Mary-Sue Tobin: Multi-Talented Saxophonist and Bandleader

he reason that Mary-Sue Tobin is one of the most visible multi-genre saxophonists in Oregon is that she appears to be everywhere. It isn’t only the frequency of her appearances with multiple bands, but think about it, if you were in a club and looked at the bandstand and looked over the band, Mary-Sue Tobin would stand out. You would see men in suits, dudes in flannel shirts, and other hipster and semi-hipster attired gentlemen. And then there’s Mary-Sue Tobin. The simple fact that she’s a woman with an instrument in her hand in what is still a mostly male-dominated music world would make her visible before she even blew a note. About those notes: she plays beautifully, commands the stage, has something to say, knows what she wants… and gets it.

Tobin was born in Eugene and received a Master of Music in Saxophone Performance and a Bachelor of Music in Jazz Studies from Portland State University. In addition to studying and playing music, she also teaches it and holds an important place in the development of the rich indie jazz scene that has grown up in Portland over the past five years.

To touch on a few of the many ensembles she’s taken part in, for starters, Tobin is a member of the all-female sax quartet the Quadraphonnes, she’s in PDX Sax, a mixed-gender saxophone quartet, she’s part of the Lily Wilde Orchestra, and she’s a member of Noah Bernstein Six, which is yet another sax quartet with a rhythm section. Somebody once said that if there was a sax quartet in town, she was required to be in it. She is also part of the John Dover Big Band, was on Darren Klein’s CD, is going to be revitalized her Paxselin Quartet, and she’s doing a Morphine tribute show.

The most visible ensemble of this visible musician is the Quadraphonnes, whose other members include Meike Bruggeman, Chelsea Luker and Michelle Medler. Not the first all-female sax quartet on earth, but perhaps the most entertaining and rewarding, playing everything from original jazz compositions to soul tunes, New Orleans second line to Phillip Glass compositions. Their music is danceable, joyous, serious, and all-around spectacular.

And as if that weren’t enough… Tobin also curates the “Sunday Night Jazz @ the Blue Monk” series, which has thrived despite all odds and is perhaps the most popular on-going jazz series in town. For years she was an important member of Soul Vaccination, the most popular soul music revival band in the state. This spring and summer she was on the board of the Cathedral Park Jazz Festival, helping revive it when it was about to die, but she has since stepped back to an advisory capacity because she has so much music on her plate.

Mary-Sue Tobin gets around. However, despite her busy schedule, she took some time to talk to us.

It seems like you’ve moving back to being a leader rather than a side person.

I started out being a side person and later, after years of doing my own projects, I felt like I just wanted to be a side person again. I wanted to be a sax player. I wanted to be hired. I wanted to utilize all this knowledge that I’d spent years… that was my goal, to be a top-call side person, and I achieved that goal to a certain extent. Then I realized, okay, I want to do my own projects again. So it’s sort of a continuing cycle that I go through, depending on what I am going through in my life. Right now is the time when I have a lot of creative impulses that I want to pursue.

Those creative impulses, do they come and go? Why are they percolating right now? Do you know?

saxaphoneSometimes I just want to play my sax, you know? Put me in the game, coach, let me see what I can do. I play in a variety of situations which don’t necessarily come from my own context. It helps me become a better musician when I can just be the sax player. It feels good. I left fronting my own band to play saxophone for other people. Because that’s what I wanted to do—be the sax player. That fulfilled me for years and I learned a lot, but now the creativity is coming back around. I want to do my own thing. I love getting all these ideas. I’ll think, oh I want to play that, or I want to do this. Oh I have something to say, I’ve built up more vocabulary.

When I was leading my own bands I was young, I was eager, I had all this inspiration, and I was like, “Man, I need to go back and shed and learn some stuff.” So then I went out and did that, and now I have all this vocabulary and experience that’s different from my own. It’s wanting to come out, sort of bubbling inside of me like it’s time, I’m ready.

What were the things you had to learn in order to be a leader?

