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.”  


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.”  


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!”