchester County, NY, an hour-plus north of Manhattan. The location affords Jensen and Wikan both ready access to the city for gigs, sessions, and international airports, and a taste of small-town living in sylvan surroundings with panoramic views of the Hudson River.

Some jazz critics describe Jensen as a hard-bop trumpeter, but at a recent gig at the Zinc Bar in Greenwich Village, she showcased a multifacted musical program that embraced Latin grooves, uptempo swing, introspective ballads, European-jazz-flavored atmospherics, and more. Jensen’s quartet opened with Duke Ellington’s sunny “Purple Gazelle (Angelica),” introducing bandmates Ed Howard (bass), Gary Versace (piano) and Colin Stranahan (drums) in solo spots and four-bar trades. Kenny Wheeler’s lyrical ballad “Where Do We Go from Here?” changed the pace, and Jensen probed its dark changes with her muted trumpet, at times adding a dash of digital delay. In her original tune “Dots and Braids,” she explored an ECM vibe, doubling dreamy trumpet lines with looped phrases and then segued into Victor Lewis’s intense, uptempo swinger “Seventh Avenue.” The intro to the latter alluded to city car horns with figures harmonized in seconds before careening into the head’s fast, skittish lines played in tandem by Jensen and Versace. Onstage, Jensen, standing tall and statuesque, exhibits confident control of her instrument and the music at hand. With nods and gestures she guides her band through the terrain of each piece.

Jensen was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, and grew up across the bay in Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. Every member of her family was musical. Her late mother Karen was a pianist classically trained at the University of British Columbia and later explored jazz. Ingrid’s father, Helge, a Danish émigré, has perfect pitch and still plays accordion. Her older sister Janet played trombone in school bands, and younger sister, Christine, now a fellow music professional, is a gifted saxophonist, composer, and bandleader. Records playing around their home spanned jazz history from Louis Armstrong and Jack Teagarden to Miles Davis as well as classical music by Chopin, Debussy, Gershwin, and others. In conversation, Jensen reveals a comprehensive knowledge of jazz history gained through extensive listening and study as well as befriending and playing with jazz elder statesmen such as Clark Terry, Art Farmer, Lionel Hampton, and others. She is currently a vital member of a huge network of top contemporary jazz artists.

After graduating from Berklee in 1989, Jensen began her journey working and living alternately in Europe and New York. Three years later, she signed with Enja Records and in 1996, Vernal Fields, her debut solo album, earned a Juno Award, the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy. Other Juno nominations have followed. To date, she has released five albums as a leader and appeared on countless records by other artists. She has collaborated on recording projects with sister Christine, and on the Nordic Connect albums that spotlight musicians of Scandinavian descent including the Jensen sisters, Jon Wikan (Norway), and pianist Maggie Olin ’88, and bassist Mattias Welin (both Swedish-born).

After settling in New York in the 1990s, Jensen became a member of a rising wave of all-women large jazz ensembles led by female artists and composers, such as the Maria Schneider Orchestra, Diva, and others. Jensen continues to work with a range of female artists including Anat Cohen ’98, Melissa Aldana ’09, Tia Fuller, Monika Herzig, Renee Rosnes, Terri Lyne Carrington ’83, and more. But she works at least as much with male musicians in her various trios, quartets, and quintets, and as a guest artist. Jensen is a champion for women’s voices in jazz, but her bottom line is to make top-quality music with whomever she happens to be sharing the bandstand.

She has built a fanbase throughout Canada, the United States, Europe, Australia, South Africa, Mexico, South America, and Japan. The travel required to sustain a jazz career is notoriously tough on family life. As invested in jazz as Jensen is, she is forthright that her family is her top priority. She and her husband now structure their tour schedules so that one of them will always be at home with their daughter. Ultimately, that means they play fewer gigs together than they have in previous years. Wikan feels that it’s Ingrid’s time to shine.

A local endeavor that serves as a counterweight to the demands of international travel is Sing Sing Kill Brewery in Ossining, NY. It’s a New York State Farm brewery for which Jensen and Wikan are investors and cofounders. Wikan also worked as a carpenter helping to renovate the building over the past 19 months. It opened in May and offers craft beer and live music. It’s a way for Jensen and Wikan to create balance between her burgeoning music career and the pursuit of a warm home life in a small American town just upriver from the Big Apple.

