Women in Jazz
To celebrate Woman’s History Month, Aberdeen Jazz Festival asked jazz musician and broadcaster Seonaid Aitken to interview a group of female/non-binary performers at this year’s festival to learn about their concerts there, to understand what inspires them and to get their views on being a woman/non-binary artist in jazz today.
The Aberdeen Jazz Festival celebrates its 20th Anniversary this year and it’s encouraging to see such a diverse and interesting array of artists and venues on the bill. This is mostly thanks to Jazz Scotland CEO and visionary Coralie Usmani (also a jazz violinist) who has placed female representation high on her list of priorities for the festival and who has rejuvenated spaces across the city to showcase jazz. Home to jazz year-round, the iconic venue The Blue Lamp had many festival artists excited to perform there for the first time including saxophonist Rachel Duns, singer Lissa Chen Robertson of band Atom Eyes and current Scottish Jazz Awards ‘Best Vocalist’ kitti who said she’d “heard great things” about the venue. Georgia Cecile - Jazz FM Awards 2022 ‘UK Jazz Act of the Year’ and ‘Vocalist of the Year’ - calls The Blue Lamp one of her “favourite gig venues in the whole of the UK”. The singer songwriter says “It’s always a special and intimate atmosphere and always a lovely audience!” And this is high praise indeed from an artist who’s career highlight so far was opening for Gregory Porter at the Royal Albert Hall in London. “It was a big milestone for me getting to support an artist I look up to, on one of the world’s most famous stages. My career has grown for the better as a result of that moment.”
It’s the grassroots clubs and settings across Scotland, established venues such as The Blue Lamp and many of the performance spaces used by the Aberdeen Jazz Festival that are important for our Scottish jazz artists in nurturing their talent and giving them new and well-loved platforms from which to share their art. Saxophonist Helena Kay and cellist Juliette Lemoine both perform at the Bon Accord Baths as part of ‘Soundbath’ this Saturday 25th March. Helena says “I'm really looking forward to playing in such an unusual place - an empty swimming pool! It'll be a totally unique experience for me.” Juliette echoes that fact and relishes the opportunity the festival has awarded these musician-composers by commissioning two new solo works to be performed in this unusual and reverberant space.
Award-winning singer Marianne McGregor is “looking forward to being part of the hustle and bustle of doing a daytime gig this time around”. She performs as part of
‘Jazz The Day’ at the Anatomy Rooms on Saturday 25th March - an afternoon jazz extravaganza spanning 4 venues and 9+ artists. Marianne has represented UK jazz in a performance for the British Embassy in Havana, Cuba, but says her biggest achievement is “keeping going with music against all the hurdles life can throw at you.” Her inspiration comes from many places - jazz vocalists such as Amy Winehouse, Esperanza Spalding and Billie Holiday…“I listened to a lot of Billie as I was growing up and I love how she delivers songs in her own way.” She also admires Ella Fitzgerald…“she really swings and her improvisation is fearless and so instrumental.”
And it’s the First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald, that is kitti’s “number one Queen” having been introduced as a young kid to the legendary singer by her Nonna. Indeed, Ella is an artist who many of this year’s Aberdeen Jazz Festival performers look up to. Singer Melodie Fraser, who was excited to be on stage with Son al Son last weekend and to be “playing Cuban music with genuine Cubans”, says Ella “was a true genius and innovator, as well as a once in a lifetime voice.” Juliette says “I am in awe of her voice and musicality, her compassion - not to mention the fact that she achieved everything she did whilst facing the racial barriers inflicted upon African American women in the 1950s.” However, Nancy Wilson is Georgia’s favourite jazz singer and feminist…“She embodies what I believe are the signs of a true artist: authenticity, mastery, self-assuredness, empowerment, and grace.” Susan McCathie, part of vocal harmony trio The Vintage Girls who performed with their 10-piece orchestra last weekend at the Lemon Tree, is a fan of icon Joni Mitchell…“She’s all encompassing both lyrically and musically. It’s a rare thing to get right into the bones of life through song but, my goodness, she does it with ease. And she does it all on her own terms - she’s such a pioneer for female musicians. I don’t think she’s ever allowed her authenticity to be compromised.”
