Herstory 20: How Jazz Pianist Patrice Rushen Evolved for R&B
In the music industry, there are very few opportunities to take risks as an artist. Historically unforgiving if an artist decides to take a leap of faith into another genre, it can be a daunting idea to want to reinvent your brand. At times, we are rewarded with someone that, not only makes the leap, but pushes beyond the boundaries set before them. In this case, we presented with a classically-trained jazz pianist with aspirations to branch out into a solo R&B career. Patrice Rushen not only succeeded at a solo career, but went on to become a producer, musical director, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist in the process.
Meet Patrice Rushen, The Musical Child Prodigy
Born September 30th, 1954 to parents Ruth and Allen Rushen in Los Angeles, California, Patrice formed a strong connection with music that would persist throughout her lifetime. Patrice’s nursery school teacher approached her family when she’d noticed how well their daughter would engage when the class would do musical activities. At the time, the University of Southern California (USC) was in the midst of running an early music education program, observing how children engage with and develop connections to music. At the school teacher’s recommendation, Ruth and Allen enrolled Patrice in the USC program for the following two years before putting her in formal piano training at the age of 5.
Continuing her music education all the way through to earn a degree in music (also from the University of Southern California), Rushen later signed to Prestige Records and released her first three albums (Prelusion, Before The Dawn, and Shout It Out) with a strong instrumental-only jazz focus. There was a stylistic shift with each album release that brought in elements of fusion, R&B, and pop into her jazz music backing. As she concluded her contract with Prestige Records and signed with Elektra Records, Rushen fully embraced her transition towards becoming R&B singer and released Patrice in 1978. This album was the first (of many more) LPs that illustrated Rushen’s star power and ability to adapt within the industry.
While this brought Patrice a new brand of fans, it was accompanied by criticism from existing jazz audiences. Rushen’s genre shift was seen as jumping the ship from her previous career in Jazz for a more fruitful and lucrative commercial Pop career. What wasn’t effectively communicated was the fact that as Patrice continued to release albums well into the late 1990s (14 solo albums in total), she never completely severed ties with her Jazz influences or peers.
Patrice Hits A Career Breakthrough
Patrice’s Monumental 1982 Hit “Forget Me Nots”
In 1982, Rushen released her breakout album Straight From The Heart. While it isn’t typical to have your seventh album be your breakout project, it was the result of a positioned and deliberate path. The major hit on that album, “Forget Me Nots”, was nominated for a Grammy the following year (losing that year to Jennifer Holliday’s “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going”) and more than a decade later was sampled as the foundation of an unforgettable movie 1990s soundtrack single:
Smith & Rushen Cement Their Places In The 90s With A Well-Placed Sample And An Iconic Choreographed Dance.
The R&B Singer Becomes Multi-Hyphenated
Throughout the 1990s, Patrice’s musical career evolved to more than just her artistry. Patrice established herself in other areas of the music industry becoming the first womxn to serve as the musical director for the Primetime Emmy Awards (1991–1992), the first womxn to direct a Janet Jackson concert tour (1993–1995), and the first womxn musical director for the Grammy Awards (2004–2006) for three consecutive years. She later continued to compose songs for a number of movies and television shows (including the theme for The Steve Harvey Show). Stretching her reach into various forms and programs allowed Patrice to thrive throughout the decade and beyond.
Patrice Is More Than Just An Artist
When it comes to the music industry, it’s easy to see musicians as just that..the voice that you hear in a song. We’ve seen artists branch into genres and styles that are outside of their existing public image. If we’re lucky, we become witness to an upwards trajectory into something that we otherwise would have only been able to speculate. What we received with Patrice Rushen, was an artist that knew how well her formal training and personal interests could co-exist to phenomenal success and enormous impact for those that followed in her path.
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For our Herstory Lessons blog series—we're retelling the stories of womxn in music that have been misheard, mislabeled, or erased completely from our history books.
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