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Nellie Bly's adventures inspire Seattle jazz composer

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In her grade school days, Seattle jazz composer Sam Boshnack first encountered the 19th century investigative journalist Elizabeth Cochran, who is better known by her pen name Nellie Bly.

“I must have been about ten or so. My Dad was a journalist, and he introduced her to me as a possible book report subject,” recalled Boshnack.

Bly began writing for The Pittsburgh Dispatch in her early 20s, having wowed an editor with a letter about the rights of women. Two years later, she talked her way into a position at Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, agreeing to spend ten days masquerading as a mental patient to expose the inhumane conditions at the women’s asylum on Blackwell’s Island. The articles, published in 1887, about the institution that Bly called “a human rat-trap” led increased funding and better care for the mentally ill in New York.

As an investigative reporter, Bly routinely went undercover, telling her readers about the lives of factory girls and unwed mothers among others, women that were largely ignored by society of her day.

In 1889, Bly convinced her editors to sponsor a trip around the world, vowing to break the fictional globe-trotting record of Jules Verne’s “Around the World in Eighty Days” and demonstrate that an American woman could travel alone (a very radical idea in her day). She returned to New York as an international celebrity, accomplishing her mission in a record-setting 72 days.

While Bly’s life inspired many books, a few plays, and at least one television movie, many people today still don’t know much, if anything, about Nellie, said Boshnack. She hopes her latest composition for her Quintet will change that and inspire people as much as she was inspired when she started researching Nellie Bly as a young girl.

Like Bly, the composer has traveled the world, playing her trumpet at international festivals, colleges, grade schools, concerts, theaters, studio, and club performances. Her groups also include B'shnorkestra, a fourteen-piece alternative chamber orchestra, and the modern jazz group Reptet, which she has co-led since 2004.

The Nellie Bly Project was created for the Quintet’s piano, clarinet, trumpet, bass, and drums. “Our music incorporates lots of world influences. The Quintet has this space for each member to shine,” she said.The work splits her subject’s personality and career into four movements: “Early Years,” “Asylum Expose,” “Around the World,” and “Lasting Legacy.” The piece also weaves the reporter’s own writings into the music. “I never worked with words and the rhythm of words. Bly’s spirit pushed me in new ways. It’s been a lot of fun,” Boshnack said.

The Nellie Bly Project debuts tomorrow (May 9) at the Chapel Performance Space on the fourth floor of the Good Shepherd Center, 4649 Sunnyside Ave. N., Seattle WA. The concert starts at 8 p.m.

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