It’s lesser-known female jazz artists that saxophonist Rachel enjoys researching. She discovered German pianist Jutta Hipp and says “I love her playing so much. I find her inspiring as, although she didn't get the recognition she deserved globally, she still caught the attention of popular jazz musicians at the time. I think Hipp felt like that partly because she was one female jazz musician outnumbered by men. She is a reminder to me that I deserve the same treatment and opportunities as my male peers and that I shouldn't be afraid to take up space as a female musician.” And it’s Geri Allen who is one of Helena’s heroes…“I believe she changed the way people approach the piano forever. I never got to meet her, but I've heard so much from friends and people I've met, she just sounds like one of a kind. I only discovered her
after I left music college, which was completely shocking to me, as she's so talented and influential…this is why we have Women’s History Month!”
Artists that are currently inspiring this group of performers include recent double GRAMMY-winning vocalist from New York Samara Joy. Georgia says “She's got a beautiful talent and it's so refreshing to see someone being recognised for singing traditional jazz standards in their original form - she is shining a light on the songbook for younger generations.” Lissa is inspired by Naledi Herman from Mother All Mighty… “Her lyrics are current and relatable, empowering for both women and people of colour.” Other vocalists the festival artists say are worth checking out are Veronica Swift, Cecile McLorin Salvant, Rosie Frater Taylor, Jazzmeia Horn, Little Simz, Hiatus Kaiyote and Beyonce. But it’s UK musicians who are inspiring Helena - they’ve worked with Josephine Davies, Emma Rawicz, Luca Manning, Laura MacDonald, Zoe Rahman, Kate Williams, Issie Barratt and say “To me they are legends. They are prolific, bold and unashamedly themselves.” Rachel says “I am currently inspired by Camille Thurman. As well as being an awesome sax player AND vocalist, she is one of the few women playing with the Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra.”
WHO LIFTS YOU UP?
Many of this year’s performers say they are also inspired by their peers who they get encouragement from. Women are naturally great at lifting each other up and championing each other and so, when asked who lifts them up, it’s no surprise that Mothers, best friends and female band mates are at the top of their lists. kitti says: “There are so many amazing women in our jazz scene…who support each other in a space that’s still (in this day and age) predominantly powered by men. My friends and family are amazing at lifting me up when I need it most, but there’s a fair few in this jazz community that go way beyond. The female organisers of Jazz Scotland, the musicians and performers, sound engineers, radio presenters and producers, the managers and booking agents. It’s so important that we as women keep supporting each other.”
So, what does female empowerment look like to the group? Well, there are so many positive words to include here! Susan puts it simply: “Honesty. Encouragement. Respect. From all directions. Less judgement, more celebration.” Lissa’s outlook is… “Talking, listening, engaging, including one another in thought and action.” Helena says “It looks like being yourself, listening to your inner self and projecting love and warmth, no matter your gender. It looks like freedom.” Georgia’s view is:
“Authenticity, kindness, entitlement as a positive term, loving and caring for one's self, removal of comparison, inspiring and encouraging others, using words only to highlight truths.” And kitti talks about what it looks like to her in the world of music…“Female empowerment is essential when working in an industry like music. For too long we’ve been surrounded by men who have pushed us to do things we didn’t want to do because we felt uncomfortable or outnumbered. It’s important that women have spaces within this industry to take time and bond with other women. We empower each other through sharing stories and experiences that have made us realise how difficult it can be to be the only woman in the room. We must support one another in ensuring there’s opportunities for more women to enter the industry.”
CHANGES IN THE SCENE?
Asked what these artists would like to see changed, or more of, in the jazz scene as a women/non-binary artist, and the resounding message is: more visibility, community and opportunity for female/non-binary musicians and composers. “More collaborations, more acknowledgment of the female artists and songwriters who came before us” says Marianne, while Melodie would like to see “more women in less expected roles (drummers, sound techs etc). I think this is gradually happening and I’d like to see an increase in festival lists more like Aberdeen’s which is strong on the representation of women.” Susan says “As women in music, we thrive on seeing the success of other female artists and we also want to inspire the next generation of women. The gender disparity is still evident but getting better.” And it’s encouragement for the younger generation coming through that Rachel is looking for…“When I was just starting out I felt very intimidated as I wasn't exposed to all the amazing female musicians on the scene. I didn't feel like I had anyone to look up to so I did not have an idea of what a successful female jazz musician looked like. More female musicians gigging at big festivals such as Aberdeen Jazz Festival and at jazz venues across Scotland is so important to encourage young female musicians to pursue jazz.” Juliette, who is primarily involved in the Scottish folk scene, would like to see “more funding and opportunities for jazz and traditional musicians in the early stages of their careers” and Helena concludes that “Generally, the jazz world is a wonderful place to be, but it's still a subsection of our very misogynistic, racist, homophobic and transphobic society, I'm sorry to say. That's why the term 'women in jazz' even exists. Maybe one day we can all just be people!”