When I was 9 I interviewed, for a school project, singer Marion Montgomery in the jazz club my uncle worked in and just fell in love with her. She was so glamourous and kind. She told me to go home and buy the Count Basie album, which I did and in that moment I decided my life was going to be all about jazz.
It wasn’t until I was a little bit older that I started to become aware that I was a girl in jazz. At first, in school orchestras, there were more girls than boys, but as I got older and progressed, the girls dropped away. I became quite affected by performance anxiety – felt that I wasn’t as confident as the boys. I went on to study jazz performance at university and it was there that I encountered some quite particular problems. I was told I was “quite good for a girl actually”. I would turn up to gigs with a great big tenor sax and be asked “so you’re the singer tonight?”. Putting performance to one side I pursued my dream of being a writer. I started writing for a blog championing women in music and went on to work for several other publications such as TimeOut and Jazzwise, where I felt welcomed as an equal to all around me, even though I’d gone into another male-dominated area – print journalism.
I got called on to write about why there weren’t more women on the scene and did some research, talking to young and established women performers about their experiences. At first they all said that there was no gender problem, but as the discussions progressed, they would begin to say things such as “well actually I did have this horrendous sexist thing happen to me…” and “you know, I don’t get as many gigs as my male colleagues”. It became very apparent that there was still a real issue, one which many women don’t like to talk about in fear of seeming like they’re complaining. Assumptions that they hadn’t written their own work … sexist remarks … struggling to fit in with the men … female singers looked down on … the list goes on.
I went to talk to young women performers at Birmingham Conservatoire, who blew my socks off with their skills and confidence in performance, but still had the same insecurities as I had when I was studying. Last night I went to see Maria Schnieder. For me personally it was incredibly inspiring and empowering to watch her on stage commanding her orchestra. Yes, she’s a revered musician – but her whole orchestra were men. Where are all the women? Do we not have enough role models? Is education the problem? Does the scene need to be more welcoming?
For part of my research I interviewed Barbara Thompson, who back in the 70s was subjected to some horrendous comments. Headlines in national newspapers such as “Nice bit of fluff” and all sorts of puns on “Sax appeal”. I remember thinking “Great, at least we don’t live in those times anymore”. So why am I stood up here in 2015 ranting about gender inequality?
Note: this article is an edited version of a Rant given as part of the 2015 Jazz Rants at Club Inégales on Wednesday 18 November, as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival.