The Future Is Now: Emma Dayhuff

Updated: May 2

By Monica Staton

Emma Dayhuff hails from Bozeman, Montana. She studied at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Oberlin, Ohio. After college Dayhuff moved to Chicago. Soon after her arrival she became a sought-after bassist. She’s performed with Victor Goines, Willie Pickens, Robert Irving III, and many other respected artists. 

She continues to make large strides within the jazz community. Currently, Dayhuff resides in L.A. and is a student at the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz (formerly the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz), one of the most prestigious jazz programs in the world.

I’ve been a fan of Emma for many years. She plays with passion and aims for perfection. She possesses a quiet dominance that’s resounding. She can maintain the continuity when playing with dynamic musicians, while telling her story on the double bass.

How does it feel to hold a double bass? 

It feels like home, it’s my comfort blanket. It leans on me, and it holds me up sometimes; I can lean on her.

What is a day in the life of Emma Dayhuff now that you’re a student of the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz?

It’s interesting. Every day and every week is different because the schedule changes depending on whether we have guest artists coming in that week or whether we’re just in rehearsal. If we have a guest artist in, we’ll be working with them from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on everything from talking about the history of jazz, listening to recordings, doing workshops with the group, talking about the mechanics of music, concepts etc. Artist manager Karen Kennedy comes in on a regular basis. She helps us develop skills to navigate the music business.

Who are some of the guest artist you've worked with while at the Institute?

So far we’ve had Carl Allen, Geoff Keezer, Dick Oatts, Terri Lyne Carrington, Christian McBride, Robert Hurst, Walter Smith III, and Billy Childs. 

Herbie Hancock came through our classroom at the end of December for three days, for a couple of hours each day. We played some of our original music for him and he carefully gave us feedback. He understands the weight of anything that he says, so he’s careful with it. There were days we talked about life and he told stories. We talked about the scene and L.A. and how it’s growing. It was a process of us slowly becoming comfortable with one another. When he walks in a room, it’s like being in the presence of a king. He had a nice way of helping us relax; he told stories of how he felt when he met Miles Davis. He’s an amazing person. 

What are your most memorable experiences? 

I really connected to Christian McBride. He has passion and joyfulness he brings to learning music and playing music and living life in general. I see it in the way he interacts with people—he lifts everyone up around him. It is especially inspiring. I had a couple of lessons with him. On one occasion it was just the two of us in a room with our two double basses, just walking a bass line. I had this moment in which I thought, will this happen again—just me and Christian McBride in a room, each of us with a double bass, no one’s listening, not performing, just having a musical conversation. The experience allowed me to be completely in the moment and play as if I were eight years old in a sandbox.

There was another experience that was meaningful. Last November we performed at the final concert of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz International Piano Competition in Washington D.C. I was on stage overwhelmed with excitement—I made sure the bass was the right height and the amp was turned on. Herbie comes on stage and introduces us each individually by name. I started looking at my bandmates and felt this sudden wave of stage fright that I hadn’t really felt in while. It was strong. We started playing and there was a moment in the performance when something unexpected happened—something unrehearsed.

Whether it was a mistake or not, it gave me the ability to let go of the idea that everything was supposed to go a certain way. I realized then that I didn’t have control. It wasn’t perfect any longer and the expectation that it would be was silly in the first place. 

After the performance I sat back stage reflecting on the performance. James Genus, the bassist for Saturday Night Live Band who also has been touring with Herbie Hancock, sat next to me and asked if I was alright. I mentioned my nerves and talked to him about the experience of feeling the combined excitement and anticipation anxiety of all my other band members who were also nervous. I absorbed all their energy and just felt it as overwhelming. He explained how to take that energy, feel that energy and use it as something that stabilizes and grounds and drives the music, rather than allowing it to become something that clouds your mind. Something about that conversation shifted my mentality. I don’t think he realized it, but that was a huge moment for me.

What’s your process for preparing a performance or recording?

I’ve lived and breathed the music for the last month. I’ve been dreaming Herbie’s music. The hope is when I’m in that situation, it’s in my muscles. I can hear what comes next before it happens so that 99.9% of my focus can be what happens in the moment and what the musicians are doing around me. It’s really absorbing the music to the point at which you kind of…you shouldn't be practicing while performing it. 

How do you handle constructive criticism? 

It’s tricky. It’s just a matter of figuring out your own tastes—what you like—because ultimately that’s more important than what anybody else is going to tell you. If someone has a passion and they’d like to show it to you, it’s up to you decide if you it love as much as they do. It’s a process of getting to know what you like.

Was jazz the first genre you delved into? 

No, I was classically trained, initially on the violin and then on the bass. I always loved the Edgar Meyer and Yo-Yo Ma collaborations. I’ve always had classical music as a part of my life—I worked as a recording engineer for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for a few years.

While in Chicago I played in a bluegrass band for several years. I also love playing old school soul, R&B, gospel and blues. Jazz seems to be the common thread for me. It’s the most challenging, therefore, it makes playing everything else easier. I always come back to it.

What was the first song on upright bass you enjoyed playing?

I remember being insanely excited when I was asked to play with the middle-school jazz band because they were playing The Pink Panthertheme song. I got to play that iconic bass line. 

Did you always know you wanted to be a professional musician?

No, I was afraid that if I pursued it as a career it would become a source of stress rather than a stress release. I was originally hesitant.

What keeps you excited about music, jazz in particular? 

When you learn someone’s music you learn about who created it: where they are from, what culture they’re a part of and the rhythms that are associated with different parts of the world. 

As a jazz musician you’re like an ethnomusicologist. The study of jazz is the study of music from around the world. There’s something about music that is intricately connected to people, on a cultural level and individually.

When checking out music for enjoyment, what do you listen for?  

I listen for a feeling or vibe, and then, it depends on the music, sometimes music is about the individuality of the players. 

How do you navigate your career as a woman in jazz?

I feel like sometimes my experiences with individuals can be different than what my male counterparts experience. Some of the more important lessons I’ve learned is that no one has more control over my career than I do, even if we claim otherwise. If someone is unwilling to help you, you can find someone else that will. Don’t take things personally. Surround yourself with people who encourage you and lift you up. Find people who believe in you more than you believe in yourself. 

When did you feel you had graduated from a novice to a professional musician?

My initial reaction to that question is to say I still feel like a novice. I think when I was working with the symphony and performing, I was doing well financially. I felt for the first time that I’d had a path and could see where it was going. In some ways I abandoned that path to live in New York City. I was there for just over two years. I did well in New York if you don’t consider losing my savings. I was overwhelmed and had to decide if that was the place I wanted to be and hit the reset button. A bunch of stuff happened all at once. My car broke down and I had to move—both very expensive endeavors in New York. I returned to Chicago to get back on my feet mentally. I was welcomed with open arms. There’s a beautiful musical community. I was musically raised in Chicago, I spent my twenties in Chicago, I adore Chicago.

What does Chicago’s music scene have to offer? 

I think a lot of Chicago’s uniqueness comes from the connection the city has to the development in the music itself. There’s the connection Chicago has to the avant-garde through the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the AACM—which not only is a musical aesthetic, it’s a mentality of musicians creating a self-sustaining community. In Chicago musicians have one another’s back and have an independence to create their own way of making a living so that they’re not relying on external forces—labels, venues. Something about that mentality makes the community in Chicago tight knit; it’s a family.

I always felt that people in Chicago had my back, both musically and in life. There were only so many times I could go to a jam session and fall on my face—but someone would say, “you need to come to my place and we need to work out some stuff,” and they’d help me out.

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