Close your eyes for a minute and imagine a successful classical pianist. What do they look like? If you're like most people, you just conjured up an older white guy with a shock of white hair. And you wouldn't necessarily be wrong. That's pretty much what a typical classical pianist looks like.
But Jade Simmons isn't a typical classical pianist. The Charleston native has a tendency to mix up her classical stylings with splashes of rap, jazz, and bossa nova, and her unique approach has earned her recent gigs everywhere from Russia to the White House, as well as a place alongside Gabby Douglas and Michelle Obama on Essence magazine's October Style and Substance list.
"It's been an interesting awakening, because as a little girl when I started playing classical, I didn't make a differentiation between that music and hip-hop and R&B," she says. "I just listened to stuff that moved me ... so it was interesting when other people would point out to me that I was different because I was a black female playing classical."
And unfortunately it has been pointed out to her time and time again, like when she was 13 or 14 and she'd just won a Beethoven competition in Myrtle Beach. An older man approached and told her that she was a credit to her race, and that he wished that "all blacks" were more like her. "I appreciated what he was trying to say, but it meant that there was such a negative stereotype that simply playing Beethoven made me somehow better than the rest of my people," Simmons, now 34, says. "It's an interesting world to be in where you are one of a very few, and yes, it's something that I'm proud of. I like that I'm making a name for myself, but, of course, I want people to hear the music."
Though she says she hasn't dealt with overt racism, she's always working to fight against perceptions of what it means to be a classical musician. "It's been wonderful for me to feel like during the process of a concert that I might be dispelling a few stereotypes as well as introducing people — black, white, all colors — to music that they might not have thought they could've loved so much."
Now living in Houston with her husband, Simmons has been working to create original music that blends classical and more experimental, modern styles. "One of the weirdest things about a classical education is you spend hours practicing music by composers who are no longer with us, and you're trying to play that music as perfectly as possible," she says. "I have just recently in the last three years really started to challenge myself by writing my own music and improvising in a live setting ... It's been exciting and incredibly scary, but kind of starting down this road you feel like you can never go back to simply replicating other people's music. Now I have an urge to create, and so it's been exciting to share that with the audience."
Simmons created her own label, Superwoman Records, to accommodate her unique music. "If I'm completely being honest, I never intended to found my own record company," she laughs. The impetus happened when her first label kept pushing back the release date of her second album. "I said to them, 'If you guys don't put new music out, I'm going to find a way to put my own music out,' and I think they thought I was bluffing," she says. She founded the record label in July, returned to the studio, and came up with all-new music for her album Playing with Fire. Although she's the only artist on Superwoman Records at the moment, Simmons eventually hopes to use the label to support other female artists engaged in adventurous music.
Simmons hasn't played an official show in Charleston in more than a decade, so she's excited about her homecoming. "I really believe in not just putting on concerts but offering a complete experience," she says. "I'm excited to tell stories about my upbringing that Charlestonians will relate to, because most of the stories that I tell on the road have to do with my background, the way that I was raised in the South and in Charleston especially. I think that people even who don't know me will relate to a lot of what I have to say, and hopefully will enjoy the music as well."