Yes, the title of this piece, the third in my tribute to remarkable women, are the lyrics of an O’Jays song from their 1975 album. 

The sentiment is true for me: I do love music, any kind of music. Well, aside from hard rock. 🙂 

I affectionately “blame” my mother. 🙂

In the last post, I shared that my mother was a professional musician for several years before my birth and for several afterward. Like many of her generation, her roots were in gospel music. Her choir even performed at Carnegie Hall! Professionally, she was mostly known for being a jazz and blues singer. And if I say so myself, not only could she tickle the ivory keys, she had a beautiful and powerful voice.

I have vivid memories of how, as a preschooler, I’d cry and cry and cry when she dropped me off at my babysitter’s, Mrs. Johnson’s, before she left for a road trip. And how excited I’d be when she returned. 

I remember the few and rare times I got a chance to travel with her. 

Around the age of eleven or twelve, we started having jam sessions, just the two of us. She on the piano and me with my flute. I thought I was Patrice Rushen. 🙂 These were always a blast. 

All these years and her many stories later, there are a few I remember as if she just recounted them to me. 

The 1960s

One story is of her traveling, in the South, in the 60s.

When she and her band arrived at a hotel, the vacancy at the hotel “all of a sudden” changed. Despite the fact that her agent had booked rooms for the band. 

The hotel didn’t know my mother was Black. And while they were willing to honor the reservation for her bandmates, they wouldn’t honor hers. 

Her band members, being who they were, wouldn’t stay at the hotel. Their position: if you don’t have a room for Fontilla, our lead singer, you also don’t have rooms for us. 

Sadly, this happened on more than one occasion. It was the 60s…in the South! 

I give thanks for her bandmates, and the stand they took. I also give thanks for the universities that stepped up when these events did occur and made certain my mother and her bandmates had shelter…and were safe.

My mother likely first told me this story when I was a pre-teen, before I could fully grasp the magnitude of her experience like I can today. 

Dreams (Not Deferred) 

Here’s another of my mother’s stories that has stuck with me: She got into Juilliard. But her mother wouldn’t let her attend. Because any music other than gospel was for “fast” girls. 

Knowing that my grandmother, who died before I was born, didn’t support my mother’s musical talent and ambitions crushes my spirit still today. And makes me ever so grateful that my mother was always, and I do mean, always, my absolute biggest champion.

I am also grateful for the example my mother set: Due to family dynamics, her dream to attend Julliard may have been deferred but that didn’t interrupt her love of music or stall her pursuit of a career in music.

Even Today

When I think of my mother and music…

I think of how it was a constant presence in our home. We listened to every genre (even though growing up, I’d roll my eyes at some of them). I am grateful to have her collection of thousands of these albums. 

I think of how music fed my mother’s soul, just as much as it was the vessel by which she served others and brought folks together. 

I think of how she went from being a professional musician to “retiring” from it to starting three groups soon after I left for college: a blues band, jazz quartet, and gospel choraliers. The relationship between her art and money shifted over the years to match the context and circumstances of her life – going from being the primary source of her income to being her side-hustle. Yet, she remained committed to her relationship with her art, her music. To me, this is a reminder of how often your craft IS a spiritual practice.

I think of lessons she taught me about life, through music, without even being intentional about doing so.  

For example:

My mother always practiced, regardless of how many times she sang the same song. As a result, I never take the stage (or hop on Zoom) without practicing for my own presentations and speaking engagements. 

And even though I played in my school’s band (even made All County!), I really learned what improvisation looked (and felt) like from the times my mother’s band practiced at our house. In hindsight, I can see how these moments are why I give myself permission today to improvise when it comes to my own events. And, I realize how doing so is deeply rooted in self-trust. 

There are many things that make my mother remarkable to me. Today, I’m sharing snippets as it relates to the role of music in her life and, by default, in mine. (Thanks for reading and letting my gush a little 🙂

Next week will be my last piece in this Women’s History Month series.  

But in the meantime…

Who is the woman in your family (alive or deceased) who inspires you and some of the life lessons you carry with you today?

photo: of Fontilla A. Timmons (Jacquette’s mother)

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