Mothers In Jazz(*) this week features Ellie Martin, a highly respected vocalist, composer, educator, and Jazz studies scholar. She is currently the vocal jazz instructor at the University of Toledo, as well as Toledo School for the Arts. Performance highlights include the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival, the Sunset Jazz Festival, and the Michigan Jazz Festival.
She was the featured vocalist with the National Arab Orchestra in San Antonio Texas, and performed alongside jazz luminaries Geri Allen, Terri Lynne Carrington, Esperanza Spalding, the New York Voices, Jon Hendricks, and Afro Blue. Ellie has given several national and international lectures on the vocal jazz historiography, ranging from topics of improvisation, intersections between voice and instrument, vocalese, and the formation of vocal jazz groups. She lives in Toledo, Ohio with her children, aged two and four years old.
London Jazz News: What is the best advice you received about balancing/juggling motherhood and career?
Ellie Martin: I think that the best advice I ever received is that everything has its time and place, and you don’t have to try and do everything at once. The process of having children is both a wonderful and a very intense experience, and in the early days of being a mom I often felt overwhelmed and guilty for not doing enough. There is a huge identity shift that happens when you become a parent, and I found the process difficult but also intensely beautiful. I have never loved anyone as strongly as I love my daughters, and that immense bond has fueled my music and my life in ways I never would have thought possible before I became a parent. I have learned to make peace with the fact that I may not get through the entire to-do list, and I remind myself that raising kids is a full time job and a privilege! I struggled with fertility issues, and had to undergo IVF to have my first daughter, so I am so thankful that Lucy made me a mom.
LJN: What information or advice do you wish you’d received but didn’t (and had to learn through trial and error or on the go)?
EM: I wish someone would have encouraged me in the early days of parenting to worry less and enjoy my time with my baby. I was very anxious with my pregnancy and delivery of my first born. I think from all of the pressure of IVF, I really wanted to make sure that I was “doing it right.” I remember reading “Spiritual Midwifery” when I was pregnant and thinking that I had to have a natural childbirth or my daughter would not thrive. So I made a birth plan, only to realize that I had to have a C-section at 35 weeks for medical reasons. Right after the surgery a nurse told me that I was at higher risk of having a low milk supply, so in addition to feeling inadequate about the birth process I felt like I wouldn’t be able to feed my child properly. I went down the rabbit hole of seeing lactation consultants and trying all kinds of herbs. My milk came in and everyone was fine, but there was so much anxiety about the experience.
I really wish someone would have just said take a breath and tune into your body and your baby. I was so worried about the logistics in the beginning that it took me longer to connect with my firstborn than my second. With my second having some understanding of what to expect after the baby was born, gave me way more confidence and security. You can have a perfect plan of how things should go, but life has a way of making its own plan and it’s important to go with the flow. There is no one right way to give birth, and there is no one right way to parent. The important thing is that everyone is healthy and thriving.
LJN: Your top tip(s) for other mothers in jazz:
EM: Be kind and be patient with yourself. I think having platforms like this are really important because they create support systems for women. They provide a space for women to share with each other, which is huge. Having a physical network of support is also crucial, it really does take a village to raise kids.
I also think tapping into your own intuition and trusting what your gut is saying is really important. People will always have opinions of how parenting should be done but you have to do what is best for you and your child. Along those same lines, try to go with the flow. I really think parenting has a lot of similarities to jazz. Kids are like your hip rhythm section, they are always changing chords and time signatures on you as they are constantly evolving but the interaction, the growth and the play that you engage in with them is exhilarating.
LJN: Baby/child gear tips for travel/touring/gigging:
EM: I think this is really dependent on the age of the child that you are traveling with. I also only ever traveled with my firstborn as a baby because my youngest was born during the covid lockdown. But when my eldest was a baby I loved having a carrier, that way I could keep her close to me and have my hands free. I also relied heavily on a travel stroller that would fold down into a smaller size.
Now that they are older, I bring things that keep them entertained for long plane rides. Things like snacks, headphones and tablets to listen to music and play games work for our family.
LJN: Best general travel/gigging/tour-with-child advice:
EM: If you can afford to bring help, then bring help. We have been fortunate that we often rely on my mother to help us with childcare. If it is not possible to bring the kids with us, my husband and I will also hire a babysitter or ask a friend. Your kids will still thrive if they are not with you every second and they will grow from being exposed to different people. .Again we all need networks of support to help raise our kids.
LJN: What has surprised you about becoming a parent and remaining engaged with your professional activities and ambitions?
EM: The most surprising aspect of becoming a parent has been the creative growth musically speaking. I have found that mothering nurtures my music and my music nurtures my parenting. My kids inspire me all the time, and a lot of the music that I write is about them. I love how they are so completely themselves, and how they live completely in the moment. They don’t worry about what other people think, or what is going to happen tomorrow, they are more interested in looking at the butterfly sitting on the echinacea plant in my front yard. They could spend hours playing in the leaves because their sense of possibility and wonder is endless. How they view the world and the time that we spend together has hugely influenced my work.
The way that I write has also changed. Before I would sit at the piano for many hours and wait for a creative idea to come. Now I am much more efficient. I know that when my eldest is at preschool and my youngest goes down for a nap, then I get 1.5 to 2 hours of uninterrupted time to myself. So that time limit has been very inspiring and liberating, because I worry less about writing the perfect song, and focus on just getting the ideas out. My kids have allowed me to find creative flow much more easily, because there is no time to waste.
LJN: What boundaries have you set for yourself as a mother in jazz (could be related to travel/touring, riders, personal parameters, child care decisions, etc.)?
EM: I would say the biggest boundary that I have set as a mother is that I feel more comfortable saying no to things that are not worth my time. In the beginning I felt like I had to take every gig for “the exposure,” but now I value my time with my kids more and I have become more selective in the gigs that I do take.
Ellie’s debut album “Verdant” was released in May 2023. The project is a collection of all original compositions that reflect on her experiences as a woman, a mother and a cancer survivor, and features Grammy nominated pianist and singer Peter Eldridge, GRAMMY-nominated guitarist Keith Ganz, Israeli guitarist Ariel Kasler, bassist Kurt Krahnke, and Costa Rican multi-percussionist Olman Piedra. Ellie presented part of this work at the International Jazz Voice Conference in Helsinki, Finland on October 6th at the Sibelius Academy.
“Mothers In Jazz” is a new series, started by vocalist Nicky Schrire. The initiative aims to create an online resource for working jazz musicians with children, those contemplating parenthood, and jazz industry figures who work with and hire musicians who are parents. The insight of the musicians interviewed for this series provides valuable emotional, philosophical and logistical information and support that is easily accessible to all. “Mothers In Jazz” shines a light on the very specific role of being both a mother and a performing jazz musician.
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