“Mothers In Jazz” is a new series, started by vocalist Nicky Schrire. The initiative aims to create an online resource for working jazz musicians with children, those contemplating parenthood, and jazz industry figures who work with and hire musicians who are parents. The insight of the musicians interviewed for this series provides valuable emotional, philosophical and logistical information and support that is easily accessible to all. “Mothers In Jazz” shines a light on the very specific role of being both a mother and a performing jazz musician.
Linda May Han Oh is a GRAMMY award-winning bassist and composer who has performed and recorded with artists such as Pat Metheny, Kenny Barron, Joe Lovano, Dave Douglas, Terri Lyne Carrington, Steve Wilson, Geri Allen and Vijay Iyer. Originally born in Malaysia and raised in Boorloo (Perth), Western Australia, she has received many awards including a 2022 Deutscher Jazz Preis, an honorary mention at the 2009 Thelonious Monk Bass Competition, and the prestigious Herb Albert Award for music in 2023.
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Linda has written for large and small ensembles as well as for film, participating in the Sundance Labs at Skywalker Ranch. She is currently Associate Professor at the Berklee College of Music in the bass department and is also part of the Institute for Jazz and Gender Justice led by Terri Lyne Carrington.
She was featured on bass in the 2020 Pixar movie “Soul” under the musical direction of Jon Batiste (The Late Show with Stephen Colbert) alongside drummer Roy Haynes and was the model for the character in the film – bassist “Miho.” Linda lives between New York and Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband, pianist Fabian Almazan, and their 2.5 year-old son.
LondonJazz News: What is the best advice you received about balancing/juggling motherhood and career?
Linda May Han Oh: That it can actually be a good thing if you decide to keep being an active, performing musician whilst being a mother. There’s so much emphasis on having a solid routine when it comes to raising a child, and I do believe that routine is important. But also being exposed to new places, new situations and people can be really stimulating and good for a child. My husband and I are both musicians and we try to keep routines and rituals as best we can, but some children can be more resilient and adaptable than you think.
I know it’s cliche that everyone says “enjoy it, things go by so quickly” but it’s so true and it’s helped to keep things in perspective. When my son was born, I remember feeling that if I wasn’t doing everything just perfectly that I would somehow scar him for life. Each little tricky phase seemed to pass by quickly, to be replaced by another tricky phase and it’s easy to take things more seriously than you might need to.
I have a voice memo journal just to keep a track of his current milestones and where he’s at, and it’s so interesting to look back at things that seemed so important then but seem relatively trivial now.
LJN: What information or advice do you wish you’d received but didn’t (and had to learn through trial and error or on the go)?
LMHO: You can get all the advice in the world from books, parenting resources and other parents, but I found with every aspect of parenthood there is always a degree of trial and error because every child is different and each individual’s circumstance is different. Even reading through some of these interviews, everyone has a different take on things. Try to figure out what works and feels right for you.
Breastfeeding and pumping while on the road can be tricky especially when traveling without a baby. I had to do a lot of my own research and there are no definitive ways to navigate this – every airport is different, every hotel is different and so much is at the discretion of the airport agent or the hotel receptionist etc. There are some hotel fridges or freezers where they will let you store “medical supplies” but breastmilk doesn’t always qualify and there were times I had to push hard to get my milk frozen. Websites like momspumphere.com were helpful.
If you’re traveling without the baby, I found that most European airports are supposed to allow you to carry up to 1L of liquid, as long as the bags/containers not more than 100ml each. This is not a hard and fast rule and again it’s ALWAYS at the discretion of the agent. Most breast milk bags are much bigger than 100ml but we managed to find 100ml eco ziplock bags in Helsinki. When I was in Finland I couldn’t find anywhere that sold regular breastmilk bags and I was actually told that in Finland women use these general ziplock bags instead of breast milk bags.
LJN: Your top tip(s) for other mothers in jazz:
LMHO: For anyone considering being a parent, try and get as much of your practice in now – time is so much more limited when you’re a parent. And if being a mother is something you really want, then try to plan ahead – whether it means financially or otherwise.
Good communication and time management with partners is key, especially when dealing with irregular schedules, touring and organizing childcare.
Nothing is ever perfect, there will always be mistakes and balls dropped here and there, but try to be present and enjoy the time that you have, whether it be with your child or with the music. I still have to remind myself of this, and my son often helps to remind me, when I see him learn something new or find joy in something seemingly small or mundane.
Build your community – I’m eternally grateful for all the advice and resources from other parents, family and friends. We’ve had quite a few babysitters who were once musician-babies themselves.
