When I last interviewed classical pianist Jade Simmons, back when she was an artist-in-residence at the University of Chicago three years ago, I said that she was one of “the few of the new generation of classical music artists who was making the huge impact and receiving the kind of acclaim.”
Today, that statement is even truer than it was back then. Simmons has continued to expand and develop herself as an artist, and is breaking through boundaries that most classical musicians, or musicians of any kind, don’t even think of or dare doing.
Among her more recent accomplishments, she was an ArtTech artist-in-residence at Georgia Tech, where she has had the unique experience of improvising with the Shimon, the school’s marimba-playing robot.
Jade has become an art contributor for Huffington Post; released her e-book Emerge Already!, which she calls “the ultimate guide to career building for Emerging artists”; created her multi-media website jademedia.org; and is even currently competing in a chance to open for the rapper Drake on his upcoming tour.
She will be launching her own record label shortly, called SuperWoman Records, and expects to drop two singles in June and July, followed by a four-five track EP in September.
In the meantime, Simmons will perform at Ravinia on August 16 as part of her U.S. concert tour this summer and soon in the United Kingdom. Her successful CD Revolutionary Rhythm, released last fall, will be followed by her new CD #Pagainini Project, featuring works by Rachmaninov, Franz Liszt and contemporary composers Fazil Say and Robert Muczynski, that is due to be released in early 2013 by eOne Music.
A Charleston, South Carolina, native, Jade completed her undergraduate work in piano performance at Northwestern University. While in our neck of the woods, she also became Miss Chicago, Miss Illinois, and ultimately first runner-up at the 2000 Miss America Pageant. She also holds a master’s degree from Rice University.
In the summers of 2009 and 2011, the world got to know Jade as the webcast host for the 13th Van Cliburn Piano Competition in Ft. Worth, Texas, and the 14th Tchaikovsky International Competition in St. Petersburg and Moscow.
For both competitions, she introduced all the performances and conducted live interviews with renowned figures including Van Cliburn, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Menahem Pressler, the Takács Quartet, and conductor James Conlon. She’ll return in 2013 as the webcast host for the 14th Van Cliburn Piano competition.
Jade has appeared as concerto soloist with several orchestras, including the Dallas Symphony, the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas at Town Hall, the Chicago Sinfonietta, and the University of Chicago Symphony.
In an effort to expand the reach of classical music, she has also performed in New York’s many alternative venues, including Symphony Space, the Harlem Gatehouse, Le Poisson Rouge, Joe’s Pub, and Brooklyn’s BamCafé.
Jade has also served as an advocate for America’s youth, addressing groups across the country on sensitive issues such as youth suicide prevention and mental health awareness.
In 2009, she became the inaugural Spotlight Artist for Music for Autism, a New York-based organization for which she performs and has assisted in their expansion to Houston, Texas. Jade has been recognized two years in a row by Symphony Magazine for her work on and away from the stage, and was recently proclaimed Houston’s Best Arts Ambassador by the Houston Press.
N’DIGO: Does all the concert performing, writing, speaking, and charity work ever get to be too much?
Jade Simmons: You’re working so hard, you’re grinding so hard to make things happen, that you kind of forget that people are watching you. You try to make sure that you’re being heard and in the process of that work you become surprised, like: “Oh my God! Someone is actually paying attention to what I’m doing!” This is one of those instances.
I was playing at what they call The White House Holiday Open House. They have all these different artists come in for each day for the month of December. But it was one of those things where it literally didn’t hit me until an hour before when I was tripping into the gown that I was going to perform in that “I’m headed to the White House.”
So I get there and I’m playing on the piano and I didn’t even realize until afterwards when I saw the photos, that it had these gold inlays and these gold eagles that were the legs of the piano and over my shoulder there was a picture of Bill Clinton.
You try to be in the moment, but you still can get lost in it. I remember performing and feeling extremely comfortable and thinking, I’m not having one political thought whatsoever. I was just in awe of the moment.
Performing in such an awe inspiring and historic place such as that must have other special memories as well.
After I performed, I got to take a tour of the White House all by myself and the thing that struck me the most was this curio cabinet that had the different china sets of former presidents.
I remember being blown away by Abe Lincoln’s set, which was very dainty. I was just in awe that the people who inhabit this building are in charge of running the country. It was a really humbling experience.
It wasn’t that sort of cheesy “Kumbaya” type of thing, but when I was taking that tour, there were people in front of me and no one was talking about whether or not they liked the current administration. They were all just soaking in the atmosphere; there’s sort of the weightiness there.
And when I was playing things like Rachmaninov and Christmas music and some jazz pieces, the people who were listening were just happy to be listening in that environment, universally. It was a very powerful moment and solidified some feeling that I want to make sure that what I’m doing has the broadest reach possible.
Are you saying in effect, that classical music artists are limiting themselves to their full possibilities in terms of reaching a wider audience?