I started out as a leader very young. I was in a band right of high school. I quit my first job to play with that band at the Eugene Saturday market and I learned how to be a leader. I grew up playing lead alto in high school and in college, and you learn quickly how to lead a section. Sometimes there are people in there who don’t want you to be their leader. So you have to learn how to become a good leader. I’ve had a lot of people to teach me, too. It’s not hard for me to be a leader or to work within a band. It’s also not hard for me to be a student or a second. I think they all work together. To be a good leader you need to have all of those experiences because then you understand.

The other day I watched a documentary called The Girls in the Band. It was about female jazz instrumentalists from the past and all that they had to go through. I was wondering if you had to go through some of those things too or whether times have changed? 

There are a lot more female sax players now than when I was first coming up—still not many, but it’s less of a shock to see them. But yes, when I was coming up there would be that silence as I walked up to a new big band and sat down in the lead chair. There would be that sort of muttered, disgruntled sound—I’m not going to say that there wasn’t. It didn’t bother me. There would be comments from the old bandleaders like, “Pretty good for a girl,” and all that kind of stuff. I didn’t have it as rough as those musicians did simply because we’re a more progressive society. But definitely there are still the remnants of that.

Did I suffer horribly? No, it made me stronger. The thing about playing jazz is that you can’t hide. You know you have to go out and make mistakes. You have to fail in front of people. Did I get a little bit more of it or in a different context? Yes, but the thing to overcome is to not let any of that bother you—any of people’s stylistic tastes, how they think you should play, whether they think you shouldn’t be playing jazz cause you’re a woman, maybe they think you shouldn’t be playing jazz because you’re white or maybe they think you should be playing a certain kind of jazz or have a certain kind of sound. You have to overcome all of those things and that’s why jazz is so great. If you get through it, then it becomes a self-help process in the sense that you can get past all those things and have your own voice and be confident in who you are and say, “Wow, what a state of grace.”

There aren’t a lot of people like you—actual working, professional musicians who make their living from their music. This must be a sense of accomplishment for you. 

It’s a huge sense of accomplishment for me because I grew up poor and I raised two boys and we didn’t have any money and I was a musician. I did have a job as a barista and I did scrape my way through college, and you know, I did work at McMenamins and I did work a midnight shift at the post office—coming home, walking my kids to school, practicing for 5 hours, taking the bus.

I did all of that stuff and so now when people ask me what I do I say, “I’m a musician.” And they’re like, “Really?” And they’re like, “Professionally?” And I’m like, “Yeah, professionally.” I mean, I worked for that. I worked really hard and man, do I ever feel good saying that. I do feel a sense of accomplishment. I do feel like this is always what I wanted to do and I’m doing it and I’m so grateful. I’m grateful that I have the ability and freedom to do this. I’m proud of myself for working that hard and it feels really good. I get paid to play music and sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes I’m driving 4 hours to a gig and playing for 5 hours and not getting paid as much as I should… stuff that you might not necessarily want to be playing but it’s all part of the process. So I can safely say I am delighted and I’m so proud to call myself a professional musician.

I’d like to ask you a non-musical question. It has to do with guys in general and male musicians. Most of the time they look like they’ve just come up from working in the basement. You, on the other hand, are always spectacularly dressed if I may say so. Do you have a theory on why that might be?

(laughing) That’s a very interesting question. Personally, I don’t have any judgment against anyone else. It’s just, for me, I like to have a certain aesthetic. I’m not asking anyone else to do it. I feel a responsibility to the stage and the people who come out. I feel like people have paid money to listen to my music and it shouldn’t be about how I am dressed. I also have a real affinity for seasonal appropriateness. I just recently did a Portland marathon gig and they were teasing me because I came in my running shorts. But I like to be appropriate for the situation. I like to wear my sweaters in the fall. I like to wear my summer dresses. I like to acknowledge where I am and what it means.

So for me it’s a personal choice. I like to go see a show and see people, whatever their outfit. You know, the funk guys in their crazy hats or whatever. But if you’re on the bandstand and you’re killing it in jeans and a t-shirt… well, good for you. That’s what you want to do, go ahead. I’m not making any judgments. Everyone has a different aesthetic. Mine is that I like to take it one notch further. It makes me happy and people seem to enjoy it, so no harm done.

About The Author: Tom D'Antoni