Jazz Musician Turiya Took a Turn South

Her dad is a conservative doctor and the family figured her for a career homemaker or church organist.

But San Diego jazz musician Turiya felt a different calling. A 20-year musical odyssey took her from avant-garde jazz in New York to Latin rhythms deep in the heart of Mexico.

Last June, Turiya emerged playing exciting original music and reworked standards with her new Immediate Freedom Band. Recently, the band appeared at the Centro Cultural de la Raza in Balboa Park. The atmosphere was almost spiritual. Dressed in white, Turiya looked small next to her long bass clarinet, which has a range and size similar to a tenor saxophone. She seemed oblivious to her audience, rocking back and forth with her eyes closed as the music unfolded.

She traded searing solos with fluegelhorn player Bill Caballero and reed man Dave Millard. A three-man percussion session brewed up Latin and Afro-Cuban rhythms; other band members added vocal sounds, hand percussion, electric piano and bass.

After years of developing her sounds, Turiya, 38, seems to have found a great band, which doubles as an ad hoc family.

"I'm pretty much getting my needs met," she said during a recent interview on the porch of her North Park bungalow.

During her childhood in San Diego, that wasn't always true.

"I grew up in a Southern family. What I was supposed to do was play piano in the Southern Baptist church," said Turiya, who prefers to keep her family name a secret. "No one dreamed I would consider a performing career, unless it was as a church organist."

Several members of her family played musical instruments and sang. She took piano lessons and eventually sensed that jazz might be her calling, though she hadn't really heard any.

"I went through a period of searching. At 14, I put the piano music in the closet and said I was going to improvise and never look at music again.

"I became interested in jazz. Someone gave me a Dave Brubeck record, and I said, 'That's almost it.' "

Then she met a self-styled philosopher and jazz music fanatic named Nelson Palleman who changed her life.

"He had thousands of records," she recalled. "He played me 'Om' by John Coltrane and 'Karma' by Pharoah Sanders and started me on a reading program. He gave me the equivalent of a B.A. in music."

Palleman and his teaching became more important than (Monte Vista) high school, where she didn't fit in.

"I was into the Temptations, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, not the Beatles," she explained.

At 18, she began studying jazz with local sax man Daniel Jackson and soon found the unusual instrument that remains her favorite, though she also plays flute and saxes.

"With the bass clarinet, I had the strongest connection. It has a real bizarre fingering system. It's a real masochistic instrument. It takes a lot of wind. It's emotionally challenging."

Two musical sojourns had a profound impact on her career.

Reacting to tiny ads in the back of the jazz magazine Downbeat, she went to New York in 1980 to spend a year at the Creative Music Studio, an avant-garde retreat that featured such guest artists as Jack de Johnette, Oliver Lake, Julius Hemphill, Anthony Braxton and the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

"It was like an ashram," she said. "The people who need to be there find it. We lived in an old campground. They taught us chanting, breathing, meditation. We were isolated on a mountain like monks.

"We learned how to get inside our feelings. Jazz is an oral tradition. You can't learn from a book. It's passed on human to human. People would be in your face, critiquing your music, critiquing your life."

A second musical adventure took her to Mexico, where she perfected her knowledge of Latin rhythms with percussionist and band leader Taumbu and his ensemble in Veracruz.

"I felt a deep calling to Mexico," she said. "It's just another world, a beautiful world. Most Americans only see the border. Way down, it's exotic, there are birds and flowers and tropical forests and the people are great. Our materialistic, rushing values are not there. I felt Latin music was the way I wanted to go."

Back in San Diego in 1985, she formed a big Latin ensemble, naming it Future Primitive in honor of Palleman.

"His philosophy was that primitive was better, that the future lay in a return to primitive values."

But she needed to support her daughter, so for a few years she worked "casuals," hiring out as a pianist or band member for assorted private parties. Last June, she was ready to make original music again, and the Immediate Freedom Band was born.

Reed man Millard and conga player Glen Lacy have known Turiya for years. They even went to Mexico with her. Generally, most of Turiya's band members have been friends for a long time. Their commitment to the music and warm feelings for one another come across.

During an interview, pianist and composer Joe Garrison stopped by to test Turiya's piano as a tuner worked it over. Lacy arrived by bicycle, and he and Garrison left to look at a car one of them wanted to buy.

"Everybody in the band is actively trying to expand their growth and consciousness," she said. "They are terribly enthusiastic. They love to rehearse."

On stage, the music seems to sustain her, but Turiya wouldn't mind some degree of commercial success. A recording contract would be a good start.

"This band needs to be recorded," she said. "They deserve it."

Although she seems happy for the moment, San Diego isn't her favorite place. She may move to Mexico, at least part time, once her daughter graduates from high school in two years.

"This is a real funny town," she said, citing its conservative attitudes toward the arts, and the poor treatment blacks and other minorities often receive. "It's hard to be around it, that kind of ignorance. And the border situation. This is Mexico. We live in Mexico. This is Indian land. People never stop to think about how other people feel.

"The trick is not to let yourself get eaten up by that."

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