Women are bringing Jazz into the 21st century – but there’s still work to do

Gail Tasker speaks to four women who are making a change in the UK

Something new and unexpected is happening in jazz. What was once a ripple of new, genre-defying music along the shores of the London jazz scene has, as of recent times, transformed into a tidal wave of lasting impact. An article in the Times earlier this year exalted the refreshment of the genre under the headline How jazz got back it’s cool. Although arguably a bit late to the party, a feature like this in a national newspaper can only re-solidify the fact that the innovations of a certain group of hard-working jazz musicians are finally gaining the notice and success that they deserve. 

There is an underlying theme to this musical resurgence which has not yet been sufficiently recognized. Crucially, many of the young musicians involved in these ensembles are women. You might not consider this exciting news, for women are as capable of playing and performing as anyone else. However, in a genre as historically male-dominated as jazz, it’s worth focussing on. And it’s not just on a surface level; positive change is taking place throughout the industry.

Yazz Ahmed is a jazz trumpeter, composer and bandleader of Bahrainian origins who has been on the scene for several years. Her most recent album, La Saboteuse is an experimental fusion of Middle-Eastern music, electronics and jazz. Hypnotic, spiritual soundscapes underline Ahmed’s lyrical, floating trumpet lines, transporting the listener to another world. The album was recorded with a stellar line up of musicians including drummer Martin France, versatile percussionist Corrina Silverster, and up-and-coming vibes player Lewis Wright, and it received global acclaim upon its release. When asked whether as a woman she had to strive harder than others to succeed in her profession, Ahmed didn’t hold back.

“For me personally, yes, especially when I first left music college. I had to start my own band to get my voice heard. I just wasn’t being invited to participate in anybody else’s projects. I’ve worked tirelessly to get to where I am today and I hope that people see me as a musician and composer and not as a ‘female’ musician and composer”. 

She’s not alone. Despite being a successful DJ, broadcaster and writer whose work appears in national publications like The Observer and The Guardian, Kate Hutchinson admits that “when it comes to certain genres of music, there’s a vague sense that women can’t write about it as seriously as men, for sure”. Live music artist Dora Lam isn’t far behind in agreeing that the music industry in general is somewhat a “boy’s club”.

Lam’s visual work has made a huge contribution to music; her Instagram page expertly captures the energy and excitement of London jazz performances. Under the moniker dorathedrawer, the artist is a regular at venues such as Jazz Café and Church of Sound nights, and her colourful portraits include the likes of Maisha, Theon Cross, and Nubya Garcia. As someone who has closely been observing and documenting jazz over recent times, it seemed only natural to ask her if she had noticed any changes on the stage or in front of it.

“I think the jazz audience has become much more varied than it was five years ago. Now that our concentrated population is being more culturally diverse, we are seeing jazz being fused with so many other things that it opens it up to audiences who might have previously classified it as a music for the sit-down, well-to-do crowd. I’m so excited to watch it become something completely different and get back the attention it deserves.

“Women are constantly battling to validate the desire to succeed”

Yvette Griffith is Exec Director of Jazz re:freshed, a multi-faceted organisation that includes a label and live shows both in the UK and Internationally who celebrate 15 years in 2018. When asked a similar question, Yvette replied:

“I am one of those who have increased the number. Five years new into the industry – although, rightly or wrongly – I’ve never looked at this element from a gender perspective.  I’m here forging my path, doing the best I can for the business and genre and working to bring more diversity through on many levels. There’s certainly an increase in the number of women composers and performers on the scene and that’s fantastic to see and also to be part of contributing to that change with our activities and programmes”. 

By Griffith’s own admission, she’s not inclined to view her career through a straight-forward gender perspective; instead, perhaps refreshingly so, she works on increasing diversity as a whole and seeks to achieve of behalf of Jazz re:freshed; this is the organization behind the extremely popular weekly jazz gigs at Mau Mau Bar on Portobello Road. Also active as a record label, Jazz re:freshed has released music from a range of artists including seasoned drummer Richard Spaven, to the up-and-coming young jazzers Tri-Force. The organization seeks to remove elitism from the jazz industry and bring the genre to a wider audience. They must be succeeding on some level; Kate Hutchinson vows that she has noticed changes within the jazz demographic; 

“If you go to a concert hall, the jazz audience at large is going to be white middle-aged men. However, with the new jazz that’s coming through and this jazz spirit that’s weaving it’s way to a lot of the young artists coming through, the audiences are diversifying. If you go to [weekly night] Steam Down in Deptford, the audience is ethnically diverse and under thirty, you know. There are more spaces and more nights popping up making jazz that are encouraging a new audience”.