You got a Juno Award for your debut solo album Vernal Fields. Did that give you an initial impression that music industry success might be a piece of cake?

No. Getting the Juno was a shock, I hadn’t even prepared a speech. I think back on that time, and it was Alanis Morrisette’s year. A lot of powerful women from Canada were getting all the house that year. It seemed normal, but then there was a big space where women weren’t winning as much.

Was it apparent to you when you were young that you would become a career musician?

It was to me, but not everyone was thrilled about it. Someone who was encouraging to me was Diana Krall [’83]. I was in high school with her younger sister and grew up watching Diana play piano before she was singing. We met up again when we were both living in New York in the early 90s.

What shaped your decision to enroll at Berklee?

A couple friends of mine had gone to Berklee. I had attended a jazz camp, the Bud Shank workshop, and [trumpeter] Tom Harrell was there as were [pianist] Hal Galper [’57], [trombonist] Bob Brookmeyer, and [trumpeter] Bobby Shew. They were very encouraging to me. I was given a scholarship to Berklee that covered everything but my living expenses. My parents covered those for the first year, but then pulled out saying that being a musician was not a real job. So I was on my own. I applied to the Canada Council [for the Arts] and got money to pay my expenses for the second year. In my third and fourth years I worked a lot at a work-study job and played salsa gigs with [pianist] Danilo Pérez [’88], who was a student then.

What was your plan after you graduated?

I went to Denmark and stayed with my aunt. I was living there for free, transcribing solos, practicing, and playing sessions in Copenhagen. That’s what everyone dreams of doing when they finish school: just working on music and playing gigs. While there I became friends with [saxophonist and arranger] Ernie Wilkins, who turned out to be [trumpeter] Clark Terry’s best friend.

I stayed in Denmark for three months and then moved to the East Village in New York with some Berklee friends for the next year. We had a band with drums, bass, and keyboards called the Jazz Rainbow Coalition. We started playing in the subway, at Grand Central Station, and in Central Park in the days before you needed a permit to do that. We would sometimes play for five or six hours. I’d walk away with $100 and think it was amazing. We also did café gigs.

How did you come to live in Vienna during the early 1990s?

Peter Herbert [’89], a bass player I knew from Berklee, connected me with a guy from Vienna who was looking for a female trumpet player for a Vienna Art Orchestra project that called for seven men and seven women. We toured for two weeks and then made a record in Switzerland. That was like a dream: my first real tour and recording session. While I was there, I played at a jam session at the Bruckner Conservatorium. The director there was looking for a trumpet teacher and liked my playing. I auditioned for the job and got it. I was living in New York at the time and was thinking of turning it down, but all of my European friends said it was a great offer and I should take the gig. I did and lived in Vienna for about three years. I was teaching, playing gigs, recording, and hanging out with [trumpeter] Art Farmer. He was one of my idols and lived in Vienna at the time.

How did you meet Clark Terry?

Before I left New York, I sat in at the Village Vanguard with Clark thanks to Ernie Wilkins’s daughter. She took me to the club and asked Clark to let me sit in. It was a super-nervous moment, but I got to play “Perdido” with another of my idols. I told him I was moving to Austria. He said we should stay in touch and that whenever he was over there I should come and sit in. And I did get to sit in over there with Lionel Hampton and the Golden Men of Jazz that included Clark, Benny Golson, and [Harry] Sweets Edison. I also sat in with them at a concert hall in Munich and through that, I met Alex Zivkovic, who managed the Golden Men of Jazz. He helped me get my first record deal.

When Alex was shopping my tape, I asked him to not to start out by telling the labels that I was a woman. I didn’t want to be a novelty or have people overlook the level of musicianship just because they thought I’d be marketable. I wanted them to make a decision based on what they heard. Matthias Winckelmann [founder] of Enja Records was interested and came out to hear me play. I signed with Enja and made three records: Vernal Fields, Here on Earth, and Higher Grounds.

