Women in Jam, Part VI: Jennifer Hartswick Reaches for the Top
It’s been minute — a very long minute, stretching back almost three years since Covid put the kibosh on nearly everything, including MusicFestNews’ “Women In Jam” series. But it’s high time we refocus and, once again, shine a light on the remarkable women who populate the jam scene — a generally open and accepting place still dominated by men but where women are ascendent, none more so than acclaimed trumpeter and vocalist Jennifer Hartswick, the subject of our sixth installment of the series. To see previous articles from the series, click here.
If music is a universal language, then Jennifer Hartswick has it down pat. A gifted trumpet player blessed with golden pipes, Hartswick is an original member of the Trey Anastasio Band (TAB) and much sought-after musician who has shared stages and recorded with some of music’s biggest luminaries, including Christian McBride, Herbie Hancock, Phish, Dave Matthews, The Rolling Stones, Tom Petty, Aaron Neville, Carlos Santana, Keb Mo’, Umphrey’s McGee, Big Gigantic and many, many more. Loaded with natural self-effacing charisma, Hartswick’s buoyant personality and spontaneous, joyful performances have endeared her to fans and fellow musicians alike.
Expertly wielding the trumpet and vocals as two modes of the same expression that adapt to fit the moment, Hartswick is constantly evolving into a better version of herself. The results are captured on two full-length albums, 2018’s Nexus and last year’s Something In The Water, a sublime work featuring bassist and eight-time Grammy-winner Christian McBride, who also contributed to the achingly beautiful Nexus. Both albums can be purchased via Jennifer Hartswick’s official website.
Released through Mack Avenue Music Group via McBride’s Brother Mister Productions label imprint, Something in The Water was co-written and produced by longtime collaborator Nick Cassarino (The Nth Power), who also plays guitar and sings on the album. The nine-track work also features contributions from fellow TAB horn section trombonist Natalie Cressman; vocalist Shira Elias (Turkuaz/Cool Cool Cool) and Chris Chew, Hartswick’s husband and bassist for the North Mississippi Allstars, among others.
A true working artist, Hartswick emerged from Covid lockdowns with her dance card full. In addition to recording Something In The Water, she’s appeared at numerous festivals and shows around the country with more dates forthcoming, traveled to Iceland last March with Umphrey’s McGee, appeared with Umphrey’s McGee guitarist Brendan Bayliss for special live shows, toured with TAB, and continues to perform with Nick Cassarino for a series of intimate acoustic perfromances.
Hartswick makes her home in Nashville, TN but traces her work ethic back to her time growing up in the small town of Sheffield, Vermont, surrounded by a family filled with female musicians and music teachers who nurtured her budding talent. Almost all of them were classically-trained brass players except for her mother, a multi-instrumentalist and singer who played clarinet, flute, and piano. Her father, although not a musician, held down a “normal” job but whole-heartedly supported Hartswick’s aspirations.
“It was very normal for any given day or weekend for somebody to bust out brass quintet music from 1904, sit around and read through it, and my grandma would be like, ‘No! That one stinks! Nah! I don’t like that one. That’s boring! Next one!’” Hartswick said in the interview.
“And then they’d try to find the most exciting ones. They’re all so brilliant and could play so many things and read music in clefts and keys that they were not supposed to be able to do — just real insane musicianship.”
Of her many mentors, Hartswick credits her uncle, a trombone player and music teacher, with kickstarting her love of the trumpet. “It really started when I got my first trumpet, and that was from my uncle, who’s an incredible teacher and had an incredible program,” she said. “My uncle gave me my first trumpet when I was 10. In junior high, the jazz program was incredible. He said, ‘You know, I’m short on trumpet players. Can you figure something out?’”
“So I used to go to his school and play with his kids in that jazz band. He set the precedent of what was acceptable and what wasn’t and how hard you should be working and not blowing it off. And so at a really young age, that was the next thing that I took seriously.”
By the time she got to high school, the groundwork had been laid to acquire the kind of discipline it would take to become the musician she is today. “When I got to high school, our band director was like a second father to all of us,” she recounted. “He was strict and expected things of us that we delivered because someone told us that’s what we should be doing. The expectations of us were really high. He was incredibly instrumental for a lot of people.”
