One of America’s great jazz guitarists is our neighbor. Vallejo’s Mimi Fox has won six consecutive Downbeat Magazine international critics’ polls, released 10 albums as leader and featured artist, and performed and/or recorded with a who’s who of jazz royalty, including Charlie Byrd, Stanley Jordan, Branford Marsalis, David Sanchez and Diana Krall. She will team up with Bay Area jazz vocalist Kenny Washington in a duo performance this Sunday afternoon at Silo’s.
On the phone from her home last week, Fox talked about her early exposure to music. “I think I was very lucky because my whole family loved music,” she said. “I grew up in New York and my mom and dad loved jazz. My mom was a singer and a songwriter up until I was 12, doing it semiprofessionally in between raising a family. I grew up hearing all this great jazz. From my mom, all the Great American Songbook, Cole Porter, Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart. My dad had everything from old dixieland records to more modern jazz.
“My older brother and sister were listening to the Beatles and pop stuff, so I heard a very eclectic range of music. When I was 9, I used to take my mom’s soup pots and set them up like a little drum set and play along to my dad’s records. My mom got sick of me denting all of her soup pots, so she got me a little air drum. Then about a year later I pleaded with her to get me a guitar. We didn’t have a ton of money, so my mom saved up all of her green stamps and got me this tiny little guitar.”
“I just really fell in love with the instrument,” Fox said. “I was only 10 and my older cousin showed me my first chords and gave me the Beatles’ ‘Rubber Soul’ album. When he came back a few months later, I remember him saying to my mom that he thought I was some kind of freak because he had nothing more that he could teach me. I’d learned the whole album and was playing every part. I’d come home from school and just play and play and play until I got every part perfectly. I was doing it all by ear.”
Fox’s entry into jazz came late and with some trepidation. “My early experiences with guitar were not specifically jazz,” she said, “and I was playing both drums and guitar. I didn’t get into jazz really seriously until I was about 23. Jazz guitar really terrified me. It seemed like, oh my God, it’s so hard. But I knew I loved it and that’s what I wanted to do.
“I realized that in order to be a full-time professional and have it be my life, I had to learn how to read music and I had to broaden my horizons beyond the pop world. So, I studied classical guitar for about two years and learned those records, which also taught me how to read music. I’m very grateful that I did that, because it exposed me to a lot of beautiful music, but I found it restrictive. I knew that the freedom of jazz was what I wanted.”
Fox moved to the Bay Area in 1980, where she met and was mentored by Bruce Foreman, whom she describes as a bebop master. “Then,” she said, “instead of practicing two or three hours a day, I was practicing five or six hours a day, stopped playing drums and just devoted myself to jazz guitar, and that was sort of it.”
Asked about her major guitar influences, Fox’s unhesitant response was Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass. “I would say Montgomery for single line soloing and just for the great drive and creativity and passion. He really kind of influenced everybody, not just jazz players. Then for solo guitar, which is one of my deep loves, it would be Joe Pass, who I studied with very briefly. I was honored to play with him and to be a friend as time went on.”
While a dedicated jazz master, Fox doesn’t hesitate to venture outside traditional genre for her material. Her most recent album, for example, 2013’s “Standards, Old and New,” has material from Woody Guthrie, Lennon/McCartney and Bob Dylan. “I don’t see separation between music,” she said. “I’m proud to be a jazz musician. That being said, I look at jazz as a wide-open field.
“I obviously have devoted myself to all of the great jazz musicians who have touched me and influenced my work. But great music really doesn’t have boundaries. Obviously, I’m not going to record ‘This Land Is Your Land’ like Woody Guthrie. I’m going to do it in a way where I can use all of my jazz knowledge and have that come to bear on an arrangement that I do.
“To me, it’s still jazz. It’s just that I’m choosing to take a song with a popular melody that has meaning and great lyrics. I think that the eclectic thing, in terms of my musical background, I think that makes me a better jazz musician. I think it makes me more all-encompassing in my musical palette. It gives me a wider spectrum of music to choose from.”
At Silo’s, Fox’s guitar will be paired with Kenny Washington’s vocals. Originally from New Orleans, Washington is well known to many Bay Area music fans for his eight-year run as the featured singer at the Top of the Mark at the Mark Hopkins Hotel. Praised for his four-octave range, his playful and passionate improvisations and his pitch-perfect intonation, Washington is equally at home with jazz, R&B and popular standards.
Sunday, April 10, 4 p.m. Presented by the Napa Valley Jazz Society (NVJS). $45, $25 for NVJS members. Silo’s, 530 Main St., Napa. 707-251-5833. nvjs.org/tickets.