Making my own records enabled me to put together some dream bands of people that I wanted to play with. I figured out who the core players would be, people that I could play with throughout my life. They include [bassist] Ed Howard, [drummer] Bill Stewart, and [pianist] Dave Kikoski [’81]. The Enja contract allowed me to work with people who helped me get better faster and pushed me to be more Ingrid. It was a long process; it wasn’t about getting famous and showing off what you can do. It was about who I was playing with at that point in my life and what we were putting forth.

When you moved back to New York, you played with Diva and Maria Schneider’s band, both large ensembles led by women. How did that unfold?

That was an exciting period in my life that I didn’t see coming. When I got together with the members of Diva, they were part of the first generation of women who were working shows and gigs, teaching, and becoming part of the New York jazz scene. When we got together and played, there was a core energy that was exciting. This had never happened before in New York, as far as I know. Diva was offering me a substantial amount of work and sponsored my visa. Because I’m Canadian, I needed a work visa. I wanted to be in New York to play with the people from my records. I had been playing in Europe with [tenor saxophonist] Rick Margitza [’81], and he suggested to Maria Schneider that she call me as a sub sometime. I got the call one night and played with the band and it went very well. I played with them for the next 10 years.

Today, a lot more women are pursuing careers in jazz. Why do you think more women are drawn into this music?

Esperanza Spalding has played a big part in it recently, and those of us who are older than her prepared the way. Esperanza opened the floodgates and became someone a lot of people came to know. She sings, writes, and plays electric and acoustic bass and is a pop artist and a jazz artist. She does all of those things with integrity and passion. Those of us who preceded her by many years were kind of underground. Terri Lyne Carrington has done a lot. She made the Mosaic Project recordings that brought together various female musicians from different paths. We all got together and it had an impact that made a lot of younger women and their parents think that women could work in jazz. It’s still taking time, but jazz is a young music. It bothers me when people say that everything should be even by now. Jazz is barely 100 years old.

Was it through Maria Schneider that you began releasing records through the fan-funded ArtistShare label?

Maria and Brian Camelio started ArtistShare together. She was the first artist and it has gone really well for her. I released my At Sea album on the label and the Nordic Connect projects with my sister Christine and [pianist] Maggie Olin [’88], who I met at Berklee. I wanted to be a bit more independent and have more ownership of my recordings, so I went to ArtistShare.

At your recent appearance at the Zinc Bar in Greenwich Village, you played all trumpet. Do you still bring out the flugelhorn?

I don’t need my flugelhorn anymore. It’s in the Musical Instrument Museum in Arizona. I play only Monette trumpets now. The character of the instrument that Dave Monette made for me changes with different mouthpieces. I need to horse it sometimes to get that real lead-trumpet sound, but when I switch mouthpieces, I can get a darker sound for some tunes. It’s not exactly like a flugelhorn, it’s a blend of trumpet and flugel.

You have a very pure tone. Is that something that you have worked at steadily through the years?

On the trumpet, I always wanted to get the warm, breathy, vocal quality that Jack Teagarden got on trombone. Overall, it came from not liking the sound of the trumpet, and wanting to sing a note and get that sound into the horn. I graduated to the Monette, which is an advanced trumpet. It’s a C instrument that has been made into a B-flat instrument, so it is much more in tune than a standard B-flat trumpet. It plays really straight in the middle. I was used to playing an old Bach trumpet, and then I got a Monette mouthpiece and found that my ideas were coming out more clearly. I’d had enough of cracking notes every four seconds. Now I get an even sound and I feel I can play with more expression. My concept of tone has been released by this instrument.

You have a very relaxed feel in your phrasing, even at fast tempos. Was that something you developed early on?

No, it was really hard and stressful for me to learn to play fast tempos. I remember the second that it changed. I was working on Charlie Parker’s solo on “Now’s the Time,” and I was finally able to stop hearing it as a stressful fast tempo and feel it as a slow subdivision in relation to the pulse. You count slower when you play a fast tempo and subdivide faster when you play a ballad. Those subdivisions have made everything easier. I’ve spent a lot of time with the Indian tanpura drones and a metronome at every possible beat pulse and related meter. All of it has become internalized. My husband Jon is a drummer who has excellent time and we’ve done a lot of duo playing. I’ve spent a lot of time admitting where my weaknesses were in the bar and getting over them by internalized subdividing.

