Jenny Scheinman is a singer, violin player, composer and arranger. She grew up on a homestead in Northern California in a family of folk musicians, studied at Oberlin Conservatory, graduated with a degree in English literature from UC Berklee, and has been performing since she was a teenager. She has taken the #1 Rising Star Violinist title in the Downbeat Magazine Critics Poll and has been listed as one of their Top Ten Overall Violinists for a decade. She has garnered numerous high-profile arranging credits with Lucinda Williams, Bono, Lou Reed, Metallica and Sean Lennon, and has toured and recorded with Bill Frisell, Bruce Cockburn, Norah Jones, Madeleine Peyroux, Nels Cline, Vinicius Cantuaria, Rodney Crowell, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Mark Ribot. She has seven CDs of original music to date; Mischief & Mayhem, Jenny Scheinman, Crossing The Field, 12 Songs, Shalagaster, The Rabbi’s Lover and Live At Yoshi’s. www.jennyscheinman.com
(Updated December, 2005)
I grew up in the westernmost house in the continental United States. If you can find it on the map you still might not be able to find it in on the planet. It is at the ocean-end of a small river valley and is home to a rowdy mix of old ranchers and transplanted east coast back-to-the-Landers of which my parents are a part. From an early age I took piano and violin lessons along with my three brothers and sisters from various teachers in the nearest town two hours away. I was a Suzuki student and until early college was most ambitious and focused as a pianist.
In the summers my family lived outside. We had a luxurious campsite in an alder forest near the river resplendent with several sofas, running water from a small creek, a huge wicker swing, and a big campfire which we would gather around at night to talk and play music. My parents are folk musicians and there were a lot of parties and a lot of singing. We also traveled a bit: to New York City every year to visit relatives, to Europe where I first learned to busque, to fiddle festivals where I won my first competitions, and around the county where I gave my first solo piano recitals.
I was one of six students at the small high school that my parents and other adults created to avoid sending their kids two hours away to a public education facility. I was thirteen years old in my freshman year, having skipped third grade (too tall for second grade) and eighth grade (otherwise, there would only be five which seemed a bit lonely.) I continued taking music theory lessons and private piano and violin lessons in town, attended chamber music workshops, Interlochen Summer Arts Camp, and traveled for a month of every school year with Human Nature, a dance/ theater company directed by a local choreographer.
Had I been accepted to the Havana Conservatory I would probably still be there, enjoying the warmth of a culture that actually supports its artists. As it turned out, I continued with my teachers near home, transferred to Oberlin Conservatory, and then ended up at UC Berkeley via Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz gave me the opportunity to play for a forgiving and fiddle-loving culture willing to trade coffee and baskets of organic vegetables for the pleasure of my ambitious screeching.
I graduated from UC Berkeley with honors in English Literature in 1995. I thought momentarily of trying for a scholarship to graduate school in literature and using it as a day job to support my substantial music habit, but opted instead for a headfirst dive into jazz. Fortunately, I’ve been always been able to support myself playing music. My most lucrative Bay Area gig was with the Hot Club of San Francisco, an acoustic quintet ala Django Reinhardt/Stephane Grappelli’s Hot Club of France of the 1930s. We had a regular gig at Enrico’s Restaurant which attracted old-time North Beach bohemians like Alan Ginsburg but also brought us to the attention of the rich and marrying where we earned our real bread. Wine country weddings all summer; salmon and asparagus and sneaking home bottles of wine in my violin case.
My lowest-paying gigs were usually the most conceptually challenging. I worked with John Schott and Ben Goldberg, the Rova Saxophone Quartet, and had the pleasure of playing extensively with violinist/singer Carla Kihlstedt in various new music ensembles as well as in the avant-rock band Charming Hostess, which lived a glamorous life in the radical nerd-punk subculture of the East Bay.
Between Rova and Grappelli lay the unfolding music in my head. I formed Giant Trio with Jim Peterson (alto sax), Scott Foster (guitar), Jon Evans (bass), and Dan Foltz (drums), and in 1996 we recorded a beautiful little self-titler. I formed my own bands, always withScott Amendola on drums,Adam Levyor Dave MacNab on guitar, and Jon Evans, Lee Alexander orTodd Sickafoose on bass. I recorded The Django Project, a contemporary interpretation of Django Reinhardt’s classical influenced compositions, and Live at Yoshi’s, the first recording to exclusively feature my original music.
