May 22, 2011


Monika Herzig, born June 12, 1964 is a lot of things. A jazz pianist, whose second album for Owl Studios, a DVD and CD combo called Come with Me, was released this April. A pedagogue, teaching music industry courses for undergrads at IU-Bloomington and a jazz history class for continuing studies students at IUPUI. A church organist, employed by Ellettsville First United Methodist for 16 years.

A community organizer, who has founded support and outreach groups for Bloomington jazz musicians (Jazz from Bloomington) and women in music (ISIS). A composer, whose analytical work often involves unusual chord changes and harmonic twists, perhaps because of her background (classically-trained outside of the American jazz tradition) or simply the way her brain is wired (a math major on the undergraduate level, she identifies herself as more analytical than big-picture oriented).

But wait, there's more: A theorist, who thinks the structure of a jazz combo offers insights on how to organize any small group of creative thinkers, in business as well as the arts. A soon-to-be published author, whose collection of essays on David Baker will become the first book on the jazz pedagogue and musician.

And, on a non-professional level: A mother, whose two children, ages 9 and 11, have managed to find their way to an album cover or two. And a German-American, who became an American citizen three years ago, 23 years after she and her husband, the jazz guitarist Peter Kienle, bought a one-way ticket from Germany to Northern Alabama.

And it goes on and on. Herzig has one of those CVs that make you wonder just what you've been doing all these years, and how people like her can resist the lure of, say, home entertainment systems and beer.

But she's not a singer, and you're just going to have to deal with it.

"Every time I set up somewhere, I can bet on it that someone will come up and say, 'Are you going to sing tonight?' Herzig explains on a Saturday night at Rick's Café Boatyard, the Westside restaurant where she's played with her trio every Saturday night for a decade. "I don't sing, and I think because of that I've grown more averse to it."

To be clear, Herzig isn't against vocals. She just doesn't need them for much of her work. Here's how she puts it in the liner notes to Come With Me, explaining the inspiration behind the song "The Pianists Say," which she says was crafted as an answer to all those who ask her to sing: "While I do enjoy vocals and the power of words very much, I do believe that instrumental music can communicate deeply, far beyond words, touching the depths of our emotions."

The goddess Isis

Maybe that question — aren't you going to sing for us tonight, Monika? — can annoy in another way: It assumes that any female in front of a band ought to be a singer. That's a stereotype that Herzig hopes to turn on its head through her work with ISIS of Indiana, the support organization for female musicians she co-founded with vocalist Heather Ramsey.

ISIS, whose June 2 Divas of Jazz concert at The Cabaret at the Columbia Club will exclusively showcase female musicians, was hatched during the December 2009 release show for Peace on Earth, Herzig's first album for Owl Studios. Ramsey approached Herzig that night. "We got to talking, and I realized, here's another entrepreneurial spirit," Herzig explains. "She'll come up with all these big ideas, and I go, 'Heather, I think that's possible, but that might be a little too far-reaching.' So we have a good balance."

And the biggest goal of the organization is to reach a balance, to address a gender bias that Herzig thinks can be attributed to a lack of prominent female role models in jazz. She points to studies which show that, while nearly equal numbers of males and females are involved in high school music programs, college jazz studies programs see a dramatic drop-off in female involvement. "There's something that happens when the question comes up, 'Should I do this as a profession?'" Herzig says.

Most girls answer "no," but Herzig is hoping they'll reconsider. This summer, ISIS, in collaboration with the Civic Theatre, will host a summer camp for girls called Girls Create Music, a sort of analogue to Girls Rock! Indy that will have components addressing songwriting, self-image and basic instrument instruction, and will close with a performance by the campers.

Not that Herzig is only in this to convert girls: She reaches out to groups of all ages and, er, sexes, from adults looking to catch up on the history of Indiana jazz to impressionable grade schoolers.

In 2005, Herzig founded the organization Jazz in the Schools to teach about jazz in Central Indiana schools. Her programs focus on key Indiana jazz musicians: songwriter Hoagy Carmichael, guitarist Wes Montgomery, her colleague David Baker — and a few female instrumentalists who might well serve as historical role models for girls playing jazz: ragtime pianist May Aufderheide, who may not have the name recognition of a Scott Joplin, but whose songs are still among the genre's most widely played; and the Hampton Sisters, all of whom were instrumentalists and singers.

And for the past seven years, Herzig has taught a jazz studies course, "An Introduction to Jazz History and the Indianapolis Jazz Scene," through the IUPUI continuing studies department. Borne out of a somewhat self-interested pitch by Chatterbox owner David Andrichik, who suggested to Herzig that a class whose sessions ended with performances at his club would be a great idea, Herzig's course combines classroom and experiential learning, beginning with a lecture at IUPUI's Senior Center and, indeed, closing with a performance featuring a local jazz musician at the Chatterbox.

Herzig met one of her collaborators, the former Indiana Poet Laureate Norbert Krapf, while he was enrolled in her IUPUI course. The two went on to perform in a spoken word setting, eventually releasing a record, Imagine: Indiana in Music and Words. A poem Krapf wrote about the class — and, in particular, about Herzig's impact on her students ­— touches on another broad theme in her life: that of the outsider attending to an indigenous culture with more respect than many who grew up in it. Here are the salient lines from Krapf's "What Have You Gone and Done?": "You came to Indiana / from Swabia via Alabama / and brought us home to an Indiana Avenue / no longer visible to the eye" (from Bloodroot, copyright IU Press).