Do you have an agent or a manager to help handle your business?

It would be nice to have an agent or manager, but at this point I am able to juggle things so that I don’t ever have to look for work. I’m very lucky. I can do all of these different projects, and that gives me a lot of freedom to play at a festival with my core band or go to Europe with my sister and a big band. When I do the calculations, it’s a lot of work to keep everything in order, but I don’t have anyone telling me what I need to do or who misrepresents what I do. Every band I put together and every gig I play, I love. It’s just a big moment of joy.

I am focusing now on being a parent more than anything. I have the power to say no to something and not have it affect someone else’s rent. If I had an agent who wanted me to take a gig because he needed the money, I might not be able to keep the plans I make for my daughter’s school vacation. My husband Jon and I used to tour together a lot. We don’t do that much anymore because one of us needs to be here for our daughter Karina who is in school. For the most part Jon works with Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society [18-piece band]. We used to play together in that band. Now we have made our schedules work so we can take vacations together and have time to do things during the summer.

The flow of my work now is easier than ever. I am an artist in residence with [saxophonist] Tia Fuller at the Monterey Jazz Festival, and there are three parts to that. We did a clinic and performance in the fall [of 2017] and will do a camp in June. Then next fall we will do a tribute to Geri Allen and perform with our own bands at the festival. I have to set aside some time to write for that.

How much time do you devote to writing?

My writing time has taken a hit with my schedule as a mom. But even if I have only an hour, I can pop some stuff out. I am currently teaching at the New School and at Purchase College, and those things are taking more time than I anticipated. Despite it all, I have another record coming out with one original tune and some very advanced arrangements of Kenny Wheeler tunes. I put a band together with Steve Treseler, a great saxophone player from Seattle, for the NPR show Jazz Night in America, hosted by Christian McBride. It was a tribute to Kenny Wheeler, and Steve and I both wrote music for it. We went into the studio during the day and recorded the music live before we did the show that night. Everything came out well, so we will release it on the Whirlwind label as an LP called Invisible Sounds in the fall.

Considering the boom of streaming and the pop music business being singles oriented, is the album still a viable product in the jazz world?

I wish I could say the album is still viable, but I don’t know anymore. There are extremes in jazz where on one end, you do a single release with a video and on the other end, your fans are so hardcore that they want an album or LP. Some [artists] are not even thinking about tune order or artwork anymore. For my albums, I spend months on the tune order, spacing of the tracks, artwork, and the concept. I feel that an album should be something you savor. I’m old school in that regard. I should add that I sell a ton of CDs on gigs. When I am on tour, I always bring them because people want a signed CD. But fewer people in the U.S. are buying them. They don’t even have CD players in their cars.

Do you have any special career aspirations as you look to the future?

How can I best say this? In the spring of 2017, I was going home from a gig and was attacked by a young man who wanted to rob me. I resisted and he strangled me to the point where I blacked out and was accepting that this might be how I go. Since the assault, I have been doing brainspotting therapy, which is being used to treat people who have been in combat and have PTSD. It has an extremely high success rate. After my incident, I went to a guy in New York who does this therapy. You find a spot and focus on it and they watch your brain activity connecting with your eyes. Once you are there, you start talking. The frontal lobe connects with the cerebral cortex and goes back to how it was before the trauma.

The incident happened late in the spring and I had to get ready to go on an extensive European tour at the end of June. I didn’t want to hide in the corner, I wanted to play. I also had to be a mother for my child. I did the therapy every week, and I could feel the trauma leave. The exciting part is that I came out playing better than ever and with a new understanding about handling stress and anxiety.

So to answer your question about my future plans, having a near-death experience changed it all. This along with having the honor of being a mother was empowering in a weird way. I get on stage with my band and we hit, or I play in the park with my kid and feel that life is good. These days I’m not thinking about pie in the sky. This is the pie, we’re in the pie! And it’s a good-tasting pie with bitter and sweet spots and more.