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Five Questions for Saxophonist Hailey Niswanger

Saxophonist Hailey Niswanger

Saxophonist Hailey Niswanger

Courtesy of Hailey Niswanger

Portland-born alto/soprano saxophonist Hailey Niswanger now lives in Brooklyn, New York. But when she thinks of the food of jazz, her roots are clear. To her, it’s fried fish, wine and kale — all Northwest staples. 

Recently back from a tour with Esperanza Spalding, the 22-year-old took five questions from Deborah DeMoss Smith, host of KMHD‘s Tuesday AM edition of The Bridge. 

1. Is a woman’s approach to playing the sax different from a man’s? 

There is no difference, but there are different hurdles one might come in contact with being a woman rather than a man in the jazz world. Unfortunately, there are stereotypes of women instrumentalist jazz musicians. But I think a lot of that was that once it was so abnormal, people weren’t used to seeing a woman play well, to succeed. I think you really have to step up and let the music speak for itself. There’s no gender in music.

2. Were you born with music in your soul or did you acquire that talent?

I feel like it’s something I was born with. I happen not to come from a musical family. Music is something I picked up on my own — when I found it I was 5 years old. My mother tells me it was my idea to study the piano; I’d been bugging her for weeks to let me start. So something in me was very interested in music and wanted to learn more. I think I felt a connection with it because whenever I picked up an instrument I learned it really fast. That happened with the piano, then the clarinet at 8, then the saxophone at 10. 

3. You come upon saxophonists John Coltrane, Lester Young and Cannonball Adderley. Which one would you choose to sit down to talk and play with?

I would choose John Coltrane. I’m looking at a huge painting of him in my room that my friend made. He’s probably been the greatest inspiration for the kind of sound I would like to have — he developed such a unique style, different from the times he was in. He was this new sound that nobody had heard and I want to be like that new sound in this era. He was really reaching for something, really connecting to all his surroundings besides music. It would be interesting to sit down and hear what he had to say about his process and how he was connecting to music beyond normal day life. 

4. What’s a misconception about you?

I think some people think I only play jazz, but I play in a lot of pop bands and folk, so I guess a lot of people don’t know — at least back home in Portland — that I’m not just a jazz artist. Here in New York you have to pay the bills and break into other things in music. So I’m frequently doing weddings, Top-40 gigs, Motown and folk singers/songwriters. 

5. What tune would you play for someone who had never heard jazz before?

I’m going to go with “Stardust” played by Sonny Stitt (on alto sax) from the Miles Davis/Sonny Stitt Stockholm, 1960 album. That would be it.

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