Los Angeles Times
July 6, 1993
Saxophonist's Talent Breaks Down Barrier
When first starting out, saxophonist Sonya Jason found it tough gaining acceptance with her fellow musicians, both male and female.
"I would walk into a club and want to sit in and there'd be a few raised eyebrows," she explains, "like, 'Sure, but can she really play?' They were hesitant to let me in.
"And it wasn't just the men," she adds. "Women, particularly vocalists, weren't very supportive."
The 28-year-old saxophonist remembers how one female singer did everything she could to keep her from sitting in with her band, asking Jason to come back another night, then caustically telling no one in particular she'd have to leave if she didn't measure up.
"It was pretty harsh, plus she wouldn't even address me directly. Then, on the bandstand, the trumpet player [a male] tried to squeeze me out."
But after the rousing ovation the saxophonist received, the vocalist asked her to stick around. Jason says her playing abilities, plus impressive education credentials - she's studied music at Mills College in Oakland and the University of California, Berkeley, as well as graduating summa cum laude in 1985 from Berklee College of Music in Boston - have erased any doubts other musicians may have had about working with a woman instrumentalist.
"Berklee was my calling card in those days," she says. "People would say, 'Oh, well, she must know what she's doing.' and as soon as I blew, everything was OK because I could play."
But starting her own band in 1987, the problems all but disappeared. "In terms of booking myself, it's actually an asset that I'm a woman. I have good photos, make a good visual [appearance], I'm good with the audience onstage and I can play. Agents and club owners understand the marketing value of that."
And so does Jason. With her first album for the Discovery label, "Tigress," doing well on the adult contemporary radio charts, and a schedule that finds her playing as many as four different clubs in a single week, the Burbank-based Jason is finding her determination paying off.
"I have a holistic approach to the music business," she says, "a broader vision compared to a lot of musicians because I handle all the business as well as musical aspects. It's like working with two heads: One speaks for the artist and the other is concerned with management."
Jason made a conscious decision early on to pursue the more commercially viable, adult-contemporary style of jazz. "I wanted to do the kind of music that I loved and attracted me the most. And my background was in contemporary music.
When I was 13, I fell in love with [trumpeter] Chuck Mangione's 'Feels So Good.' That's what I came out of, not [bebop saxophonist] Charlie Parker. I didn't grow up in the 40's and 50's. I've spent time studying that music and appreciate its challenges, but that isn't where my heart is."
"Tigress" reflects that choice, with Jason blowing alto, and lesser amounts of flute and sopranino sax on a program of original funk tunes, sultry ballads and Latin-influenced numbers. She's joined by a veritable cadre of Los Angeles studio musicians, including drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, former Miles Davis keyboardist John Beasley, Thelonious Monk International Piano Competition winner Bill Cunliffe and Peruvian guitarist Ciro Hurtado.
To find her own sound, Jason looked to two disparate saxophonists for inspiration: mainstream Phil Woods and R&B-influenced David Sanborn. "I don't want to be a Sanborn clone like so many young saxophonists," she says. "I want to combine Phil's warmth and sensitivity with Sanborn's fire and emotion. For the same reasons, I'm now studying Stan Getz and Michael Brecker; Getz because of his melodic flow and ability to pick just the right notes, and Brecker because he's such a virtuoso and has a way with the contemporary sound."
Jason, who plays Jax in Glendale Friday and Saturday, the Baked Potato in North Hollywood every Sunday in July and Randell's in Santa Ana every Wednesday this month, is looking ahead to the next level. "I hope to go out on tour with a major act, either as an opener -- like [saxophonist] Kirk Whalum has done for Whitney Houston - or as a member of their band. It would give me a chance to expose my music to an audience who I know would appreciate it, because it has the same kinds of grooves and melodies that they relate to."
And for other women looking for a career as an instrumentalist, she offers this advice: "It's the old saying that a woman must be three times better to be thought of as half as good, and there's still some of that out there. So if we expect to be accepted as equals and not face the prejudices, we have to make sure that our playing ability is up to the top level. That's the bottom line."