When reflecting upon leading figures of the 20th century, names like Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane spring to mind. In terms of more behind-the-scenes characters, Rudy Van Gelder and Norman Granz are legends of their time. Female names do pop up from time to time; the famed British photographer and journalist Val Wilmer has been an important documenter of jazz since the 60s onwards, whilst Pannonica de Koenigswarter was a wealthy patroness to musicians like Charlie Parker and Monk and a key figure within the thriving bebop scene. There are instances where female musicians like Hazel Scott and Mary Lou Williams were successful, but they are few and far between. Moreover, they don’t have the same legendary status as their male counterparts. There is nobody yet of comparable stature to Marie Curie in science, a leading light in what has also always been a historically male-dominated field. Upon asked why they thought this was the case:

Lam: Looking back to the origins of jazz which emerged from a black male subculture, the music was played in places like brothels and speakeasies where you wouldn’t find women who were there to appreciate music at the time. Added to that the instruments usually found in jazz music are (still) associated with masculinity such as the sax, drums, double bass… all of which were designed by men. 

Ahmed: I feel that one important reason behind the comparative lack of female jazz musicians on the scene is that their male counterparts often don’t book female side musicians. I’m not saying this is deliberate, there are many subconscious reasons for this, but one issue that has been identified is that at the time the boys are developing as musicians, in their mid to late teens, they can become more competitive than girls. There is a strong tradition in jazz of outdoing each other at jam sessions, seeing who can play faster, louder, higher or who can negotiate complex harmonic sequences in the most impressive way. Speaking in general terms, girls may be more interested in expression and co-operation, working collectively to achieve a musical result greater than the sum of its parts. Culturally, they may have a greater fear of appearing stupid or of being judged for making mistakes than do boys, who are perhaps more likely to be happy to be the centre of attention.

Despite this fact, Ahmed stresses the importance of female icons, even stating that she has “had to actively search for female role models not only in music but throughout all areas of human activity.” This depressing fact is a reality that is too frequently experienced – women are constantly battling to validate the desire to succeed. Ahmed elaborates; 

“My very first trumpet teacher was a wonderful woman called Norma Whitson and she would sometimes tell me about the struggles she had at music college being the only female trumpeter. However, as a nine year old this didn’t register with me until I reached my late teens and was thinking of pursuing a career in music.

I desperately wanted someone to look up to, somebody I could relate to as a woman, who was enjoying a career as a successful jazz trumpet player.

After much research, I discovered a Canadian trumpeter called Ingrid Jensen. She inspired me so much that I travelled all the way to New York, with support from my old high school (Raynes Park High School), to have a lesson with her”. 

In turn, young, budding jazz trumpeters who are looking for a female role model might have more success than before. We have musicians like Ahmed, Jaimie Branch, and Sheila Maurice-Grey to look to. It isn’t therefore too bold to suggest that the rise in diversity within the jazz profession has had an impact on the music itself. Griffith puts it succinctly when she says that “the broader the spectrum of contributors by gender, age and culture, the greater diversity of expression, voice and performance.” Lam echoes an agreement, “as there are more female role models so will there be more female influence in creative output.”

Ahmed has written a suite inspired by courageous female role models, which she’s currently recording; This piece, Polyhymnia, celebrates the achievements of the Suffragettes, Malala Yousafzai, Rosa Parks, Ruby Bridges, Haifa Al Mansour, and Barbara Thompson. She explains; “I hope that this album will bring the awareness of these magnificent activists to a wide audience as well as inspire both genders and people from all walks of life to fulfill their potential”. 

Looking forward, Lam, Ahmed, Hutchinson and Griffith are optimistic. Lam says;

I think jazz will become more popular with young audiences given its resurgence from young urban artists breathing new life into it. I’ve not seen as many hyped up audiences as I have this year! Or maybe I’ve just been going to the wrong places… as younger audiences have more female role models to look up to hopefully the presence of female musicians on stage will also improve. 

Ahmed is more cautious, and her words remind us of the elitism inherent in jazz as well as historical, inextricable link between jazz and politics.

“It’s hard to say. I think there is definitely a resurgence of interest in the scene and, if it is to survive, then jazz must continue to evolve. I think there is a responsibility on artists to be inclusive, to look for ways to invite new listeners by making music which is relevant to today.

I suppose if the country continues to become more unfriendly and unwelcoming, poorer and greedier, perhaps we will hear more protest music reflecting these injustices and struggles. Music can send out a strong message, inspire people, and bring change”. 

These are words to take note of. There is a tendency amongst us all to be enthusiastic about how far women have come, applauding the successes of certain heroic individuals as well as the collective social progress we have made. Yet, there is an ongoing requirement to maintain the tide of positive change within jazz and beyond, so that it doesn’t trickle back into the sea without making a lasting impact.

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EZH | Gail Tasker