I think that as classical musicians especially, we get caught up in wanting to have certain associations, wanting to be labeled a certain way, and we wind up limiting who we can reach. So, my new mantra for 2012 is just to inspire and entertain as many people as possible.
Is an example of that your upcoming tour through the U.K. in conjunction with the organization Classical Revolution, which sounds quite unique?
We’re going to be doing really cool alternative venues. Classical Revolution was founded by a guy I went to school with at Rice University, Charith Premawardhana. He created this organization to take classical music, especially chamber music, into nightclubs and alternative venues.
There’s a different atmosphere in Europe, where they’re a little more receptive to this sort of mixing this melting pot of genres so I’m excited to take part in that.
And among other upcoming concert engagements you will be returning to perform at Ravinia this summer on Thursday August 16th at 6 p.m. in a program called “The Passion of Romantic Music, the Mystique of the Paganini Legend.”
It will be a return engagement since I last played there in 2008 as a Rising Star, so it’s nice to come back and say that the star has risen a little bit, right?
How have you grown as an artist and person since the last time we talked?
I’ve grown as an artist, but where I’ve really grown is as a businesswoman. I’ve started a platform, Emerge Already!, that was launched to give other aspiring and emerging artists career building advice on how you make a career out of this thing.
In music school, we learn how to play Beethoven or Chopin etudes like nobody’s business, but no one has really taught us the business of the arts. So I’ve become a kind of a sounding board and hopefully a voice to give other artists a way to make a career.
I left my agency and now since about a year and a half ago, I’m primarily on my own. I have help with things like media and booking, but I’m the person who is strategizing where I’m going to go and where I want to play.
When exactly did this realization come about?
After the first CD release and things were not where I wanted them to be. There were things that I wanted to do differently I had a clearer vision of how I wanted my career to move, a clearer vision of who my audience was, and I wanted to be responsible for that direction.
So that’s the way I’ve grown the most – I’ve taken charge. I’ve become the boss of my own art and it’s what I’ve been encouraging other artists to do. I think of myself – and I encourage other artists to think of themselves – as entrepreneurs. They themselves are their artistic product. And that has changed things. It has opened up doors that I wouldn’t have even thought to knock on.
So to use the old expression, every opportunity opens up the door for another opportunity?
Right. The White House performance was wonderful, but even better than that is this White House partnership I’ve formed with their office initiative on HBCU youth.
We’re looking to put together a tour of Black colleges in the fall that will be under the auspices of the White House, and that came about from a proposal that I put together. That’s something that I would have never even thought to do maybe two years ago.
Would you agree that the old model of the music business as it has existed previously for literally 100 years, whether it’s classical or pop or hip hop, doesn’t exist anymore?
It doesn’t exist anymore. It’s difficult because the artists are kind of getting that. But usually our handlers are still trying to make things work in the old model.
There’s a lot of friction there because the artists realize we’re the ones who are out here performing, but then you have handlers and record labels and management who still want to do things the old way. It’s a tough combination to manage.
When I left the management I was with, it was a cordial parting. I was on their roster for three years and what it came down to was that I wanted to spread my wings in a lot of different directions.
I’m doing more speaking now, hosting an online coaching program, and I’m writing. I’ve written for the Huffington Post and an e-book for artists on career building and I’m doing all this webcast hosting.
One of my managers said to me, “What do I tell people? Are you a concert pianist? Are you a speaker? Are you a webcast host? Are you a fashion plate?” He said it with this great confusion on his face.
I said, “Tell them yes, all those things, and you should be able to package that in a way that is enticing.” For some people it’s an overwhelming prospect, but when you have a roster of 20 other artists who are okay just being one thing, just doing things the way it’s always been done, it becomes a very difficult thing to have an artist like me.
So when I went on my own, I determined to take my multi-facetedness and start to present it as a package.
Was there any resistance at first to you expanding yourself like that?
It took someone having to see that as a plus and not as a minus so that was something that I had to take responsibility for and find a way to market it, brand it, and package it. It’s working for me.
But one problem that still exists is the increasing lack of venues for classical music outside of the concert hall. For some it may be hard to believe, but there was a time when it was as common and accessible as any other form of music. Now it’s become more isolated and segregated.
I remember the story you told me that when you were a kid, you could go to an A&P or Dominick’s supermarket and there would be classical music albums available right there to buy. Now you go to Target or Walmart, two of the biggest retailers in the country, and you can’t find any classical music.
It’s pretty much disappeared from the traditional marketplace. It stuck in my head what you said that it used to be more accessible. Now with social media, we have different ways of making the music more accessible, so I’ve been thinking how to move forward.
When all is said and done, has this become the most exciting time for you?
It is an exciting time and I’m exhausted most of the time. I’m this one-person aspiring media mogul, but I really wouldn’t do it any other way.