When Ziggy Stardust came to earth in 1972 to rock the world for two short years before dying onstage, he came with a counterpart. A second alter ego, really, but we can imagine. Lady Stardust, maybe, had long black hair, as opposed to Ziggy's shock of red. People stared at the makeup on (her) face. She was him, of course, but her song was soul, not rock. We can imagine her, his female counterpart -- platform boots, but brown skin as opposed to his snow-white tan. Like David Bowie, she played sax, while Ziggy played guitar, jamming good with Weird and Gilly.
To continue the conceit, while Ziggy is long dead, Lady Stardust has been spotted around New York, at clubs like Tonic and Zebulon, in the form of Matana Roberts. And saying so isn't just riffing on the glitter she wears and the rosebuds in her hair. Roberts started off 2006 with the decision to put herself out there. Four years after moving to New York, the Chicago-born saxophonist decided to make the struggle of the city worthwhile and committed herself to realizing the projects in her mind: unaccompanied arrangements of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn compositions, playing along with records in a SoHo gallery, free concerts in a feminist bookstore and an old WWII rescue boat, and making a jazz/funk arrangement of the album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars}.
"Living here is so hard as an artist," she said in April, a third of the way into the year she claimed for herself. "I'd go back to Chicago and see my family and I'd missed so much, so I said if I'm going to be here, I've really got to make it work."
Carrying on in the hard city involves creative problem solving, something Roberts calls "reimagining the mind frame."
"It has a lot to do with the ups and downs of living here, not knowing how I'm going to pay my rent, but knowing somehow…" she said. She remembers the lessons learned from "watching my parents hustle -- the refrigerator would be empty and my mother would always come up with something."
With that foundation, Roberts took December 2005 off from performing to reimagine the mind frame of being an artist in New York. She started making lists: the projects she wanted to do, the musicians she knew, the venues she wanted to play, the people she should be in touch with. And then quickly, impressively even, she set to work. She pulled together a new group, the Matana Roberts Quartet with Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet, Thomson Kneeland on bass and Tomas Fujiwara on percussion, and released a CD, The Calling, in an edition of 200 on the Milwaukee label Utech. She recorded her Ellington/Strayhorn suite and dedicated it to Steve Lacy, with whom she corresponded regularly in the last years of the elder saxophonist's life. Art for You Ears Vol. 1: Lines for Lacy, her recording of the material, is self-released and comes in unique, handmade packages.
But if 2006 is The Year of Matana, that shouldn't be diminish any of the accomplishments the young musician has already racked up. (Roberts declines to talk about age -- "I don't want to think of my life in numbers. There's so much pressure put on women and age." -- but it's a safe bet she's not old enough to run for president yet.) She is the sole musician in the stage production If Trane Wuz Here with poet reg e gaines and tap dancer Savion Glover. She played a duo set with Roscoe Mitchell at the Sons d'Hiver festival in Paris. And Sticks and Stones, her trio with Josh Abrams and Chad Taylor, has released two albums to considerable notice. Meanwhile, she teaches in New York public schools and at Ralph Alessi's School for Improvisation and continues to busk most days on the subways, often working through her transcriptions of Bach cello suites for saxophone.
And if the accomplishments are impressive, claiming a corner in the jazz tradition was her birthright -- maybe not in a fated way, but it was something her father destined her for. He played her Sun Ra sides when she was still in the womb, and forced her to sit and listen to Albert Ayler and Art Ensemble of Chicago records as a child. He would take the young Matana to stereo stores and pretend to be shopping so that they could sit and listen to the records he brought along on high-end equipment. Her parents divorced before she was a teenager and, while she first studied orchestral clarinet, jazz was in her blood. "I think I gravitated toward the saxophone and jazz because I missed my dad," she said.
She studied and later taught at Chicago's famed Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, where she met saxophonist David Boykins, flutist Nicole Mitchell and others who are ensuring a next generation for the AACM, and found her way to Fred Anderson's Velvet Lounge, where she got a weekly gig with Abrams and Taylor. Taylor eventually moved to New York and Roberts followed, but the band still manages to have monthly rehearsals and is currently working on their third record.
"The band is the love of my life," she said. "These guys are the first guys that really took me seriously. The music that we make, I don't have experiences like that with anyone else. I've always wanted older brothers, now I've got them."
She found further encouragement, she said, in conversations with journalist Greg Tate, who leads the Afrocentric jazz-funk group Burnt Sugar. Roberts plays with the band and credits Tate with helping her to find her voice. Another fortuitous meeting came from a weekly gig at the Bowery Poetry Club in Manhattan's East Village. That was where she met poet gaines, who invited her to work with him on a play to be produced at the Nuyorican Poets Café, then invited her to participate in a production with Gaines.
"At the time I didn't realize exactly what I was stepping into," she said. "At first it wasn't supposed to be all about Trane and by the time it went that way I was already in too deep. I said OK, I've got to step it up."
What she had stepped into is being the sole musician, a woman playing alto for 90 minutes, the only person on stage who could in an overt way evoke Coltrane's spirit. And whether paying tribute to Coltrane, leading a band or gigging with others, Roberts is very aware of her role as a woman in the male-dominated jazz world. That, she said, is part of what led her to the relative flamboyance, the feathers and shells and self-made jewelry she wears onstage.
"I became more conscious about my ancestral connection in the last few years," she said. "There are so many people who suffered so much for me to be able to walk around and be free that when I walk onstage I should be creative for all of the people in my line. All of my heroes look so fly. I'm really interested in ritual and you get dressed for a ritual in a certain way. It's a way to express myself. I feel like I've finally come into my womanhood. You're playing sith so many musicians who are male, I feel like I really desexualized myself."
Roberts is not loathe to voice such opinions, from the stage, on her blog (www.myspace.com/matanaroberts), and primarily in her zine, an old-school Xerox-and-staples collection of essays and collages called Fat Ragged.
"I love being able to have something in my hand that I can turn the pages, having this thing I can hold and look at again and again," she says of her clinging to a very '90s mode of DIY expression. "I like being able to put things on paper, doing things with my hands rather than cramp over a keyboard. I could probably reach more people if I did [put it online]."
Notwithstanding what would seem a font of self-expression -- a self-published zine, self-made fashion, self-released CDs with hand-painted covers -- it's the willingness and apparent ease with which she takes on history, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, David Bowie, that makes her stand out among a new generation of jazz musicians in New York.
"There's really no shame in my game," she said. "I can go to any other realm that I want because all these elders and mentors have made their own paths."
This story by Kurt Gottschalk originally appeared in Signal to Noise magazine.