If you’re living in the USA, vote if you can. When I found out I was pregnant right at the beginning of the pandemic, I was privileged enough to go back to Australia to be with family and my hometown had no cases of Covid. I gave birth in Australia within a system that was free of charge due to universal healthcare. I had an amazing birth with great midwives and after the birth, nurses would visit your home every few days to check in on you. I had access to a free breast feeding specialist who helped me to figure out how to get a better latch. This came hand in hand with free parenting classes provided by the government.
It is so baffling that in the US there are calls from many to limit a woman’s right to choose, when the maternal mortality rates, cost of childcare and cost of education, are so high compared to other developed countries. Not to mention firearms being the leading cause of death in children. I don’t mean to darken the conversation, and I know these are all complicated issues that are far beyond the power of any individual, but I think this needs to be mentioned. In the podcast panel discussion, someone mentioned the stark contrast in daycare costs in Canada compared to the US and our daycare is 4 times more expensive than what it would be in Australia.
LJN: Baby/child gear tips for travel/touring/gigging:
LMHO: Minu Uppababy stroller (thanks Jo Lawry!) perfect for traveling, fits great in the overhead, and can be folded one-handed. Some airlines only accept the Yoyo Zen but I always just say it’s a yoyo…
If you choose to pump milk, invest in a really good cooler – we used an REI cooler that was fantastic.
My husband found some really great affordable photography cubes that would store my Spectra breast pump and all the necessary accessories. When my son was 9 months old we took him for 2 months on tour in Europe and we had a really light “Phil and Ted” Portacot that was perfect for that age range.
LJN: Best general travel/gigging/tour-with-child advice:
LMHO: A carseat cover for the car seat can be really helpful – not just to protect the carseat, but also to stash extra toys/diapers etc with the car seat when checking it (so you don’t have to pay for extra weight etc). Having said that though – today we traveled from St Louis to Boston with our 2.5 year old and the check-in agent made us wait for her supervisor just because we had a few extra things with the carseat case (along with another family with a newborn). They let us through eventually, but this was an example as it’s pretty much always at the discretion of whoever is at the counter. In all of our trips we’ve never had an issue.
LJN: What has surprised you about becoming a parent and remaining engaged with your professional activities and ambitions?
LMHO: I was actually surprised at some of the musicians and promoters who were actually really helpful when it came to accommodating certain aspects of bringing a child on the road. Some organizations have been super helpful and I feel we’ve definitely widened our community by connecting with other musician parents and sharing resources. I think there’s sometimes a fear that as mothers we won’t get called anymore or that it’s a hassle for promoters to deal with having a child at a gig, and I was actually surprised at some of the support that can be out there.
Of course not everyone has been so accommodating and there’s still a ways to go, but it does give me hope.
For a lot of musicians, the peak of their career is when one is in their 30’s and 40’s – which is the time that most women will have to decide whether or not they want to have children. I had one student tell me that she was going to stop pursuing a career in music as she wanted to have a family and didn’t think the lifestyle would accommodate this. Without adequate support within the community for working mothers, it’s no wonder that we may not see as many women continuing on and thriving in the field.
I had never really spoken about motherhood with any other bassist mothers, and one thing that I wasn’t quite prepared for was having to build back the strength in my joints and in my wrists post-pregnancy and with all the time spent breastfeeding and holding the baby. I had to be patient and try to look after myself.
One thing I’ve also always wanted to do is some sort of Artist Retreat or residency – but I’ve discovered that a lot of them specifically say “no children allowed”. So I think I’ll have to wait until my son is quite a bit older before I can think about doing something like that.
LJN: What boundaries have you set for yourself as a mother in jazz (could be related to travel/touring, riders, personal parameters, child care decisions, etc.)?
LMHO: Being a mother has also made me more selective with the work that I really want to do and that has made me so much happier. Some of this work has included more composing work which I don’t need to travel as much for. My husband is also a musician, so we need to have boundaries when it comes to lengthy tours and balancing both our careers with parenthood and our own sanity and well-being.
Linda’s new album “The Glass Hours” came out on Biophilia Records on 2 June 2023. It features saxophonist Mark Turner, vocalist Sara Serpa, pianist Fabian Almazan and drummer Obed Calvaire. The album features a collection of works based on abstract themes of the fragility of time and life; exploring paradoxes seeded within our individual and societal values. Linda also has touring dates in the US and Europe in 2023, including a duo tour with husband Fabian Almazan in Ireland in June with toddler in tow.
LINKS: Artist website