Slow-burning

written by Dawn Norfleet
2018 GLFCAM Chou Wen-chung Fellow, Cycle 6

When I was a child, grown-ups asked me the typical question: What do you want to be when you grow up? I wanted to be a medical doctor, ballerina, conductor, psychologist, recording engineer, and an entertainment attorney.  I had a voracious imagination, fed by books: My favorites were Alice in Wonderland, the Holy Bible,  and Grimm's Fairy Tales. I loved cookbooks, encyclopedias, and I'd even found my big brother's hidden copy of the scary novel, The Exorcist, which terrorized my dreams and bored moments for the next several years. 

"An idle mind is the devil's workshop" was something my mom used to say. To avoid holding court with pesky Beelzebub all costs, I kept my greedy imagination fed, not just through books, but also, music. 

That wasn't hard to do in my family.  My parents had met as music students at Texas Southern University.  After marrying and having my big brother, Michael, they formed a musical act that toured the American Midwest and northeast circuit of segregated, white supper clubs.  My father played organ and sang while my mother sang, played piano, and drums.  Like possibly thousands of young travelers who moved to California in the 1960s, my family migrated to Los Angeles to chase stardom. Like possibly thousands of Black Americans, however, they were directed to specific suburbs where white residents had begun to flee in droves.  We settled in Inglewood, and while my father was an entertainer until he died, my mother traded her music fantasies for the realities of raising kids and a mortgage.  She had already completed her degree in Music Education, and so she began teaching choir at David Starr Jordan High School in the Watts section of Los Angeles a few years after the Watts Riots. 

My mom was active as a mentor, and many of her students would come by the house for extra rehearsals and meetings. Mom produced what was likely Jordan High's first opera production: Gian Carlo Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors using only school teachers, staff, and students — with one notable exception: My big brother, Michael, learned the title role at age nine!  I was carted around to various rehearsals, and grew a fascination with the production of music.  I'd also borrowed the opera LP from the local Inglewood library.  My mother took me to see Ingmar Bergman's classic film based on Mozart's opera, The Magic Flute, which undoubtedly piqued my interest in all things flute. 

Before my parents divorced, my father would indulge me with music albums for children, like "Jack in the Beanstalk" and "Tubby the Tuba".  Like other Gen X-ers, my introduction to orchestral music was through Looney Tunes orchestra parodies ("Kill de Wabbit," for example).  An early musical cartoon hero was "Ludwig Von Drake," which was (I think) a combination of bird, doctor, and conductor.  My dad got a kick out of watching me stand on my bed conducting the Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture "Finale" with an imaginary orchestra, using a broomstick as a baton. I was introduced to jazz — hard bop, which often features organ and other influences from gospel and soul — from weekends with my father, listening to local jazz radio on KKGO.  Dad would drive his old, grey Cadillac at thirty-five miles per hour on the busy freeways, giving us lots of time to listen. He would perform country western and "easy listening" for a mostly elderly, white clientele, and taught me that arrangers often used a technique called "sweetening." or adding orchestral strings to jazz and soul arrangements for a contrasting timbre.

But my first musical language was funk.  My home was ground zero for group rehearsals for my mom prepping students for a vocal competition or my brother's various bands.  Mike, unlike me, revealed musical prowess at an early age.  He taught himself piano at four, wrote songs at nine, and by twelve, joined his first band called Blue Ice, playing the Arp Odyssey synthesizer.  Blue Ice had personnel typical of the time: keyboard, clavinet (Google it: the keyboard's a '70s funk staple), guitar, bass, drummer, three horns. The vocalists were sprinkled among the players.  They played songs by Mandrill, Kool and the Gang, Ohio Players, and others. I watched and absorbed everything but was too shy about my vocal skills as a kid to ever sing with his bands. I loved the community band competitions, called "battles of the bands." Blue Ice's main competitor was an equally-outfitted group called Black Light, among dozens of bands that rehearsed in their parents' living rooms, dens, and garages.  We actually had an upstairs area, rare for Inglewood, which made it a favorite dedicated practice space for years. It wasn't boring to me to watch the bands drill songs over and over again. Repetition leads to shine.

Mike and his friends also played in jazz bands in junior high and high school. Of course, I was carted around to his concerts and competitions around the city.  At home, he and his friends gathered in his room to listen to Parliament-Funkadelic, Frank Zappa, and my all-time favorites: Steely Dan, Earth Wind and Fire.  My bedroom was separated by a hallway, so whatever they listened to, I did, too.  I wanted so badly to be in the mix, but I had no early musical prowess, like my brother.  I was always the quiet "baby sister" with "my head in a book."  Music was seen as a hobby for me since I was supposed to go into law or medicine or something academic. I'd accepted that label, too. 

My childhood radio was fixed on two AM radio stations, KDAY, and KGFJ, which delivered a great mix of R&B, funk, and "slow jams" for grown folks. I've joked that my interest in ethnomusicology was sparked by a radio promo in the 1970s which promised "a bar of gold" for the lucky listener who called in with a correct answer to a question.  The DJ would play a scrambled snippet of a popular song — five seconds of "Getaway" by Earth Wind and Fire played backwards, for example.  Then, when you heard the announcement, "1580 KDAY is as good as gold," you'd dial in to the station to give your answer.  Yes, you used a rotary phone.  I'd remained glued to the radio seemingly for hours during this promotion that probably lasted several weeks.  I was frustrated because I could never get my little fingers to dial fast enough to be the 11th or 16th caller!  So I listened to the station intently and studied the mystery snippet furiously.  I even began calling at random times to avoid the busy signal.  The one time I got through, the DJ hadn't yet given the prompt.  He had to tell me it wasn't the right time, and I was crestfallen, because I knew I'd identified the song correctly!  I never did win that bar of gold, but I sure did listen to a lot of great music, and learned to appreciate active listening as enjoyment and as an intellectual pursuit.

