After earning her performance studies master's degree, actor and writer Ashley Nicole Black ’08 MS became a TV star. She hopes her career sets an example for other diverse voices.
Jade Maze remembers one of the times that she hit rock bottom: It was the late ’80s, and she was trying to start a band in Santa Barbara, Calif.
On a creative kick, she rented a garage where she planned to live and write music full time, but she fell victim to a bait-and-switch scheme. Instead of a tidy garage with a concrete floor, like the model she’d been shown, she was given the keys to a dilapidated, mouse-infested, dirt-floor garage. Before long, she was couch-surfing. Then all her belongings and equipment were stolen from her car.
“Everything was gone,” she says. “It put me in a bad place mentally.”
When a friend found her walking aimlessly on the beach and asked if she was OK, Maze realized she needed help. “I did not want to fall through the cracks,” she says. “I immediately went to this crisis center and said, ‘Help me!’
“It was a life-changing moment. If I hadn’t realized that I needed help, that I was not in control, I don’t know where I would be today.”
It wasn’t the first time Maze ’08 MMus had to overcome a personal crisis. She walked away from a troubled home in Oakland, Calif., at age 15.
The harrowing journey that followed — including periods of homelessness and incidents of rape, manipulation and isolation — shaped her life, but it did not define or defeat her.
Maze eventually landed on her feet back in her hometown of Minneapolis and devoted herself to music. She toured Germany and France with the Minneapolis Jazz Machine. After going through a divorce and dropping out of college in California, Maze moved to Boston in 1992 and became a jazz and pop headliner. She moved to Chicago in 1994 but stopped playing music altogether in 1998.
“I was all over the club scene and touring nationally,” Maze says, “but I was not happy being in circumstances where you don’t see the best of people’s behavior.”
That’s when she started writing her memoir, Walk Until Sunrise (2017), about her runaway experience. “The story just kept nagging at me,” Maze says of her award-winning debut. “I didn’t want to write the book, because they’re not pleasant memories, but I felt compelled to. Within the last five years, I was objective enough and healthy enough to really write the story as it ought to be written.”
Maze, who lives in Westchester, Ill., says getting an education was the turning point in her life. A former straight-A student, she went back to school, earning her GED in her late 30s and then an undergrad degree from the University Without Walls program at Northeastern Illinois University.
Thanks to a partial scholarship, Maze studied voice with Bienen School of Music artist-in-residence Nancy Gustafson ’80 MMus and earned her master’s degree at Northwestern. Within days of graduating, she received a call from the Merit School of Music, a community music school in Chicago that serves talented youth in its tuition-free college-prep conservatory.
“It is my duty to push these students hard toward excellence by making them aware of how talented they are and what a responsibility that is,” Maze says. “I give my students — from all walks of life, rich or poor — a reality check, sugar-coating nothing. And if I think they have what it takes to go far, I back up my encouragement by doing my best to infuse them with fearlessness and brazenness that is necessary to pursue a solo performance career. And their efforts are reaping fruit.”