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With a new album and tour, Candy Dulfer is not stopping for anything

Candy Dulfer
Cari Verbruggen
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Candy Dulfer

Candy Dulfer was born and raised in the Netherlands in a household steeped in jazz. Her father, Hans Dulfer, was a noted jazz saxophonist and concert promoter, who introduced Candy at a young age not only to the music but to many of the great jazz musicians of that time. After leading bands while she was just a teenager, Dulfer went on to perform and record with Dave Stewart (of the Eurhythmics), Sheila E, Van Morrison, and most prominently, Prince. She released her first album as a leader, Saxuality, in 1990 and it won her a Grammy nomination. In the ensuing years, she would release a dozen more albums, including the latest, We Never Stop, which features her collaboration with noted guitarist and producer Nile Rodgers.

Dulfer spoke with WBGO’s Lezlie Harrison about her upbringing, her early mentors and the challenges (and rewards) of being a female saxophonist.

Watch their conversation here:

Interview Highlights:

Lezlie Harrison: You grew up in Amsterdam around jazz at a very early age.  You gathered a lot of experiences from some very serious jazz heavy hitters, including your father, Hans Dulfer. You also got some experience from Dexter Gordon and Archie Shepp. Not having any female saxophonists to look up to, what gravitated you towards the instrument?

Candy Dulfer: That’s a great question, but those people like Dexter Gordon and Archie Shepp, they were around me when I was a baby, so it wasn't really like that. I just remember them being very sweet. Dexter Gordon used to frequent our house because my dad would also organize concerts and all these greats came by. Like John McLaughlin, the great guitarist. So I was very lucky to have a surrounding like that. I was very fortunate because, like you say, there weren’t, and there still aren't, a lot of female saxophone players.

But there was an American lady called Rosa King who came from Macon, Georgia, and she moved to Amsterdam when I was a baby, and she became friends with my parents and she was an amazing blues and jazz artist. A singer and saxophone player. And aside from my dad being the major influence and all that music and all these amazing musicians that were around me, I count her as one of the most influential for me because suddenly there was this wonderful lady who could play a mean sax and sing. And she was a band leader and that was also very important.

She was so lovely. She asked me in her band when I was only 12 years old and I played the North Sea Jazz Festival with her. She gave me all those first opportunities. So I would first say my dad, then it was Rosa King. Then not much later, when I was 13 years old, I saw Sheila E perform in Paradiso in Amsterdam, and that changed my whole life. That turned my whole world upside down.

As I'm sure a lot of young girls are getting their lives changed by witnessing you in, in a career of yours that has spanned 30 plus years. You have worked with some of the biggest names in the business, including Mavis Staples, Beyonce, and of course, Prince. What was that experience like and how did that help you grow as a musician?

It's just hard to say in words because I was such a big fan of Prince before I even met him. I also think that a lot of the stuff that I learned from him, I just learned by listening to his music and being a huge fan of his music. But there's more to Prince. I noticed that he always had a soft spot for female musicians. He really did something for female empowerment. So that was already planting the seeds in my brain. It's a long story and I won't tell it because it's too long, but at one point I got a crazy opportunity as a 17-year-old or 18-year-old to be in his support act, only in the Netherlands.

These two shows got canceled right before my first appearance and I thought it was his fault. So I was really mad at him. I thought these big stars, you know, blah, blah. So I wrote him a little note and I said, “Why don't you let us play? Musicians should be loyal to each other.” Because that's what my dad told me and taught me. And I said, “You missed a chance to see a girl blow her ass off on the saxophone.” I was so shy back then that something in me said I should write this note. I gave it to his manager. He didn't even wanna take it. He thought I was some crazy fan. Then I saw Sheila E whom I had never met. I gave her the letter and the rest is history. She gave it to Prince and she said, “There's this crazy girl out there, she's pretty mad. I think you should let her play.” And that's how I got to work with him.

That's a wonderful story. I would love to hear the long version, but it just shows that you need a woman.

A woman in your corner, like my mom or like Sheila, who did so much for me. You also need men to see how great it is to involve female musician or artists. He [Prince] was one of those rare people that really understood it even back then and gave me that huge opportunity.

You have inspired a generation of young female saxophonists. I think of Chelsea Baratz, Camille Thurman, Melissa Aldana, Tia Fuller, just to name a few. Because back when I first heard you, there weren't many female saxophonists whose names I could pull out of a hat like that. Speaking of those saxophone players, you're still finding and they're still finding their groove in what is still a male-dominated playing field. What advice would you give to young and up-and-coming women musicians who are out here making a name for themselves, but still dealing in this male-dominated field?

When I started, I was also in a way lucky that there weren't so many females playing sax. I was making a stand before. Now you see these girls, and they're not just a little good, but great. In the beginning it was, “Well she’s talented and maybe she can play with the big guys.” But they’re amazing. Is it the computer? Where did that come from? I don't think that has anything to do with me. It's just our changing times, that they learn and they know the value of music and they know that once we're gonna start it, it's not a hobby anymore.

This is what you do with all your heart and soul in your mind. I don't know if I have anything to do with it, but what I always hope is that people see that it’s you and your instrument. That's a given. You can have that anywhere. It doesn't have to be on a huge stage. It doesn't have to be in some kinda studio. You in your own room. It has the same value. It's so important that you enjoy music first and that you know what you want to learn on an instrument or with your vocals and if after that comes success, I so hope that for everybody. But the thing is, you first have to be confident about what you want to achieve and what you do. And then get as much protection around you as you can because that was my saving grace. I had Prince, I had Maceo Parker, I had Sheila, I had my father and my mom who traveled everywhere. Nothing really bad ever happened to me, although I brushed against it. I have to admit that for a while I was like, “Just be a good player, and don't mind so much, then the guys will accept you.” But I know much more right now that it's way more difficult if you don't have a force field around you. So try to make friends, try to play with guys and make them see you and make them form something around you, a safe place that you can hone your craft in. And you would be surprised how many guys are so sweet and so giving. There is a glass ceiling sometimes but I have to say, even the biggest macho guys that I ever in encountered, in the end, they were all rooting for me. You have to also think of that there's good in the world.

Video of "Jammin' Tonight" by Candy Dulfer, with special guest Nile Rodgers:

Candy Dulfer (feat. Nile Rodgers) - Jammin' Tonight (Official Lyric Video)

Lezlie Harrison is her own personal renaissance. Her constant state of evolution and growth brings with it, gifts for those those paying attention.