Hartswick spent her formative years as a musician and artist before YouTube and the invasive glare of camera phones transmitting every foible and misstep across the interwebs. As she tells it, she was allowed to suck without the world passing instantaneous judgment.
“I was really fortunate to grow up in the era that I did because ten years later and I’d be living a whole different life. I was able to grow up in the woods where no one saw me goofing off and sucking. It’s what every child deserves the right to have — to figure out who they are before you stick them in front of an audience full of jerks at 18 years old like they’re supposed to have your whole life together.
So, I was able to figure out what I was good at and practice it and sort of come correct in a situation that presented itself. Even when I thought I had a pretty good handle on it, I totally sucked. But thank God for me, it was before YouTube. You were allowed to make mistakes. And you were also allowed to play the same song two nights in a row. Because people weren’t documenting it and weren’t talking about it and weren’t recording it. You were allowed to have a bad show.
The internet is so crazy. It’s just now, now, now. And you’re supposed to be an expert on everything the second that you step in public. And that’s such an unfortunate thing, especially for young women who are like 18 and 19 years old who are just figuring out how who they are and who their identity is. There’s so much growth that happens.
People could have a little more understanding that sometimes you’re going to be presented with somebody that’s working on something. Let artists grow and let them do what they need to do and become who they’re becoming.”
In 1998, while still in high school, Hartswick met Trey Anastasio, who was looking for a trumpet player for his debut solo album One Man’s Trash. Just 17 at the time and a self- described jazz and classical nerd, Hartswick said she was aware of Phish but not a fan. A mutual friend, Vermont saxophonist Dave Grippo, introduced them and the rest is history.
The encounter led to more work on some of Anastasio’s projects, but it wasn’t until 2001 that she was asked to join TAB. At the time, she was enrolled at The Hartt School, a performing arts college affiliated with The University of Hartford, where she studied music and theatre. The school experience was disappointing and proved to be less of a challenge than she expected. “It was just the right place at the wrong time,” she recalled. Contemplating dropping out, her Nokia “brick phone” rang with Anastasio on the other end.
“When I quit, he called and said, ‘Do you want to be in it?’ And I said, ‘Sure. I hadn’t heard from him in like a year and half. When he called he said, ‘We’re rehearsing at my house right now. Can you come?’ I said, ‘Well, yeah! It’ll take me four hours to get there, but I’ll be there.’ He said, ‘Cool. We’ll be there when you get there.'”
Two weeks later she was on a tour bus with 11 men nearly twice her age. While many women in the music business experience discrimination, harassment and worse, Hartswick said she experienced none of that during her time with TAB thanks to the men on that tour bus.
“I was lucky to grow up around a bunch of strong women, yeah” she said. “But I was also lucky enough to live on a bus with 11 really wonderful men. They all took me under their wing and always treated me like the professional that I was. They took care of me, and they never let anybody mess with me. I always felt very taken care of and fully respected. I think in a time where a lot of women have said, ‘This guy did this to me,’ I want wonderful men to get their due. It’s really important to let people know that there are wonderful men out there that are doing the right thing.”
Hartswick counts herself more than fortunate to have wonderful men (and women) in her professional life who recognize and respect her for her preternatural talent. Among them is Christian McBride, a hero to her whom she nows calls friend. A giant in the jazz world, McBride and Hartswick crossed paths at a 2013 all-star James Brown tribute show and birthday bash in honor of legendary WWOZ disc jockey DJ Soul Sister held at Tipitina’s in New Orleans, where the two were part of the ensemble. The performance ended with a pinky swear that marked the start of their friendship and ongoing collaboration.
“I have been a fan of his since probably 1994,” said Hartswick. “I just love everything about him. I love his records. I love his music, and I knew nothing about his personality. My impressions of him were based on purely the way he plays bass. I said, ‘Man I bet that guy is a super cool guy.’
