Sometimes it all comes down to the instrument you happened to pick in elementary school band class, and that was the case with Naomi Moon Siegel. She chose the trombone because she liked its low register and the way it slides, plus her older brothers had already paired themselves with trumpet and sax, and Siegel wanted to do something different.
"And it just stuck," she says. "It wasn't like I heard a song with trombone and was like, 'Oh I want to play that.' I just kept playing the trombone and then I started hearing it in songs and that perpetuated my interest. I would hear it in reggae or salsa and jazz—though jazz didn't register when I was younger, but later in life it did."
Siegel was raised in Chicago and got a bachelor's degree in jazz trombone performance at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio. The choice to play jazz trombone opened up a whole world of music for her—and it also opened her eyes to some of the inequalities that music and, in particular, jazz has carried since its rise in popularity in the 1920s. In college, she and the few other women in jazz classes found themselves back-burnered in often subtle ways. They were almost never taught anything about the history of women in jazz. They were often called "baby" and treated as second-stringers.
"I grew up in this liberal suburb in the 1990s, and we thought we were so progressive," she says, "but really what that amounted to was we never had conversations about sexism, racism or homophobia in our comfortable white home. And I found that to be the case in jazz education. Everyone was like, 'Look! You're playing trombone, so sexism doesn't exist, there's no problem here.' But meanwhile, we were all being indoctrinated in sexism everywhere we go, me included."
Siegel didn't let any of that stop her, though she didn't formally address it in her professional work, either. She spent the past decade living first in Oakland and then in Seattle, where she established a solid pool of fellow musicians with whom to play. Her debut album, Shoebox View, was recorded in 2015 and released in June 2016 to positive reviews from Downbeat Magazine and Jazz Weekly. The album features 13 musicians besides Siegel, and the instrumental songs weave elements of folk and jazz in a smart, updated manner, evoking baroque-pop bands like Beirut that have crossed over into indie-rock circles. She recorded Shoebox View during a nine-month period in places she was either living or visiting at the time: Seattle, Costa Rica and Brooklyn. Some of the tracks were made recording solo in living rooms, where she overdubbed trombone, ukulele and piano parts. Other tracks were recorded in studios with multiple musicians.
Last year, Siegel moved to Missoula with her wife to be closer to her brother's family, and to the outdoors. Without her crew of Seattle musicians to accompany her, Siegel is working to develop her solo chops in composition and performance. She's already played a few shows in Missoula, for which she live-loops her music and improvises on trombone. She recently announced the launch of her new organization, Lakebottom Sound, which she hopes to develop into a resource for concert series, improv sessions and educational workshops. The launch of Lakebottom begins with a concert at Ten Spoon Winery featuring Siegel and Josh Farmer, accompanied by Bethany Joyce and Smai Fullerton, and in September the series continues with a show at Shakespeare & Co. The idea is to play in spaces where people can focus on the music.
"I want to present concerts in environments that are conducive to intentional listening," she says. "I'm choosing venues based on the time of year, and based on the music that is being presented and what acoustics will work well, and that kind of thing."
Once she gets the concert series rolling, Siegel plans to get to work organizing monthly improv sessions and classes. In Seattle, she was part of the Racer Sessions, a weekly event at the Racer Cafe where musicians took turns curating the evening: bringing in prompts, compositions and themes to share with other musicians in a collaborative, improvisational way. In October, Siegel returned to Seattle to host a Racer Sessions in which she explored the idea of feminine principles in improvisation by asking musicians to play while keeping in mind what she describes as feminine qualities: subtlety, listening, stillness.
This kind of exercise is provocative for a lot of reasons, and it's what makes Siegel's take on music so compelling. People usually ascribe feminine qualities to women and masculine qualities to men.
"But that's not the reality of any individual," Siegel says. "No matter what gender we are, we are a mix of these qualities."
But because we live in a culture that often equates femininity with weakness (because of sexist associations with women), both conventional men and feminist women sometimes prickle at the idea of embracing their own feminine traits. In music, and especially in jazz, such issues of femininity and masculinity affect the music itself.
"We live in this culture that values masculine principles—bigger, faster, brighter, build-it-higher—and those have become the most valued aesthetics, and they are attributed to men," Siegel says. "In jazz it becomes about how fast can you play, how virtuosic you are."
Siegel's goal with Lakebottom Sound is to do her part to strengthen Missoula's music scene of all ages, all genres—not the well-resourced touring acts, but the local musicians who work to make a living here. Her interest in larger conversations about inequalities in music are not just about changing the culture, but thinking about ways of making good music. The trombone is seen as a bright, bold instrument, and Siegel loves to indulge that aspect of it, but she sees the instrument's simpler, slower, restrained potential as vital to the quality of performance.
"There are the stereotypes about jazz, and then there are the stereotypes of what a typical jazz solo should be," she says. "I like exploring the more subtle qualities that balance those things out."
Naomi Moon Siegel, Josh Farmer and special guests Bethany Joyce and Smai Fullerton play Ten Spoon Winery Thu., Aug. 10. Music starts at 7 PM. $10.