BY ALAYA WYNDHAM // Daughter of the late Janice Scroggins pushing her nareer to the next level
Arietta Ward – a.k.a. Mz Etta, a.k.a. one of them Scroggins kids – has a lot to say about life as a musician in Portland, being the eldest child of one of our city’s jazz darlings, the late Janice Scroggins. Scroggins passed away suddenly in 2014 and Arietta lost her best friend and her main companion, but gained a new confidence and sense of self and purpose. This quietly powerful woman gave us an open interview during which her wisdom and understanding of the Portland music scene shone through.
You started performing 7 years ago?
Yeah, again. (laughs) It’s a funny story. I started outta spite. I know that’s not the best reason, but, my mama always said, if you get to a point in your life where you want to cause physical harm, write it down or sing it out. That part of my life was a doozy. My son was about one when I stopped singing, so this was 15 years later.
Can you elaborate on that part of your life a little bit, and what motivated you to start singing again?
My feelings were hurt and things weren’t making sense. So, I decided, okay, I’m gonna do things this way. I called up my friend, Tony Ozier, and said I want to sing on a track. And he said “okay.” So, I went over and sang something…an improv type of thing. He was very calm about it, but he was the one who got me to sing. He was just real subtle about everything. He’d never heard me sing, but he’d heard about my sister and he’d met my mom. We had mutual friends, and so I was over there hanging out a lot. One day he gave me a CD and I said, “What is this for?” He said, “They’re just some songs. I want you to learn them.” I said, “I don’t sing!” He said, “Well…just learn them. It’d be good just to learn them.” Well, I guess he knew me, because I learned them all and about a year later I was singing with him, and I’ve been singing with him ever since.
So singing is therapeutic for you?
Mmhmm, it’s helped me a lot. It’s keeping me alive right now.
That’s amazing. Can you talk about what it was like growing up with Janice Scroggins as your mom? Has music been a driving force in your life forever?
Ever! We’d wake up real early, and mom used to blast Zapp and Roger, Earth Wind and Fire and Stevie Wonder, James Brown…You know, I thought it was normal, but apparently it’s not. So, I get kind of flustered when people play different things wrong, like, that’s not the way it is on the record! Because I’ve been hearing it over and over and over, so it’s engrained.
So, being around her, I was being taught and not knowing about it. You just absorb things. But I guess that’s why I’m as versatile as I am, because she played everything. You know, belly dance music, country, in addition to everything you know her for.
Going back to how you notice when people play things incorrectly off of records…Are you a musical purist? Do you think songs should be played how they were originally written or are you okay with experimentation and improv?
I think it really just depends. People have to be themselves through the music, they can’t just play it note for note. But it should be recognizable. You know, have the original melody in there somewhere. It’s one of those things, like you have different tributes and bands that play stuff verbatim. If you’re going to play it verbatim, play it verbatim. When I was a little kid, I used to get into big arguments with grown people about it. I’d say, “Please refer back to the album! That’s not the way it is!” (Laughs.)
Everyone is allotted their artistic expression, or else you’d just be like everyone else. I don’t do things the same…ever! But, I still have a blueprint and a structure that I follow. You know, if you have a specific bass line, that’s the way it’s supposed to be! Don’t just embellish, that’s not the way I want to hear it. That’d get somebody fired.
What’s your process for writing original music?
It varies. There are just songs that I hear in my head. I have lots of songs that I hear in my head, but since I didn’t learn to play, it’s kind of hard to get them out. And, I’m a bit shy. Some don’t see it, they see performing Etta…but, no, I’m a shy person. So, I have to trust you to help me. And there are very few people who can help me “get it out.”
My mom was very patient. She helped me with a few things. But after she left, it was like, “Oh my god, what am I going to do?”
James Shelton, I call him OG DooDoo Funk, he’s on the East Coast in Detroit. He’s an excellent keyboardist/producer. He helped me with a song I’ve been trying to get out for forever. It’s my “Etta-isms.” And that’s the one that people sing all the time. He played it how it was in my head, and I was like, “Oh, my gosh! How does that work?” You know, I sang a riff, and we just bounced back and forth until it was what I heard.
Sometimes, in the beginning, he’d actually — and I’d never done this before — he’d lay down a track, him a Dookie Green, and say, okay, write something to it! And I was like, “Oh! I’ve never done that before.” But, it makes you work.
Also being a part of the Dookie Jam, when you have to think on your feet, you have to learn how to improv. That ties into it.
He calls me the Dookie Jam poster child because I really didn’t want to have the mic. To be by myself? What is that? I’m a team player! It just took a long time for me to get up there. But, I’m also a teacher. So, if I think of (the audience) like that, it makes sense. Not to mention I figured out that my careers can co-exist. That was another reason I waited so long to sing. I’ve been a part of the cosmetology industry for 20 years. I do hair! That was my excuse for so long.
So, anyway, I usually write my hook first, and then my second verse. And then work my way to the front. That’s my traditional way of doing it.
You didn’t learn piano from your mom?
No. (Long pause.) I started to, but then things got kinda busy. My sister came alone, Nafisaria, an excellent singer as well, so…it just got really busy and my mom was just trying to make things work. You know, being a single parent.
So, I didn’t understand her genius until I was legal. You know, people would come up to me all the time and say, “She’s wonderful!” and I just thought, she’s my mom! But I would go out with her all the time, and I would drive her to her gigs because she didn’t drive, and I would see how people looked at her while she played, and I was like…”Oh, my gosh!” She’s very special. She just touched everybody.
You drove her everywhere?
