by Ian Mann
November 01, 2019
A book that offers a fascinating insight into the lives of contemporary jazz women and one that will be read with great interest by jazz enthusiasts of any gender. Intelligent and insightful.
“Women in Jazz” by Sammy Stein
(8th House Publishing) £19.99
Sammy Stein is an author, reviewer, columnist and radio show writer. She has reviewed jazz recordings and performances for several magazines, newspapers and online jazz blogs and written scripts for radio shows.
Stein wrote for the US radio programme ‘Jazz Bites’ and it was the episode titled ‘Ladies in Jazz’ that helped to inspire this, her fifth book, the follow up to 2017’s successful “All That’s Jazz”.
Subtitled “The Women, The Legends & Their Fight” Stein’s new book begins by examining the historical role of women in jazz and goes on to profile a number of ‘Major Influencers’, mainly from the past. But the real meat of the book concerns issues facing the female jazz musicians of the 21st century.
Stein interviewed a wide range of contemporary female jazz performers, singers and instrumentalists, both Britons and Americans, with her perceptive questioning prompting consistently interesting and thought provoking responses from her interviewees. She also spoke to other female professionals involved in the music industry including publicists, promoters, managers and broadcasters.
The result is a book that offers a fascinating insight into the lives of contemporary jazz women and one that will be read with great interest by jazz enthusiasts of any gender. It really is an intelligent, insightful and consistently entertaining read, a book that either be read from cover to cover or dipped into at random. Even the most casual perusal of the work is guaranteed to unearth a nugget that will intrigue, inform and entertain. The book also includes a number of excellent black and white photographs, derived from a number of sources.
Stein’s book begins by taking a look at the history of jazz. The author visited New Orleans to research its earliest beginnings and succinctly details the development of the music to the present day, whilst also taking a brief look at the elements that define and characterise the music.
Chapter Two begins to take a look at the role of women in jazz, a music that was initially dominated by men, and has continued to be so. Some of the comments levelled at female musicians by Downbeat magazine in the 1930s were blatantly misogynist and, by contemporary standards, nothing short of shocking. The old adage of ‘men play jazz, women sing it” was particularly rife in that era when most jazz instruments, other than the piano, were considered to be ‘unfeminine’.
Despite the opportunities offered during World War 2 there had been little improvement by the 1950s; of the fifty seven musicians pictured in Art Kane’s famous “A Great Day In Harlem” photograph of 1958 only three were women – Marian McPartland, Mary Lou Williams and Maxine Sullivan, all either pianists or vocalists.
The 1960s and 70s saw genuine progress, thanks in part to the women’s liberation movement, and the first Women’s Jazz Festival was held in Kansas City in 1978, while the annual New York Women’s Jazz Festival was founded shortly after.
However even now in the 21st century female musicians are vastly outnumbered by their male counterparts, although it has to be said that their numbers are growing and that there are now leading female performers on just about every instrument in the jazz ‘family’ - trumpet, trombone, saxophone, double bass, drums and more. Stein’s book questions whether enough progress has been made, but as a regular observer and reviewer of the British jazz scene I genuinely believe that things are more equal now than they have ever been.
Stein’s third chapter presents profiles of thirteen female musicians that she describes as “Women of the Past – Major Influences”. This ‘baker’s dozen’ are Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, Hazel Scott, Maxine Sullivan, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Betty Carter, Melba Liston, Nina Simone, Alice Coltrane, Aretha Franklin and Carla Bley, the only one of this stellar cast that is still with us, and still musically active. Some of the names may be predictable, but others offer valuable insight into influential figures whose work has become rather neglected in recent years. The profiles don’t shy away from the racism and misogyny that many of these women faced in the pursuit of their music making.
The next chapter, titled “Women in Jazz Today” tackles the everyday life of women working in the jazz industry head on. Through the responses of her interviewees, allied to her own opinions and her linking narrative, Stein lifts the lid on everyday sexism and also asks if women have to prove themselves more than their male counterparts. The difficulties of women acting as bandleaders are also addressed, particularly with regard to the attitudes of the men in their charge, and Stein doesn’t shy away from the thorny subject of women deploying their sexuality to their own advantage in an essentially male dominated world.
In general attitudes seem to be improving with male musicians, particularly younger ones, now more accepting of their female counterparts and more prepared to accept them as equals. The women themselves constitute a strong mutual support network, although improvising trombonist Sarah Gail Brand declares that she is not a fan of all female groups, positing that this tends to ‘ghettoise’ women musicians and can also lead to ‘tokenism’. That said the younger crop of female jazz musicians seem to exhibit a spirit of self confidence that previous generations arguably lacked.
