By Sabina L. Lilly
Raised primarily in the suburb of Prospect Heights by a French mother and an American father, Chicago-based pianist Lara Driscoll is making her mark as a performer, educator, and composer. She has shared the stage with a diverse array of artists including Terell Stafford, Chip McNeill, Larry Gray, Dick Oates, Andre White, and Fred Wesley. After earning an undergraduate degree in jazz studies from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she completed graduate work in jazz piano performance at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. (“Why Montreal?” you may ask. For an answer to that question and more, read this 2016 interview.) Lara is currently on the music faculty at Loyola University, DePaul University, and Harold Washington College.
As a composer and bandleader, Lara has just released her first CD, Woven Dreams, which presents ten of her original pieces as well as a few jazz classics. All in all, we think it’s a great time to catch up with this versatile and rising artist.
CJM: Talk about your early exposure to music growing up in Prospect Heights, Illinois. Is your family musical?
Other than a few cousins I don’t know of any musicians in my family, unless you count my musically adopted Jacobi family who are responsible for much of my early musical inspiration. Despite their lack of musical training, my parents valued art and music and have been very supportive throughout my journey. I was lucky to study classical piano with a wonderful teacher named Cheryl Lim. I also took a few months of jazz lessons with Alan Swain. I am grateful for my public school band education, Mimi Gember, Dave Thomas, and especially Hersey High School band director, Scott Casagrande, as well all the supportive administrators for many of my early musical opportunities and formative experiences.
My awareness of unequal access to quality public school musical education has deepened much further now that I have been teaching for some time. As ludicrous as it may sound to some readers, I consistently meet college students who have never seen a live musical performance. Early exposure to art and music-making can affect development, encourage awareness of human expression, and shape our perception of the world. Similar to traveling to new places and trying unfamiliar dishes (two of my other pastimes—a recent favorite was performing in Japan and Thailand with the Firm Roots Duo! The food was delicious too!), how can we know what we might enjoy until we try it? I envision a world where all children have opportunities to explore art.
CJM: How did you come to play piano?
Apparently I was fascinated by pianos as a toddler but my mom eventually signed me up for lessons at age seven. I am glad I maintained my love for the instrument despite many other interests and hobbies. It’s such a versatile instrument and everyone seems to need a pianist.
CJM: Was there a specific recording, performance, or moment that first ignited your interest in jazz?
I was initially drawn in by the joy and synergy I noticed on stage when I saw the older kids playing in the MacArthur Middle School jazz band. Most early inspirations came from hearing live performances in clinics, at school festivals, and at jazz camps. The spontaneity, humanity and real-time non-verbal communication in jazz were mesmerizing.
My early favorite jazz recordings were mostly recommendations from [trombonist/educator] Brian Jacobi or the Jamey Aebersold camp and I wore them out: Hank Mobley’s Soul Station, Red Garland’s Groovy, Miles Davis’ Relaxin’ and Kind of Blue, Bill Evans’ Portrait in Jazz and Sunday at the Village Vanguard, John Coltrane’s Blue Train and Ballads, Ahmad Jamal’s Cross Country Tour, Erroll Garner’s Concert by the Sea, Oscar Peterson’s Night Train, Keith Jarrett’s The Melody at Night, with You, Carmen McRae’s The Great American Songbook, Joe Henderson’s Page One, McCoy Tyner’s The Real McCoy, Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil, lots of Horace Silver and Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers . . . among quite a few others. These classic recordings still deeply resonate with me and continue to inform my playing.
CJM: How and when did you decide to pursue music as a career?
I’m a Libra, so every decision takes some time. I started at UIUC as a music major but hoped to double major in English or psychology. In my sophomore year of college I was in an existential crisis and almost quit music entirely. I yearned to have a selfless life in which I could help people directly and I couldn’t yet imagine how I personally could do that with music. I am grateful to professors Chip Stephens and Chip McNeill for sitting down to listen and share their own experiences and for encouraging me to continue with music. Music school is emotionally demanding, practicing can sometimes feel solitary or selfish, and the pursuit of excellence in music can appear trivial in light of current global news. Artistic expression, however, is so significant, relevant and important to our understanding of the human condition. I have since witnessed music and music education reach other people on a very emotional and personal level.