I was a fan of his for so long, and then I got the opportunity to play with him at DJ Soul Sister’s birthday. So we met that day. We played the gig and just like the vibe on stage was sooooo great. And when I walked off stage, Christian held out his pinky finger and goes, ‘I need you to pinky swear me something right now. I said, ‘Okay.’ He said, ‘Could we just like be friends forever?’ And so far we’ve been doing a great job at it.”
When it came time to ask McBride to play on Nexus, Hartswick said he made it easy for her. “I never want to take advantage of friendships for musical purposes. He didn’t know anything about me other than what he heard that night which was me playing James Brown horn parts. I don’t think I took a solo. I didn’t sing anything. So, he’s just hearing be play in a section across the stage.
I kind of was feeling like we’d kept in touch but hadn’t played together after that, and was kinda feeling like I really want to ask. I had sorta formulated this plan to send him some music that Nick (Cassarino) and I had been working on and just ask him if that would be anything he’d be interested in. The day I was going to do it, Christian sent me a text that was a cover of my last record.
And he said, ‘Hey, what is this?’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘How come you didn’t tell me you could sing like that? I was was totally just stalking you and found this album.’
And the last line I heard from him after I got off with him was: ‘You know you have to let me be on your next record, right?’ The timing of the whole thing just blew my mind. And then we just set a plan in motion and made it happen.
“But the fact that it came together like that is sorta like the story of my life — where if you just follow the path that you know you’re meant to live, then incredible things that you could never imagine keep happening. They keep happening.”
Good things keep happening indeed. Nothing seems to hold Hartswick back — least of all the sexism that runs rampant through the music industry. But she realizes that’s not the case for every woman. She notes the world of jazz, which has the fewest number of women in leading roles as musicians, writers, and producers of any genre, and classical can be especially problematic. And while her name comes up frequently under internet searches for jazz artists, she has found a home in the jam community.
“It’s a different kind of attitude,” she said of the jam scene. “My very, very smart aunt said, ‘Do the people in that world fit your vibe?’ She was a classical pianist. Classical can be very buttoned up. She might not have fit in.
As you dig deeper into the jazz world, there are the same kinds of people that there are in the classical world where they can take it very seriously and are unwilling to budge from what is authentic to that time period, even though it’s many years later.
And there are purists who believe you’re not supposed to do this, you’re not supposed to do that. The farther away that I got from it I understood what she was saying. There’s a few people that have incredible personalities who make their lives playing jazz. I think that they get chastised for it, because they’re having fun, and jazz isn’t supposed to be fun.
If you’re a female instrumentalist in the jazz world, you’re having to prove yourself. If you even see a woman with a saxophone in her mouth, you’re like, alright you better be good. If you’re not a singer it’s very different. People are willing to tolerate (in air quotes) a female singer. They’re more open to seeing that than a female instrumentalist. There’s a lot more females now making waves. I think it’s a harder genre to break into.
Her advice to young women trying to break into the music business is this: “Do it and stop listening to all the chatter. The thing that makes you special and different is the thing that people are most afraid of because they can’t put it in a box. The gift that you were given when you came here, that is completely unique to you. You don’t have to be anybody else. You can look up to people but never try to sound like anybody else. You can appreciate people. You can study people if that’s what you want to do in your heart, but you have the thing inside you that makes you special. So listen to it!
Like I said, I had the opportunity with no one watching to really nurture that part of who I was. I think also you need to be able to take the time to figure out who you are and nurture your gift.
And its scary because it’s you, just you — especially as a singer, because you’ve got nothing to hide behind. You’ve got no guitar, and sometimes you’ve got no mike stand to hide behind. It’s just you.
I think we all know what our gift is, and if you don’t, you should do a little soul searching and find it, or whatever that thing is. Cultivate it. There are going to be far more many people that say no to you than say yes. The way I look at is like — cool. If you don’t get it, I get it. And somebody else is going to get it.
In terms of finding the right musicians to play with, you’ve got to find people who get you. There’s so much that goes into making a band and so many idiosyncrasies and ego and all that stuff. It’s just part of being human being . My advice to women is do the thing that you were born to do and do better that you ever dreamed you could do it.”
To keep up with Jennifer Hartswick, including new music releases and upcoming tour dates, click on the links below.