The book is quick to praise those men who have been supportive of female musicians, men such as Paul Jolly of the 33 record label, producer and musician Jason Miles and guitarist John Russell, organiser of the frequent Mopomoso free jazz events at London’s Vortex Jazz Club. Stein also has good words to say about the ‘Women in Jazz’ programme co-ordinated by Birmingham Town Hall / Symphony Hall (THSH).
Chapter Five finds Stein’s interviewees recalling how they first became interested in the music and how they broke into the ranks of professional jazz musicians, publicists, broadcasters etc. Many of them have had to show considerable tenacity alongside total dedication to the music – these are truly inspiring tales. They go on to offer words of encouragement and inspiration to young female musicians looking to embark upon a similar path.
The next chapter, titled “Education, Funding & Innovation takes a look at the opportunities for women to study jazz, primarily in the UK but with the US and Australia also getting mentioned.
The history of the growth of formal jazz education is discussed with mention made of Leeds College of Music, Trinity and Guildhall in London and Berklee in the US. The encouragement of student musicians by London jazz clubs such as the 606 and the Vortex is also referenced. The benefits, or otherwise, of a formal jazz education to degree level are discussed at length, always a contentious topic in the jazz world, with several of Stein’s interviewees, whether music graduates or not, offering their forthright opinions.
The funding issue goes hand in hand with this, another thorny subject in these troubled times. Stein mentions the infamous opera v jazz discrepancy and her interviewees offer their own observations on the situation, with Terri Lyne Carrington addressing matters from a US perspective. The necessity for students to be taught about the ‘business’ side of the music industry, and not just how to play, is a consistent observation, with several interviewees emphasising its importance. Interestingly just under half of music students are female, but only 20% go on to undertake professional careers.
Kim Cypher, Wendy Kirkland and the American HR director Gretchen Bennett (wife of musician Daniel Bennett) talk about the balance between their professional and family lives.
Then it’s back to the ‘business’ side of things and the difficulty, for any musician, of selling their music in an era of declining CD sales. The importance of promoting yourself on social media is also briefly discussed. I have to say that from my experience women are probably far more adept at this than men.
Finally the book looks to the future, and on the whole Stein and her interviewees seem cautiously positive and optimistic. The Oxford University Jazz Organisation has just appointed its first female president, more women are coming in to jazz as performers and also attending gigs as fans. In large cities jazz audiences are becoming younger and more mixed, with Stein citing several clubs in London , New Orleans and elsewhere. I would add that although an older demographic is still more usual in the ‘provinces’ jazz club audiences ‘in the sticks’ are from being an all male reserve. The importance of Festivals and of the live music ‘experience’ is emphasised, as well as the fusion of jazz with more modern genres such as hip-hop and electronica.
Stein’s book is wide ranging and any review can only offer a broad snapshot of its contents. I’m loath to quote any of the interviewees directly as doing so would rather ‘steal their thunder’. This is a book that will make for fascinating reading for jazz fans of any gender and of any style of the music. It’s an important book that tackles important issues.
For the record Stein’s interviewees are;
Emma Acton, Arema Arega, Gretchen Bennett, Beverley Bierne, Grace Black, Amanda Bloom, Jane Ira Bloom, Patti Boulaye OBE, Sarah Gail Brand, Jane Bunnett, Terri Lyne Carrington, Trish Clowes, Kim Cypher, Mimi Fox, Debbie Gifford, Jenny Green, Florence Halfon, Jo Harrop, Barb Jungr, Joelle Khoudry, Wendy Kirkland, Georgia Mancio, Claire Martin, Indira May, Tina May, Faye Patton, Carmelo Rappazzo, Anthea Redmond, Alicia Renee aka Blue Eyes, Emily Saunders, Gail Tasker, Ellie Thompson, Camille Thurman, Ruby Turner.
For what it’s worth I think the position of Women in Jazz in 2019 is probably as good as it’s ever been. As a reviewer I’ve never considered female instrumentalists to be in any way inferior to their male counterparts and I’ve reviewed many albums and live performances by female led bands just because of my sheer love for their music.
I’ve been writing about jazz for thirteen year now and there are so many more women in the music now, particularly instrumentalists, than there were when I started. Coming to jazz from a rock background one of the first jazz acts that I became a fan of was Barbara Thompson’s Paraphernalia. Barbara was a talented player and writer and toured widely, so I got to see her perform many times, and she and her band always delivered. I was never going to have any prejudices about female musicians after that.
Besides the women Sammy has spoken to, several of whom I have reviewed, there are so many other talented female musicians out there and the Jazzmann has covered many of them, from Ingrid Laubrock to Alison Rayner to LUME founders Cath Roberts and Dee Byrne. I have to admit to being slightly surprised that LUME and Blow The Fuse, the latter founded by Alison Rayner and Deirdre Cartwright, didn’t get a mention in the book, as both have been highly influential on the London jazz scene.
This minor quibble aside Stein’s book is highly recommended.
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