As a small but relatable example, I recently wrote the following observation after a low-key restaurant gig to remind myself of the power of music: You never know when music is reaching someone (and it is so hard to always remain conscious of this). A lovely woman came into the restaurant. She ate alone next to the piano. When I said hello and asked if she was from Chicago, she told me that she was trying to celebrate the memory of her husband by doing things she used to with him, but that it was so hard because he had passed suddenly from pancreatic cancer. All I could think was that my professor from McGill, the late Jan Jarczyk, must be here to pay me a visit. Before she left she looked at me with tears streaming down and said “you made a difference in my life tonight. Thank you so much for your music.” It doesn't happen every night but when you reach people directly like that, it makes it all worth it. Someone is always listening, and you never know how it makes them feel to hear your heart expressed through your fingers.
CJM: Who are your significant teachers and/or mentors?
Teachers and mentors have truly shaped my life and have also compelled me to give back through my own teaching. The album credits of Woven Dreams list many of my influential music teachers: Woven Dreams is dedicated to my musical mentors, past and present: Chip Stephens, who always told me (and demonstrated how) to “sing the melody in your mind’s ear and be a weaver of dreams,” the late Jan Jarczyk, who guided my compositional growth and gave me the unique opportunity to live in Montreal, Cheryl Lim, Dave Thomas, Scott Casagrande, Brian Jacobi, Chip McNeill, Joan Hickey, Tito Carrillo, Dana Hall, Larry Gray, Ron Bridgewater, Jim Pugh, Glenn Wilson, Joel Spencer, Jeff Grubbs, Alan Swain, Donnie Heitler, William Heiles, Jamey Aebersold Camp Faculty, Andre White, Kevin Dean, Remi Bolduc, Joe Sullivan, Josh Rager, Jeff Johnston and many others; thank you for blessing my path with your wisdom and kindness. I believe in the power of music because of you!
CJM: Can you talk about one or two jazz artists, as well as a specific experience, that helped define your playing?
It’s hard to narrow it down to one or two specific artists, so I will reiterate that my comments regarding Chip Stephens in my last interview remain true. He plays with so much soul and swings so hard, all the time, and that left a big impact on me. In terms of nuances, emotion, dynamics, and phrasing, Bill Evans stands out to me. Seeing live concerts early on was inspiring—for example, at Ravinia (Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock), CSO (Keith Jarrett, SF Jazz Collective), Jazz Showcase (McCoy Tyner, Cedar Walton), Pete Miller’s (Ron Perrillo Trio), Village Vanguard (Fred Hersch), and the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival. I also vividly recall the first time I recorded in a studio. The Youth Jazz Ensemble of DuPage (YJED) invited trumpeter Terell Stafford as a guest. Hearing his warm swinging sound through my headphones as he was sound checking was both surreal and inspiring.
CJM: Can you tell us about your teaching at Loyola University, DePaul University, and Harold Washington College: the courses, your education philosophy . . .?
I learn from my students every day and I am very grateful for them. I really try to challenge myself to not just effectively communicate relevant information but to foster supportive relationships and ensure that students become self-sufficient in their ability to ultimately inspire and teach themselves.
Loyola’s music program has grown in recent years and we have witnessed an increase in students pursuing music as a major as well as many specifically interested in jazz. I feel lucky to be surrounded by remarkable colleagues and hardworking students. Besides teaching, the powerful experience of helping organize the Loyola University Non-Tenure Track Faculty Union and ratifying our historic first collective bargaining agreement taught me so much regarding social justice, the low-wage worker struggle, and the need for solidarity. Fortunately, LUC non-tenure track faculty have vocal and steadfast support of our students, many tenured faculty, and of our community.
My first college teaching position in Chicago was in City Colleges and the experience has widened my worldview as well as my perspective on inequality in Chicago. The Humanities & Music department is an inclusive and socially aware environment that aims to create access to quality affordable education for all. Students can earn their Associates of Fine Arts in music and some transfer to four-year schools. Since many CCC students work full time while going to school and deal with economic obstacles, the work can be challenging and humbling. The personal stories are inspiring and sometimes heartbreaking. My students teach me about perseverance, barriers, systemic racism, representation, privilege, and our societal need to understand and appreciate diversity in its many forms.