I moved to New York in 1999. Both of my parents are from New York, so it was a somewhat familiar landscape by the time the idea of moving to New York began to plague the Bay Area music scene. I moved into an old family friend’s rentcontrolled apartment on Mulberry and Hester until I found my own place in Red Hook. For the first year I went out every night, often to several shows, practiced continually, and became an expert on living the life for under $800 a month. Slowly I began to get work: I played in the Big Apple Circus band for a season, taught at a tapdancing school out on Coney Island Boulevard, played Balkan music withJim Black and Chris Speed, in duo with pianist Myra Melford, struggled along with Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, taught a few private lessons, and busqued in the subways.
Sometime during the years I spent in the Bay Area I struck up a relationship with producer Lee Townsend. He helped me tremendously with my own bandleading, and hired me for numerous recording projects, including Shweta Jhaveri, ,Gabriella Morrone, and Vinicius Cantuaria. These experiences eventually led me to Bill Frisell who has so generously invited me into a number of his projects: a week at the Village Vanguard with Kenny Wollesen and Tony Scherr; a trio with Ron Miles in collaboration with cartoonist Bill Woodring; a night of all George Gershwin music with Petra Haden and Ron Miles; the quintet with Kenny, Tony, and Ron; two weeks in Europe with Kenny, Tony and Sidiki Camara; a tour of the UK with Djelimadi Tounkara; the 858 Project with my string idols Eyvind Kang and Hank Roberts; The Intercontinentals(nominated for a Grammy in 2003);Unspeakable with Hal Wilner (winner of the 2004 Grammy for Best Contemporary Jazz Album), and finally a recording of my own, 12 Songs, which was released in September 2005.This is just a sketch. For a more extensive resume and description of my original projects, look in the bands and CDs part of this website. As for other highlights, I’d say that the Norah Jones band has been a mind blower (none of us could of imagined this kind of success), John Zorn has been a steady supporter, Scott Amendola has been a great friend and employer, Marc Ribot has been challenging, my beloved teacher Gerry Beal was a great help (bless his soul), all my students over the years have been sustaining in every imaginable way, and I’ve even had the luck of being graced by Aretha Franklin. Who woulda thought? (January 2003)
December 2005: I told my mother that I would give New York five years, and then if I wasn’t happy I’d move back to the west coast. Its been six. I’ve passed the point of no return and it’s getting better and better. I have some steady gigs and have really gotten to know some of the wonderful musicians of New York City. When I’m home I play every Tuesday night at Barbes, a wonderful bar in Park Slope with a very great acoustics and an owner/curator that gives me total freedom to explore my radically contrasting interests. A sample of a possible month might include a duo with banjo player Danny Barnes (of the Bad Livers) on which we sing old-time folk music, a jazz quartet featuring pianist Aaron Goldberg, a night of only Gershwin music with Steve Cardenas, the calypsos of Lionel Belasco, a string orchestra conducted by Butch Morris, a string quartet with Eyvind Kang, Carla Kihlstedt and Marika Hughes, a readthrough of some new instrumental music with whoever I can find.
Norah Jones is responsible for another somewhat regular gig at The Living Room. She heard me sing one night at Barbes and encouraged me to set up a band that featured me as a singer, not only that but she wanted to play in it. THAT was an offer I couldn’t refuse. So we’ve been singing together, often with Tony Scherr as well as members of her Handsome Band, many of whom are old friends of mine from the west coast. There’s a directness about singing that has been empowering not to mention the revelatory process of of digging into the songs of my childhood.
What else has happened since I first wrote that autobiography? Tons! But at the moment I’m most focused on the turning of the year from oh-five to oh-six and thinking about what might come. If asked, my new year’s prayer would be (apart from a most passionate desire for regime change and a more peaceful and just world) to find a manager and a record label. Then I might have time to write a suite for septet and string orchestra, to record the singing band with Norah and the Handsome People, to play my music outside of New York City, fancy that!