Breaking the mold
Diné classical flutist says he hopes to inspire the inner selves of youth
By Cindy Yurth
CHINLE, March 5, 2009
I t's not easy being a Diné classical musician.
Navajos say, "What are you doing that for? That music's for white people."
White people say, "You're Indian. Shouldn't you be playing a wooden flute?"
(To which flutist Jerome Jim feels like replying, "I notice you're wearing a turquoise necklace.")
"It was just one of those paths where there was no role model," Jim, 37, said in a telephone interview from his home in Albuquerque. "There are Native doctors, lawyers and engineers, but there aren't too many Native classical performers. In fact, unless you want to count (ballerina) Maria Tallchief, I can't think of a single one."
So, Jim figures, now that he's made it, it's up to him to be that role model.
When he heard about the upcoming Diné Concert Band Festival from a friend in the Navajo Nation Band, he e-mailed Chinle High School music director Eric Swanson and offered to give a flute clinic.
Swanson called him back right away, before Jim had a chance to rethink the three-and-a-half-hour drive to Chinle.
"I didn't even know there was a Navajo classical flutist," Swanson said. "This is perfect. I didn't even have to ask him - he came to me."
The feeling of music
Having grown up in Fort Defiance, Jim remembers what it was like being a wind player in a world where there were two kinds of music: country and heavy metal. And two instruments: guitars and drums.
"I think, especially for young Natives, there's this safety-in-numbers thing," he said. "You want to do what everybody else is doing, because you're already so outnumbered in the rest of society."
But that didn't work for Jim. He was different from the get-go.
"My mom (Phoebe Yazzie) played piano at our church," he said. "She loved classical. In our house, there was always classical music playing. And then I'd go to church with her and hear all the wonderful choral stuff."
The music may have been European, but something about it resonated with the young Diné.
"The thing that spoke to me is the feeling in the music," he explained. "You can hear every emotion in it."
Jim started out on trumpet "back when there was band in elementary school," but it wasn't quite the right fit. He switched to French horn in middle school, and "that didn't work at all."
He thought he'd found his match in the sinuous sounds of the oboe. But when he told his mom, who was divorced from his father by then and struggling financially, that she needed to buy him a reed-making kit, "she nixed that idea."
Jim switched to flute, which doesn't have a reed.
When Jim was in his first year of high school, he moved with his mother to Albuquerque, where she registered at the University of New Mexico. It was in the small but culturally vibrant city that Jim realized music would be his life.
With his mother attending college, Jim was privy to every faculty recital and visiting musician.
"I don't think it ever really struck me, 'I can have a career in this,'" he mused. "It was more like, 'I cannot imagine myself doing anything else.' Music isn't really the kind of thing you pursue ... it sort of stalks you."
The right place
Jim was fortunate to land at Highland High School, which had one of the best band programs in the state. He started taking private lessons with the late Frank Bowen, a music professor at UNM.
"I was not a prodigy," Jim said. "It was more a matter of being in the right place at the right time, with the right people. Dr. Bowen was one who was really quite instrumental in the whole process."
After high school, Jim worked odd jobs and managed to get paid for playing music by joining Musical Theater Southwest. After about 10 years, he decided he'd better get a degree and followed his mother's footsteps to UNM.
He got permission from the administration to create his own major, which he called "European Musical Performance in Cultural Context."
"I wanted something broader than 'music performance,'" he explained. "Performing musicians can get very narrow. For me, it's important to remember that music doesn't arise in a vacuum. Art, history, language, wars, the kind of instruments they had - all these things influence it."
Even fashion plays a part. Choppy baroque phrasing, for example, arose in part because "it was a time when even men wore corsets," Jim said. "You couldn't draw a full breath."
After obtaining his rather obscure bachelor's degree, Jim decided to pursue an even more esoteric subject for his master's - the influential but nearly forgotten 19th-century opera singer Giuditta Maria Costanza Pasta.
"I figured, 'She was European; I'll go to Europe,'" he recalled, "not knowing the biggest archive on her is in New York City."
Jim auditioned and was accepted at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam, where he studied diligently for two years before discovering the school was not licensed by the Dutch government to award master's degrees, and furthermore wasn't even internationally accredited.
"They had basically misrepresented themselves to me and all the other international students," Jim said.
Jim's creativity had also suffered at the, um, very conservative conservatory.
"The conservatory had this very rigid idea of what you had to play," he said. "I couldn't really explore the music I was interested in."
And yet, outside the classroom, his life was flourishing to the point that he actually considered applying for Dutch citizenship.
"Here in America, white people can be very judgmental and dismissive of Native Americans," Jim said. "In Europe, they have this sense of awe and respect for Native culture. They actually know a lot more about Native Americans than most Americans do."
It was in Europe that Jim "finally felt OK about being a Native American who plays European music."
Back home in Albuquerque, Jim gave up on Giuditta but plunged into performance. With a combination of recital work and portrait photography - another passion he discovered in Holland - he's been able to support himself "to my surprise, sometimes."
He's working on his second CD with pianist Amy Greer. True to form, his recordings contain some very obscure stuff.
"There are some pieces I found in Rome that haven't been published for 120 years," he said. "This will be the first recording of them. Then there are some women composers who are somewhat familiar to Europeans but not known in America."
So, what message will he have when he comes full circle and addresses the Navajo Nation's young musicians in Chinle on March 28?
On the practical side, "I can show the flute players some fundamental techniques that can serve them for the rest of their lives," he said.
On a deeper level, he hopes there will be some kids in the audience who have never felt they fit in. Those are the ones, he says, who need to be reached before they jettison their innermost selves in a desperate attempt to be like everybody else.
"I want to show them, 'Here's someone who wanted to do something completely different with his life, and did it,'" he said. "I don't care if your dream is music or anything else, you're going to need courage to follow a different path.
"I hope they see this Navajo guy from Fort Defiance and say, 'If he can do it, I can too.'"
The Diné Concert Band Festival on March 28 will feature a public concert at 7 p.m. in the Wildcat Den. Tickets are $5 at the door, with all proceeds going to the Chinle High School Band Club.