Mmhmm! That’s how I know how to get around Portland and that’s how a lot of the music community knows me, because I was always with her. My mommy. Sorry if I cry, it just is what it is. (She did freely when talking about Scroggins. We took a break to talk about her record.)
Are you working on a record right now?
Ah! It’s in the works. I’ve written a lot of material and collaborated with a lot of people, so hopefully it will be out at the beginning of next year. But I’m really excited. At my past shows, I’ve started bringing out original material. The response to it: awesome! Even from my fellow folks, the players, I call them my fellow storytellers. They sing the riffs over and over again…It’s amazing, and very humbling. It will be with Tony Ozier and FN Beats Galore, under their record label.
It must be exciting to have your own project to work on!
I get really excited about it! I love working with other people, but your baby is your baby.
Who aside from Shelton do you collaborate with?
LaRhonda Steele, Tony Ozier…I’m very lucky to be surrounded by as many people as I am. The Portland music community as a whole! I’ve learned a lot of different lessons from a lot of different people. Ken Berry! He taught me to be a leader. He doesn’t know that. There’s a big production that we do, the World Arts Foundation, MLK Day Celebration. I’ve been co-producing it for the last three years, and I have to do things! I’m usually back here (in the background), but the work pushes you forward. I have to be able to delegate, see the weak link, you know.
Is it hard to be a musician in Portland?
It is! It really is. You know, I got grandfathered into it. And it’s a blessing and it’s a curse. It’s a blessing because I’m able to get into different rooms that other people work years to get into. Like my third time doing a show, it was at Jimmy Mak’s. Who does that? I did! But, it’s just who you know, a lot of times.
But on the same token, it’s very organic here. It’s a great platform to be able to start something here, but you can flatten out every now and again, unless you hustle and get out! It’s a very unique situation. There are a lot of transplants who adopt Portland as their home, but then you have some just trying to come through here and change things, without knowing the history of it. So the ones thriving know the history, they’ve talked to the older musicians, found out about the community and that type of stuff.
The curse part for me is that I’m already in a box. I am a Funk girl, or a Soul/Gospel girl. But, I can sing Jazz! I was singing with Obo Addy before he passed, singing in a different language. I have a very unique journey and I can’t be put in a box. People don’t know that yet. But they will know, after awhile. But it’s hard to break into another genre here. If I wanted to get hired for a Jazz gig people would say, “Oh no, she does that other stuff.” So until I go to a jam, or do a traditional Jazz song, people won’t know. That will come when it comes.
You have to show yourself…
You really do! You have to show yourself and at the right place. That’s just how it is. But I am very lucky and very blessed to be here and to be able to do what I do. And to share the gift that was given to me.
I realized I can’t be selfish anymore. If people say I can sing, then I can sing! And I should. Everybody has a story and you never know who you’re going to help. If I sing a certain song at a certain time, and the right person hears it?
I know who I am now, and I know what I’m supposed to do.
Do you get compared to you mom?
All the time.
How does that make you feel, as an artist who’s getting out there and doing your own thing?
It’s very helpful. You know, hearing a lot of different stories, of how I am compared to her. A lot of times I guess it’s just me. Her mannerisms or they way I say something, people say I sound like her. All the time. When I’m trying to get things across or trying to teach a song. When we try to do harmonies everyone looks at me. I have the same ability to fill them in, not as well as her, but I have it. She always had me learn all the parts, that way I could fill in and jump in wherever I could. She wanted to make sure I was versatile and able to “get in where you fit in.”
I also have a 20-year old son, his name is Jamani, and he’s very much his grandmother’s child. I see the same zen quality and dry sense of humor — her humor was so dry! He and my little brother, Francis have it. A lot of people don’t know about Francis because he’s 16. He’s in the game too. He’s a saxophonist. He’s doing good.
Do you feel like anything changed in you as a musician after your mom passed?
I wouldn’t be the person that I am right now. I sing from a very different place now. The leaders are gone. The pillars are gone. With her and Linda (Hornbuckle) not here, people are starting to look at me and LaRhonda. We’ve had to do so many tributes, too!
Was that a lot of pressure for you?
During that time I was kind of numb, so it was what I had to do to keep going. Otherwise I would just be in a corner, like, oh my gosh, this is really real. And I still have moments like that, like, oh my gosh, she’s really not going to call me and say, “What you doing?” (Tears.)
I had to stand upright. I had to grow up. I’m the oldest in the family, so I’m looking over my siblings and the brands and so I sing from a very different place now. I’m more sure.
And it’s also because I have teeth. People don’t talk about that kind of stuff but I do. I was going to have dental surgery when she was here, so I had all of my top teeth pulled, but then I didn’t get to have the surgery and suddenly I was running around doing all of these tributes with no teeth.
The thing is, when your best friend just died outta nowhere, nothing else can hurt you. What else can you do to me? So, I did all of last year up until the end of April with no teeth. I then got up a lot higher after I got them. My confidence level was already growing and that brought it up even more.
It taught me that it’s not all about your appearance. It taught me to just do what I need to do and people will respond to that. I have a job to do. I sing for my mom, every time I open my mouth. And I will forever more.
But I also remembered who I was. She’s a part of me. But everything I did, I did for her and I was able to see that it’s okay to have time for myself and do things for myself.
Any more words of wisdom?
There are certain people (musicians) that we need to get up under while they’re still here. And I regret that I didn’t do that more and ask more questions when I had the chance. There are a lot of lessons you don’t learn till you go through it. I grew up around musical educators and they say little things and it clicks way later on in your life. But it’s important to have the conversations, keep the history alive and maintain communication. People get real cliquish real quick, and that needs to stop. All the genres, everybody needs to put their differences aside, come together and put Portland on the map!