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International Women's Day: In Conversation with the BAN BAM Awardees - Meilana Gillard

  • Interviews / Q&As

IMC chats with BAN BAM Awardee Meilana Gillard

BAN BAM Commission & Development Award is a commissioning and career development opportunity for female and gender minority composers in jazz or improvised music, living on the island of Ireland (North and South) from Improvised Music Company (IMC) and Moving on Music (MOM). Through a detailed analysis process, the judges unanimously rated three outstanding composers particularly highly – Meilana Gillard, Bianca Gannon, and Carole Nelson – and chose them to be awarded the commission in the latest round.

Meilana Gillard is a Saxophonist, Vocalist, and Composer residing in Derry, Northern Ireland. She has been playing Jazz professionally for 25 years and began that journey in Ohio eventually making her way to NYC and has been in Northern Ireland since 2012. She has recorded 2 albums as a leader, her second ‘Dream Within a Dream’ earned a spot on many top 10 lists in 2017. In recent years she has performed with Kevin Brady, Dave Redmond, John Leighton, Liane Carroll, Darren Beckett, Tom Harrison and many others at festivals like Cork, London Jazz Festival, Brilliant Corners, A Love Supreme and the Derry Jazz Festival.

In 2022, she was chosen as one of 30 Irish artists in IMC’s 30/30 to celebrate 30 years. She’s one third of the RBG Trio who will release their debut album in September 2023 with a corresponding tour of Northern Ireland. She has led the Derry-based Experimental R&B/Soul group ‘The Funkitects’ since 2019.

RBG Trio - Centauri (composed by Meilana Gillard)

“Gillard's tough tenor confident and full of ideas” - Stephen Graham,

"Gillard is a gutsy, inventive player with a forceful melodic sense and an open, old-school tenor sound." - Cormac Larkin, The Irish Times.

Tell us about the type of music you create; what are the key qualities, themes, styles, influences?
I find this to be an especially difficult question because I like to keep things pretty open, but there are some fundamental features that are shared across the music I create. First feature being the feeling of the blues. That feeling is what drew me in like a magnet to create music in the first place. I feel an unspoken relationship and connectivity with it in both an obvious and abstract way.

The second is tone/texture being of great importance to me. The way something feels and being able to create lots of variety of texture/tone to best demonstrate an idea is something that exists within all music that draws me in. This also speaks to melody and harmony and how they’re used to make texture and tone.

Third, but not in any order, is rhythm and groove. My perspective about groove and time is always shifting as my tastes change and more skill on my instrument is developed. I imagine this will continue to shift for a lifetime, but one common thread in my compositions is the use of well-known grooves with a nip-tuck here and there to suit the piece. Beyond those connective tissues, I don’t like to limit myself to a certain style or trends I just go in the direction of what speaks to me at the time. That is always changing.

What are some challenges you’ve had to overcome as an artist?

There are the challenges which most artists face like mental health, finances, rejection etc. I’ve definitely gone through and still go through them.

A big challenge was learning how to say no to things that weren’t really in alignment with me and to stop feeling guilty about it. Saying yes when you don’t mean it sets you up to zap all of your energy for what you do want. Another challenge was to tune-out others’ opinions (though often well-intentioned) about my ideas or creative endeavours. Others’ self-limiting beliefs don’t have to apply to you unless you believe them. Another challenge is not allowing myself to be put into a box in a world that loves to smack a label on things. For example, singing and playing instruments besides the saxophone or making music outside of Jazz & Improvised Music may be confusing to people who have a clearly defined persona. There’s no wrong or right, only you and what works for you.

Imposter syndrome is another one, especially when coming out of a particularly difficult time it can be hard to not be sceptical about good things.

Also, I feel like my artistic side and business side are always at odds since the business side barely exists by comparison. It can be hard to find the quiet and peace of mind to really create what my heart and soul is hearing when at the mercy of funding or festival deadlines.

Tell us about some things/people/initiatives that have set you up for success in your career?

Going to a very small high school in rural Ohio where we only had enough band members for a Big Band and having a great band director like Jim Hill. We had a 400+ chart big band book playing Basie, Ellington, Mingus, Goodman, Shaw etc. It was such a great introduction of Jazz. Through that experience, I auditioned for Columbus Youth Jazz Ensemble led by Todd Stoll which was filled with some of the state’s best players and an incredible repertoire of tunes and great opportunities to perform.

Some incredible saxophonists/teachers I was lucky enough to study with in Ohio were Gene Walker, Michael Cox, and Pete Mills who each taught me so much and really set me up to keep working hard. Gene Walker, Roger Hines, Stan Smith and the Gov’ (Greg Pierson) all hired me in their bands when I was young and really didn’t know a thing, they believed in me, gave me freedom to try, they helped me more than I can say.

Studying at the New School was great and where I also met Charli Persip and went on to play in his Big Band and Quintet. His mentorship and encouragement meant a lot to me. Since moving to NI in 2012, Moving on Music and now IMC have given me many opportunities to perform and write new music.

Not giving up, continuing to learn and evolve, and encouraging others along their way is what I define as success.

What projects do you have coming up this year?

In September, the RBG Trio will release our first album together and we’ll also be premiering my Ban Bam piece. I’m really excited to share new music and to keep evolving it through live performance.

Who are some of the Women in Music from the past and present who’ve made an impact on you, as well as one/s to watch who you expect will make their mark into the future?

There are so many great Women in Music but some that really still live in my heard and that I will always back to are Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae, Mary Lou Williams, Melba Liston, and Betty Carter in terms of the past.

When I began playing jazz, social media and YouTube didn’t exist yet so the women I was hearing about already obtained a certain level of commercial success to on display at Borders or Barnes and Noble books etc. though I know now that there were exponentially more that deserved that success. Geri Allen, Terri Lynne Carington, Cindy Blackman, and Ingrid Jensen were on many albums I owned back then and were often featured on radio. I was lucky enough to find a truly great tenor-saxophonist named Ada Rovatti who I looked up from records before later getting a chance to meet and become friends. Seeing someone like you represented does really help you believe you can do it too. My dear friend Lauren Sevian is my favourite Baritone Saxophonist. She’s always playing at the top of her game while both inspiring and supporting those around her. A few years back I got to play with Liane Carroll who is one of the most inspiring, deep, soulful artists I’ve ever heard. Now that we have social media, we get to see just how many outstanding women are out here playing improvised music and there aren’t as many gatekeepers standing in their way. It’s a really beautiful thing. There aren’t any specific artists I’d like to mention that will make their mark, there’s a whole movement of them. I look forward to meeting some of them soon in a new initiative for women and trans/non-binary jazz artists via Moving On Music.

Can you give us a sneak peak of what to expect in your BAN BAM commission?

Hmmm… there will be lots of interplay and groove.

Please share a track to celebrate International Women’s Day

‘A flower is a lovesome thing’ sung by Ella Fitzgerald and written by Billy Strayhorn

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