When the music teacher visited my fourth-grade classroom to invite us to learn an orchestra instrument provided by the school, I raised my hand and told the orchestra teacher, Ms. Bryant, that I wanted to play flute.  Unfortunately, too many kids had signed up before she got to me, so she assigned me to the clarinet.  I wasn't having it!  I told my mother about the situation, probably in tears.  "Somehow," I was placed on flute the first day of woodwinds class.  I was absolutely determined to get a sound out of that thing as soon as humanly possible, and I became first chair for the next year and a half before budget cuts yanked away music programs from many schools. Before that happened, however, our orchestra of little African American students played  "Minuet" from Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks.  Our choir sang a children's version of Beethoven's Ninth. No funk, jazz, soul, or apologies, and we didn't care.  We had the joy and privilege of learning, reading, and performing music. 

Ms. Bryant wasn't perfect. At some point, I, her star student, found myself without a flute shortly before a fourth grade performance.  I had either lost the instrument, or it was stolen.  Either way, she gave no comfort when she'd scolded me by saying, "You'd lose your head, too, if it weren't attached to your body."  Having that experience made me VERY careful about how I speak to young students.  Their lives move in slow motion, despite the rapidly-growing bodies adults see.

Thankfully, my mom bought me a student flute in the fifth grade (which I used until I bought my own in college). After elementary school, I was never first chair flutist again. I was self-taught, and had been bussed to a wealthier area where most of the best school musicians took private lessons.  In fact, I always hovered somewhere around the last chair in junior high orchestra. To join jazz band — an early childhood dream — I had to teach myself saxophone because the band teacher wouldn't allow me to join as just a flutist. That's what I did. 

Saxophone interest didn't follow me to Wellesley College, however. Majoring in music was the last thing on my mind, anyway.  I wasn't good enough, I'd told myself.

I'd inherited my mom's high soprano voice that was more like my idol, Minnie Riperton, than Chaka Khan or Aretha Franklin, the icons of Black song at the time. But because my voice was different than the artists I'd heard, I lacked confidence as a vocal soloist until well-into my adult years. I plunged into the swim-or-drown, competitive jazz scene of New York City at the same time that my Columbia University grad studies were in full swing.   I had my first gig as a bandleader at age 29 at Small's, a jazz cafe in Greenwich Village.  I was branching out as a professional musician and have been on that rich journey ever since.  Over the years, I saw my vocal uniqueness as an asset rather than a liability.

In recent years, I realized I had achieved some of my childhood career goals in a way.  Doctor: By fifth grade, I realized I didn't dig blood and bodily fluids, so that idea fizzled out. But I did earn a doctorate specializing in music. Ballerina: I didn't have the self-discipline; I connected with tap more.  Still, dance didn't entice me in the same way that music did. Nevertheless, I'm always striving to let music flow through me, using elements of dance.  Conductor: That dream had got a bit dented as a kid when I was told that a embarking on a career as a conductor would be a hard road since there were few Black women in the field (The joke is: So, I become a composer!). In any case, I've directed and conducted my own ensembles and my student groups.  I'd had faced a similar response when I'd spoken about becoming a recording engineer.  Still, I'm fascinated with the recording process.  I ended up engineering my own self-produced recordings. In any case, I was too happily distracted by other pursuits to have any regrets for those roads not taken. As for being an entertainment attorney, that career goal survived long enough to type onto college applications.

Two of the last things I wanted to be was a teacher and a musician: My mother was a teacher and she wanted me to go into something that was more lucrative, and I didn't think I was good enough to be a musician.  But the twists and turns of the divergent, concurrent, and converging paths of my life has also generated a passion to share with others the intensity, discipline, and joy that music has brought me.  Whether teaching privileged college students or fifth grade recorder in schools where ninety percent of students receive free lunch, I now embrace my calling as a musician AND music educator. My world was made huge with imagination and an arts-indulgent mother, and my desire is for my students to have even fewer barriers to their dreams than I did. My mother often comes to my students' performances (and most of my own), and I refer to them as her "grand-students."  Some of her former music students, now in their 60s, stay in touch with her, and they reverently share stories on Facebook how much of an influence she was in their lives.

As a mature and perpetually-emerging artist, I describe myself as a slow-burner: Consistent, ever spreading into new territory, but never burning out.  I've judged, coached, and mentored youth in the kinds of competitions I didn't feel I had the skills for at their age.  At the same time, I let students know that there is no age limit on artistry. It's never too late to make your mark. I had even convinced myself to stop playing flute in the three years after I graduated from college, feeling that it was too late for me to do anything significant on the instrument. Thankfully, the flute beckoned me back. Once I realized that no one could be a better expert in my own artistic expression than me, I continue to forge on.  No longer a "young" musician in an a youth-obsessed society, I appreciate my growing wisdom as an emerging elder in the world.  Embracing the perspectives, music, and wisdom that comes with active listening during my solar spins makes my artistry on a deeper and more profound.  With more fervor than ever, I'm engaged in a perpetual struggle to balance my creative, educational, and life ventures.  Consequently, I wouldn't describe my different projects as reinvention as I would reconnection — nurturing the seeds that were already planted in my soul from childhood.  I see myself as stepping into the fullness of the gifts of an ever-blossoming potential.


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Dawn Norfleet is a Los Angeles-based vocalist, flutist and composer, whose eclectic influences include traditional and contemporary jazz, Stevie Wonder, and Claudio Monteverdi. Learn more from Dawn's bio page.

Gabriela Lena Frank