CJM: In 2013 you were a featured performer at the Jazz Education Network Conference—and you continue to attend, perform, and present at jazz educator workshops. Since March is Chicago Jazz Magazine’s annual summer jazz camp issue, can you describe for us some of the benefits and lasting value of such an experience?
I can’t recommend enough attending a jazz camp. I’m glad to regularly hear about new programs starting all over the world as well as recent (and welcome) conversation regarding diminishing the gender gap in terms of faculty representation at jazz camps and universities. Role models are so important! Check out the film The Girls in the Band and other recent documentaries about this subject.
Attending the Jamey Aebersold summer jazz camps altered the course of my life. Besides the incredible wealth of knowledge and resources they provided, they introduced me to a community of people who love this music and want to share it in a non-competitive way with others, regardless of their age or background. The experience was similar to an extremely supportive language immersion experience. Jamey always said, “anyone can improvise!” It’s so true! We do it all the time when we speak to one another.
Attending the JEN conference is a lovely reminder of this sentiment as well as of the significance of our collective contributions to the art form. It is a valuable way to reconnect with colleagues, teachers and students, learn new ideas, and remind each other that we are so blessed to have this music to share.
CJM: Your debut CD as a bandleader, Woven Dreams, was released this month. How did the concept for the album come about, and what is your writing process?
Woven Dreams is a long-awaited labor of love that came from collaborations in Champaign-Urbana, Chicago and Montreal. It is a tapestry of my journey thus far and formalizes a snapshot of life experience that I hope to build upon moving forward. The album features a Canadian trio I led while a grad student (Montreal drummer Dave Laing, and Vancouver bassist Paul Rushka), with liner notes by a dear mentor, McGill professor/pianist/drummer/audio engineer, Andre White. It contains mostly my original compositions as well as arrangements of a few standards: “Autumn in New York,” “Favela,” “Just One of Those Things,” and “Isfahan.”
I spend a lot of time thinking about melodies and ways to harmonize melody using strong counterpoint. I also try to put myself in compositional boxes to inspire creativity. My suite “Forgiving - Black Dog Skirts Away” both emotionally and musically responds to a Fred Hersch composition “Black Dog Pays a Visit” from his Trio + 2 album. Listen for the “black dog”—the main three-note theme which comes back over and over, referencing the powerful and misunderstood disease of depression.
The title track Woven Dreams is also my first-ever jazz composition, which was written in college. The tune was actually named “Untitled Ballad” for some time, until the Luminarts composition award performance where the great [trumpeter/arranger] Bob Ojeda kindly and rightfully warned me that no one will remember my tune without a title. Chip Stephens, my college jazz piano professor, often said, “sing the melody in your mind’s ear and be a weaver of dreams,” so I named the song and album in honor of his inspiring words and mentorship.
Since many people associate me with always wearing a scarf, regardless of the season, the very talented Chicago photographer Diego Iván Martirena (Maplewood Photography) creatively wove my scarves and sheet music into the visual design. For years I have also signed my mailing list “hugs ’n scarves,” so incorporating scarves and a dreamy atmosphere into the concept is an attempt to connect the literal with a metaphoric interpretation of Woven Dreams. It is true that you would be hard pressed to find me without a scarf on and a hug to offer!
CJM: What performances, recordings, and/or projects are on your horizon?
I’m excited for my Chicago album launch party on March 26th at Constellation (featuring Ethan Philion on bass and Greg Artry on drums) as well as upcoming release concerts all over the Midwest and Canada! My jazz piano duo (Firm Roots Duo, featuring pianist Chris White) will also be releasing our debut recording soon. We recently created a live recording at the Grand Piano Haus in Skokie featuring music we wrote and arranged together. I also have been enjoying playing concerts and festivals more regularly with the extremely talented Jacobi family. New projects and collaborations come up often, as this city is full of many unique musicians; I just did a fun little recording session with saxophonist/vocalist Juli Wood in February. Since releasing my debut recording has been in the works for a while, I have lots of ideas for the next one . . . I can’t wait to continue on this journey! Thank you, Chicago Jazz Magazine, for your support!
For the latest news, follow Lara on Facebook, Instagram, or visit laradriscoll.com.
Chicago Jazz Magazine content manager (and sometime-contributor) Sabina L. Lilly has been a professional musician for over three decades. Contact Sabina at firstname.lastname@example.org.