Lenora Zenzalai Helm – An Empowered Cultural Treasure

Lenora Zenzalai Helm
Lenora Zenzalai Helm is a genius that has dedicated her life to the arts and to discovering and presenting the most adventurous and visionary vocal music of her generation. She creates strongly layered and emotional music in which blues and jazz cohabitate as two great traditions. Helm, perhaps known best for her work as a jazz vocalist, (she is a mezzo-soprano with a four octave range) has mesmerized her peers with her tireless efforts on a multitude of projects that have not gone unnoticed. This year she is receiving her just rewards in the form of prestigious awards, profiles in the Who’s Who biographical registries, and with constant work as a vocalist with her stellar ensemble as well as collaborating with numerous jazz luminaries. Ms. Zenzalai Helm has not exactly reached the pinnacle of her success since there is the possibility that the best is yet to come. However, her true artistic genius is manifesting itself as daring, sensual and provocative and it is sure to leave its indelible mark on the creative music scene.

In her inspired solitude at the infamous McDowell Artist Colony earlier this year, Helm described her exploration of varying states of artistic freedom as coming forth like “combustible energy.” In the spring of 2005, her expressionistic metaphor about the social reality of the contemporary woman will be presented by The Zenzalai Project as JOURNEY WOMAN, the commissioned 5-part suite that came about as a result of Helms’ recent New Works Creation and Presentation Grant. She creates music that gets deep into the hearts and minds of people, invoking thought and the desire to invigorate their own creativity.

Lenora Zenzalai Helm
An Empowered Cultural Treasure
by Paula Edelstein

P.E.: Lenora, congratulations on receiving two prestigious awards as a composer recently! Please give us a brief background of the 2004-2005 New Works: Creation and Presentation grant how you were selected to create “JOURNEY WOMAN SUITE,” a five-part work for your ensemble The Zenzalai Project.

Lenora: I applied for the Doris Duke Jazz Ensembles Project award: New Works: Creation and Presentation grant administered by Chamber Music America in early February 2004. In July 2004 I received a phone call from the jazz program officer at CMA notifying me that I had been selected as a 2004-2005 grant recipient. I was absolutely stunned because I had been applying every year unsuccessfully since the inception of the grant and knew it was a very, very competitive grant. In the application you are asked to describe the project you would like the panel to consider and I explained my idea for writing JOURNEY WOMAN. I wanted to compose pieces about the exploration and discovery of the archetypal woman in five stages of life: birth, youth, adolescence, adulthood and death. You also have to submit a sample of previous compositions, describe your concepts and ideas about composing; give evidence of your professional touring/recording and composing experience. This grant is also unique in that the ensemble is considered as being integral to the outcome of the work being that the collective and individual improvisation of the ensemble lends to the finished piece. Thus, the ensemble is also awarded an honorarium. The winners are selected by blind audition of a panel convened by Chamber Music America comprised of professional jazz composers, arrangers, performers. I understand there were over 160 applicants and 15 eventual winners. I was also very humbled to learn, once someone pointed it out to me, that I was the first African American female to receive this grant. In light of the story I hope to tell in the music I am writing for JOURNEY WOMAN, I found this a great sign!

P.E.: Once again, congratulations Ms. Lenora Zenzalai–Helms! When is it scheduled to premiere and where?

Lenora: I plan to premiere the work in New York City in spring 2005. I also want to perform it in another city, but those plans are in the works.

P.E.: The world has been privVy to some of your collaborations with such great artists as Branford Marsalis, Wayne Shorter, Nasheet Waits, Donald Brown and of course, Andrew Hill. Who are the members of THE ZENZALAI PROJECT?

Lenora: The Zenzalai Project’s core members are pianist Brandon McCune, bassist Miriam Sullivan, and drummer Nasheet Waits. I say “core” because since our inception or the first recording or tour we did together the members have become increasingly popular with other bands. When Brandon or Miriam or Nasheet are busy, I also consider Zenzalai Project members to include bassist Dwayne Burno, pianist Rick Germanson and drummer Ronnie Williams. When I perform or record with horn players I use saxophonists Antonio Hart, Abraham Burton, trumpeter Duane Eubanks.

P.E.: All exceptional musicians in their own right. Hats off to them as well. Which instruments will the music primarily be written for and what techniques can listeners look forward to?

Lenora: JOURNEY WOMAN is written for piano, bass, drums, sax, trumpet, percussion, and of course voice. I’m actually in the process of writing now, so I am thinking of other instruments for particular pieces. I’ll be adding flute, bass clarinet, a poet and cello to my original instrumentation.

P.E.: In addition to the New Works grant, you’ve also been awarded a composer residency at the prestigious MacDowell Artist Colony. Over 5000 artists have worked over the years at MacDowell including James Baldwin, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copeland and Alice Walker among others! Once again, congratulations! Lenora, what does this particular award mean to you and what does this residency entail?

Lenora: Wow! How do I begin? I have had to pinch myself over these last few months. Being named a MacDowell fellow is an incredible honor. I learned of MacDowell from a writer friend, and musician friend, pianist Fred Hersch. It was an unknown world to me totally. The idea of getting a chance to go away in an environment of total quiet — literally in the woods — and write with no interruptions was hard to get my mind around – I’m such a city girl. After completing the application, and doing a little research about the colony, I had no idea of my chances of getting in. It was really a serendipitous surprise when both the CMA grant and MacDowell residency happened at the same time. I didn’t realize the benefits of solitude and the ability to focus on just writing. My life is so full — I wear so many hats — I now understand the need to plan for that kind of solitude.

