Artist Profile: Chloe Rowlands
The Westerlies’ self-titled full-length album, released in 2016, begins delicately, with the quartet gingerly releasing wisps of notes into the atmosphere. As it unfolds, the record seems to invite its listeners on a multicolored excursion. We are hurrying down a crowded boulevard, meandering on a sunlit street, gazing at a stained glass window. Everywhere a common color palette draws new iterations of its musical themes together into a whole. We feel simultaneously safe and exhilarated.
Listening to this album in the context of my recent conversation with The Westerlies’ newest member, Chloe Rowlands, makes a lot of sense. She, like the music, is contemplative and joyful, funny and smart, her presence both up-beat and calm. She draws her listener into the twists and turns of an extraordinary journey.
Rowlands was born in Seattle, but raised in Phoenix, the youngest of two siblings in a melodic household. Her parents share a love of music, and as a result she and her brother were raised within a world of sounds. She told me that her father’s vinyl collection featured largely in this education; he played them everything from the Beatles to Chopin, from Beethoven to Miles Davis. Some of her earliest memories are of her dad “putting on John Philip Sousa, giving me and my brother pots and pans with wooden spoons, marching us around playing along with the music.”
When she was six her uncle, also a musician, let her try out a bugle at a family gathering. When she managed to eke out a note her family responded with resounding applause, and that was it. She was hooked on trumpets for life. She’s been playing since she was nine and has always known this to be her path. These days she plays trumpet (“my main instrument”), flugelhorn (“basically the same as a trumpet, just sounds different”), french horn (“It’s very, very hard but amazing”), piano (“oh, yeah, also that”), and sings (“only background vocals, not lead”).
As a teen she was trained in the classical tradition, but also played in the jazz bands at her school. This seemed natural, just a continuation of the miscellaneous musical realms she was exposed to at home. By the time high school graduation rolled around, Rowlands knew she wanted to go to college in a place equally diverse, a city electrified with creativity and opportunity. So she came to New York City.
After college she “busted [her] ass playing all kinds of random gigs. Wedding gigs, parade gigs, anything I could do to make money.” Gradually she built up experience, increasingly playing shows she preferred. During this time she was also grappling with the prospect of coming out as a trans woman, a harrowing prospect for someone whose career is dependent on an industry that remains largely defined by the male experience.
Then, last spring, it all came to a head.
The Westerlies, a well-established (and somewhat revered) New York based brass quartet, announced that they would be holding their first ever auditions for a new trumpet player. This would be a huge step up, allowing anyone who got the job to play a high volume of nationwide concerts. Add to that the freshness of the repertoire and the collaborative nature of a band that co-arranges and composes all of their music, and this was a singular opportunity. Rowlands jumped at the chance to be a part of the group, and put her all into the audition. “I was the only one who showed up with the music memorized, so that didn’t hurt,” she smiled, “Trying to show that I wanted it, you know.”
Around the same time, Rowlands decided to come out as trans. She showed up at the audition presenting male, and came out publicly on social media the day before she got a call inviting her to join the group. Immediately afterwards, she started touring the country, an experience that she likens to “jumping on a speeding train going by and then trying to get my bearings.”
The other Westerlies, all cisgender heterosexual men, didn’t miss a beat. According to Rowlands, they’ve never been anything but supportive and respectful. The band travels all over the country, to regions where a transgender person might feel uncomfortable, but Rowlands says she always feels that they genuinely have her back. On a recent visit to the Maker’s Mark distillery in Kentucky there was a tense moment when ID cards were being checked. Rowlands’ card didn’t yet match her gender identity and the doorman looked uncomfortable and flustered. Wordlessly, the other three band members came over to make sure that the situation remained safe. Which it did.
Coming out has presented Rowlands with the opportunity to experience the music world from a new vantage point. It’s been a learning curve. “It’s huge,” she says, “the jazz world is completely male dominated and oftentimes interactions are very misogynistic. It can be hard for women to feel comfortable in those situations.”
Since transitioning, though, Rowlands has found a new strength in the authenticity of living as herself. She is constantly amazed by the idea that, just by existing and being active in these spaces, she’s challenging the status quo. “I know of one other trans jazz musician who lives in LA, Jennifer Leitham, but I’ve never met another transgender jazz musician [in person].” She shook her head thinking about this, “I’ve noticed a big difference in how people act in group settings. Before I transitioned I was seen as one of the guys and people would talk about women in more demeaning ways, but now that I’m presenting as a woman they don’t do that.”
On the road, she’s found herself in the position of a role model, which is an unexpected experience. After a concert in Maine, a couple approached her, bubbling with excitement for the chance to show their daughter that “it was possible for women to be on stage.” Sometimes she gets patronizing comments from people after shows, “acting really surprised when they hear how good I am... I don’t know, it just shows that a lot of men tend to think that women can’t be as good as men are and they’re super surprised when I am. It’s kind of funny when they make a big deal out of it.” Interactions like these only serve to bolster her understanding of how important her role in the jazz world is. She is showing up, blowing people’s minds, changing perceptions with every note she plays. When she looks into the audience now, she sees women’s eyes shining back at her and feels a newfound sense of camaraderie.
Often, the truly golden moments happen at workshops that The Westerlies regularly present at rural schools and colleges. “Sometimes the schools don’t even have a band program,” she told me, eyes shining, “just them seeing a trumpet is so huge.” She is also working with the other band members on opportunities to speak with LGBTQ kids in rural areas about her journey. “I haven’t done it yet, but there’s been talk about doing that kind of stuff,” she said, eyes sparkling, “It would be so cool to be able to talk to high school kids and be a source of inspiration that I didn’t have when I was in HS. Just seeing someone thriving, being authentic.”
This combination of music and educational outreach is what Rowlands lives for. She’s grateful to be playing with a band who are equally committed to both of these, which she sees as intrinsically linked. She recalled a a recent showcase at an elementary school in Iowa, and her face broke into a grin, “As soon as we start playing every single one of their mouths (they’re like fourth graders) fell open in awe, just by us playing the notes. Sometimes you play concerts and the audience doesn’t react as well as you hoped they would, but performing for kids like that and just seeing how much you’re reaching them makes it all worth it.”
Mikhal Weiner is a writer and musician, originally from Israel, currently writing and living in Brooklyn. She studied classical composition at Berklee College of Music, graduating with honors. Her work, whether text or music, is deeply influenced by her experiences as an Israeli gay woman and her love of poetry and all genres of music. She loves writing about people, places and the ways their stories intersect.
All views and opinions expressed in this interview are those of the author.