Case in point: When Herzig learned that, despite reports to the contrary, no one was working on a biography or study of the life and work of David Baker, she decided to take on the project herself. Not that she had ever written a book before, or that she had funding at the ready. She put together a proposal for IU Press, which was interested but didn't have the resources for a significant advance. An NEA grant eventually came through, and David Baker: A Legacy in Music is due this November. The book is a collection of essays addressing different aspects of Baker's work and life, including his classical and jazz compositions, pedagogical methods, work with the Smithsonian and NEA and early career as a musician. Herzig wrote some of the essays, and is credited as the primary author, but she wanted to involve other authors from the beginning, including IU professor and Owl Studios labelmate Brent Wallarab.

From the Alps to Brown County

Jazz wasn't unknown in Herzig's hometown of Horb, Germany, a small burg high in the Swabian Alps once known for its textile factories. But it wasn't exactly popular either. There was one group in the area, Beeblebrox, headed up by Peter Keinle. And, as Herzig puts it, "they tried to play this hardcore fusion and nobody got it."

Still, she was determined to play with someone, and she had a pretty good keyboard — one of the first Yamaha DX-7s. Classically-trained but not as well-versed in jazz, she approached the group in 1986 while an undergraduate. Herzig: "The thing is they said, 'You can practice with us, but when we play, we need someone who can really play.'"

Kienle and his cohorts needn't have warned her. They may have allowed Herzig into practices to get access to her keyboard, but she proved her chops and never missed a concert. The band name survived Herzig and Kienle's move to the States in 1988, with versions of BeebleBrox taking shape in both Alabama, where Herzig attended grad school, and in Bloomington, where they moved in 1991 so that Herzig could pursue her doctorate.

Herzig studied alongside now-household names in the local jazz community during her time at IU, most of whom are now her labelmates at Owl Studios: saxophonist Rob Dixon, trombonist Rich Dole, trumpeter/educator Mark Buselli and his collaborator Brent Wallarab. She had significant performance opportunities early in her studies, including a 1991 trip to Monte Carlo with the IU big band sponsored by Johnnie Walker, which saw IU students playing alongside jazz greats such as Freddie Hubbard, Betty Carter and Dave Brubeck. "It worked really great," Herzig says of the experience, "but then IU realized, 'Oh, we have an alcohol company sponsoring.'"

She earned her doctorate in music education (with specialty in jazz studies) in 1997, at which time she considered job offers that would have taken her out of the state, including an organist gig at a large Catholic church on Long Island. But Bloomington felt like home. In fact, it looked like home from the beginning. She remembers driving from Alabama to Indiana in 1991 and noticing the similarities between the hilly landscape of south central Indiana and that of her birthplace. She grew up near a ski slope — and, at one time, Ski World wasn't too far from her Bloomington home.

"I really liked it," she says of her first impressions of the city. "The whole culture in Bloomington is so much different from everywhere else because you have people from all over the world...It's a mini-oasis."

Herzig and Kienle started a family around the time of her graduation: "We're going to be old grandmas and grandpas," she jokes. And by 2002, Herzig had found a steady job at IU as a lecturer, helping to create music industry classes for a newly-created arts administration program. Her students have gone on to jobs with Bloomington outfits, including indie label Secretly Canadian and promotions company Rock Paper Scissors, as well as corporations such as Atlantic Records.

No shame in her game

When Herzig approaches a new album project, she has one central question in mind: "How can I do something special and different?" On her first Owl Studios album, Peace on Earth, she answered that question by working up a selection of Christmas songs, including John & Yoko's "Happy Xmas (War is Over)."

For her latest project, she happened upon the idea of coupling a CD with a DVD. After all, a DVD equals "extra value," which is important in a jazz world in which some of the most successful artists rarely sell more than ten thousand copies of an album.

Owl went for it, despite the extra expense. As Herzig puts it, studio head J. Allan Hall "is just there to support, and if he thinks it's a good idea, he'll go for it." Or Herzig may just be really convincing: in the documentary about her featured on the DVD, Hall calls Herzig "a hustler, in the best sense of the word," a characterization that Herzig laughs off when I bring it up during our talk at Rick's Cafe Boatyard.

But she is tireless, and one wonders just where she finds her passion. Herzig: "It's all about the energy of creating a new project that came out of your mind, and molding it and making it a reality...That excitement is where my energy comes from, I think. It's obviously not the money."

She's at no loss for ideas for the future, although she's presently occupied with her work on the David Baker book and with ISIS of Indiana, which will present its signature event, the Femmes Blu festival, September 30 at The Cabaret at the Columbia Club. She has an idea for a solo piano CD that includes multimedia components, including an interactive score and video clips. And she'd like to tour more, despite the difficulty in finding gigs in the absence of an actual jazz circuit.

Looking back, Herzig doesn't think it so unusual that a German-born musician has ended up a steward for the Indiana jazz tradition. She points to her time as an instrumental arranger and director for the IU Soul Revue, an ensemble affiliated with the university's African American Arts Institute. "We were presenting the black tradition and nobody said anything," she says of her place in the ensemble, which she notes also included a Japanese guitarist at the time. "I wrote the arrangements, I did my job, it was in style and it worked."

And she's invested in the state — and the country, noting that she can get legitimately upset over, for instance, the slashing of funding for public radio, now that she's become an American citizen. "We've been here now 20 years, and getting integrated and teaching a class, you realize what a great tradition this state has," Herzig says. "I guess I'm an adopted Hoosier, passing the word on...Even musicians who live here sometimes feel like they have to justify something or feel inferior. And when you look back, it was the crossroads: everybody came through, we had all these clubs, all the great bands played here and a lot of great musicians were from here."

To visit Monika Herzig's website CLICK HERE

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