I wrote like crazy, so much came out, like combustible energy. It was almost cathartic. You choose the amount of time you would like to spend, from two weeks to two months. You get the arrangement of your choice, a live-in studio cabin or a studio to work in and a separate living cabin. I chose a live-in studio. It was blissful. I was assigned a studio that had many previous acclaimed composers, such as T.J. Anderson, which made me feel even more blessed. The magic and the energy you feel on the premises is really special and evokes so much. You receive three luscious meals per day — they bring you lunch in a picnic basket so you don’t have to stop working to come and eat! I had a fireplace, and no other cabin is within eyesight of your cabin. At first I was locking my doors and closing all the shades, but eventually I got used to the beauty of the trees, and the serenity, and realized the deer and the wild turkeys were not going to harm me.

It was the optimal environment for creativity. I will always plan for this kind of time now. It was almost surreal. In addition to the space created for you to create, the community created by the other artists in residence at the same time is amazing. I was a little familiar with being around a lot of other artists, from my days at Berklee College of Music. However, the artists at MacDowell are a mixture of writers, filmmakers, video artists, sculptors, painters — all arts disciplines. Some nights, artists present the work in what’s called an Open Studio, and you listen to a reading of their poems, literature, listen to their music, and see their works-in-progress. It’s an incredible source of inspiration. It was enlightening to hear them share stories of the same experiences of creative peaks and valleys, joys and pains of being an artist, decisions about expressing from an organic place, and dealing with distractions of marketing your work and being true to your vision, etc.

P.E.: The beauty of the forest is awesome and also very healing. I’m sure the tears of joy for you are in eyes everywhere, including mine! In addition to these two awards, you’re also being included in Who’s Who In America for 2005! What a great honor also. I surely hope that you not only receive the accolades that come with this honor but the financial rewards as well. Will you be profiled in their other publications such as Who’s Who Of American Women?

Lenora: I don’t know, but knowing the overachiever I am, I’ll investigate :-). It was a great honor to be included in Who’s Who of American Women. I learned that you are recommended for this, you don’t apply. I have no idea put my name in the hat, but I am humbled and grateful.

P.E.: You have many friends and admirers Lenora who respect and realize your value to the artistic tradition. As a vocal musician, composer, teaching artist, artistic director and co-founder of Harmony, and former U.S. jazz ambassador, Lenora, you must work 24/7! Your most recent recorded guest appearance with pianist Andrew Hill on the May 2004 release of the “live” recording of his Jazzpar 2003 tour in Europe entitled THE DAY THE WORLD STOOD STILL: The Andrew Hill Octet +1 included your lyrics! Now’s that also a wonderful accomplishment. How did that collaboration come about?

Lenora: Well it was quite an honor, and I must say one of the most amazing moments in my career! I was invited to accompany Andrew,whom I have written lyrics for in the past, (his composition “Ashes” is recorded on my Precipice CD) but this was a circuitous turn of events. Andrew asked me to write lyrics to a piece of a music he’d written, and gave me a title, “Hermano Frere”, translated to English it means, “Brother, Brother.” Andrew shared with me after I’d written the lyric that THE DAY THE WORLD STOOD STILL was his musical response to the 9/11 tragedy. Initially though he only told me the title “Hermano Frere,” so I began writing a lyric about being responsible to each other as brethren on earth. I learned about his being elected as 2003 Jazzpar winner afterwards, and certainly didn’t expect to be asked to participate by singing the lyric to Hermano Frere and Ashes on his 2003 Jazzpar tour. My spouse, Nasheet Waits, told me Andrew asked him to go on tour with him for his Jazzpar events, and I was invited by Nasheet to tag along as a “jazz wife” (big laugh). Andrew learned of this and asked me to sing with him! He arranged for and hired me to participate as an official member of the octet and tour. I was really grateful for the opportunity to work so closely with him, and to be able to watch him work with the musicians in rehearsal. He is really a brilliant composer and entirely generous with me. I’ve learned so much from him, about listening and writing, about the music business.

P.E.: Which lucky, talented star were you born under!! I’m checking the cosmos for that one Lenora! Not many of your fans realize the immense depth and wealth of your talents. I recently had the honor to see you perform with the Dance Theatre of Harlem as vocalist/accompanists in one of their ballets titled “St. Louis Woman: A Blues Ballet.” What a great show! Will you reprise that role anytime soon or will do you think your creation of “Journey Woman Suite” will occupy most of your creative well this year?

Lenora: Working with Dance Theatre of Harlem was another blessing and an incredible honor. The company is full of superb talent and an extraordinarily dedicated staff. The accomplishments of Mr. Arthur Mitchell, Artistic Director, are a beacon light for all creative people. He really does have a wonderful story. Of course, the music of Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen is a welcome opportunity for any vocalist. I loved every minute of it! I won’t be able to focus on too many things this year. I’m devoting a lot of time to writing Journey Woman the first part of the year, and developing the nonprofit music program, HARMONY, to it’s full potential. We now have three Saturday sites and two after-school sites: a staff of about 18 college music instructors and professional band directors, as well as serving about 100 middle-school aged children. Not to mention my touring and teaching artist commitments, PLUS, I’m writing a book about entering the field of arts education as a teaching artist for interested artists of all disciplines. My hands are quite full. One good thing is the MacDowell experience taught me the benefits of focus and organizing projects, then setting aside time to get them done!

P.E.: Thank you so much for taking the time from your busy schedule to talk to our readers Lenora. You are such a great woman and once again, here’s to all the richly deserved accolades and awards! May peace and great judgment be with you always.

Lenora: Thank you Paula. I so appreciate the opportunity to share with your readers and to talk with you again. It is my pleasure indeed! Read more about Lenora Zenzalai Helm and keep in touch with her happenings at http://www.lenorazenzalaihelm.com.