Peekskill’s Alexis Cole Wanted A Career In Music. So She Joined The Army
One Westchester woman’s journey from jazz singing and anti-war activism to West Point.
A jazz singer, a peace activist, and an Army staff sergeant walk into a club—does that sound like a joke in search of a punch line? Actually, it’s just a description of what happens whenever vocalist Alexis Cole shows up for a gig. The 39-year-old Peekskill resident is comfortable in those three perhaps counterintuitive roles, and more: She’s also a teacher, a physical fitness enthusiast, and an avid traveler.
Music has been a constant for Cole, who pursued classical and jazz studies at the University of Miami, William Paterson University in New Jersey, and Queens College. She has released eight CDs since 1999, is a regular performer in clubs from Manhattan’s elegant 54 Below to Peekskill’s homey BeanRunner Café, and has received glowing reviews from critics such as the New York Times’ Stephen Holden.
Her music has taken her around the globe as an educator, student, and performer. Besides teaching in Ecuador, Cole traveled to India to study the country’s indigenous classical singing. For a while, she had a steady gig in Japan, alternating three months singing in Tokyo with three months performing and studying in New York. Though the travel was exciting and the steady work gave her an opportunity to hone her chops, Cole eventually wondered, “Is this the life I want to continue to live?”
At about the same time that Cole’s bi-hemispherical situation began to lose its appeal, her Manhattan-based voice teacher, Nancy Marano, heard that West Point’s Jazz Knights big band was looking to hire a vocalist. Professional musicians rarely get employment offers that include steady work, job security, and amazing benefits, but to enjoy these perks Cole would have to join the Army and make it through boot camp. Marano thought Cole was one of the few people she had ever taught who would be physically fit enough to qualify and organized enough for Army life, and she suggested that her student audition for the position.
Cole’s initial reaction was, “What, are you crazy?”
Cole wondered if the Army would be a good fit for her, in light of her years of “activist work,” such as protesting the first Iraq War and Free Speak Outs in Union Square. In spite of her concerns, Cole decided to pursue the Jazz Knights gig. “It was an amazing opportunity to settle down,” she says. “I love it here, I’m such a fan of the Hudson Valley and always wanted to live here.” She aced her audition and proved equal to the rigors of boot camp.
Cole blogged while in basic training (www.alexiscolemusic.wordpress.com), detailing the impact of losing privacy and autonomy, and the overall physical difficulty. “The memory of it took about four years to wear off—for me to not feel completely grateful for getting to linger over a meal or choosing my clothing or read a magazine in the bathroom,” she says. “Being able to decide what I wanted to do and doing it was completely thrilling after basic training.”
The memory of the rigors has softened over the years and she now views boot camp as an obstacle she had to overcome on the way to her goal, as well as a valuable empathy lesson. “I have no romantic memories of that time,” she says, “but it still makes me appreciate my life of freedom and choices; it also gives me some comprehension of those who have choices stripped from them: prisoners, people in poverty or war, and soldiers on the front lines.”
Though she was 33 when she enlisted, serving in the Army has been a learning experience for the singer on many levels, including her approach to activism. “The military taught me to grow up and choose my battles. I had outrage about the world as an activist. Now I’m more in a ‘work together’ mindset. It was such a stretch to join, it caused me to rethink things, to see how we can cooperate to change the world.”
Cole also found there was a performance learning curve. “I’m a little more casual, more ad lib when I’m performing out of uniform,” she admits. “When I’m in uniform, I’m not just representing myself, I’m representing the whole military. I had to grow into it, learn how not to be stiff, to relax into being myself on stage.”
She was familiar with the Jazz Knights’ concert repertoire and knew she would enjoy performing it. But singing to honor milestones such as graduations and memorial services has been what she’s found most fulfilling. “This is an opportunity to serve in a patriotic ministry,” says Cole, who describes her strong patriotism as the root of her activism. “I love the Constitution and want to see us live by it.”
The high point of her service so far was singing “America the Beautiful” at General Norman Schwarzkopf Jr.’s funeral, for a crowd that included former Secretary of State Colin Powell and the Army’s Chief of Staff, General Raymond Odierno. “I was trying to bring the soul into it, for the people spending time with so many problems, so much weight pressing on their shoulders,” she says. Cole must have succeeded—General Odierno sent her a thank-you note afterward.
Cole reenlisted for a second three-year stint, which is coming to an end late this spring, and now she is looking forward to another transition. After a seven-year hiatus, Purchase College is resuming its vocal jazz program, and Cole will play a major role in rebuilding the department.
“Most professional careers are a mix of teaching, performing, and recording, and it’s such a blessing to have that trifecta in place,” she says. “I’ve always loved that school: They’re doing such great work over there. And I love where I live in Peekskill; I don’t want to move. You have to be a global person on the music scene, but also super local—it’s great to have a community and a home when you’re out there traveling the world.”
Part of Peekskill’s appeal is the number of live music venues and restaurants; the BeanRunner Café is her favorite for either performing or listening. For just hanging out, Cole likes checking out the variety of craft beers on tap at the Birdsall House, and ordering house specialties like the beet-and-grain burger and the calamari salad. When she’s in the mood for good cocktails and specialty pizzas, Cole heads for Gleason’s. And farther afield, she likes eating at the RiverMarket Bar and Kitchen in Tarrytown.
And she can cook! “That’s the best thing I can do to relax and enjoy life,” she says. “Peekskill’s farmers’ market is a big part of my social life. Besides shopping there, I’ve played there with my trio.” Cole also belongs to a CSA in Gardiner. The self-described “veggie-vore” has learned how to preserve fresh foods via pickling and dehydration, and packs herself a two-course lunch to take to West Point every day.
Her love of the outdoors has cemented her love affair with the region. She runs in Peekskill Landing Park practically daily, rides her bike regularly as a member of the Westchester Cycle Club, and kayaks from Annsville Creek’s Paddlesport Center. Cole is an avid hiker; Anthony’s Nose is a favorite destination. “It’s fun to have that right in the neighborhood,” she says. Camping is the only one of Cole’s top outdoor activities that she hasn’t tried locally. She hopes to change that this year by checking out the lean-to and tent facilities at Ward Pound Ridge Reservation.
Cole literally wears many hats these days, from the elegant, veiled fascinators that she might don for a classy Manhattan nightclub gig to the appropriate Army headgear for her daily duties to the proper helmet for hitting the road or river via bike or kayak. Regardless of which facet of her busy life she’s pursuing, she often stops to check out the view. “I’ve traveled all over the world,” she says, “but I always feel the beauty of this area.”