Lisa Gee Writes

Since LondonJazz came to being in January 2009, it has included contributions by no fewer than sixteen female writers, approaching half of the total. By contrast a handful of excellent female journalists make up a tiny percentage of contributors to the main UK jazz publications.

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Why this imbalance? Taking a dip into the blogosphere, there certainly appears to be a strong pool of aspiring female music journalists. What steps can we take to even the playing field?

Lisa Gee, who wrote an article for the Guardian in 1997 profiling female instrumentalists, updates her thoughts for us.

Writing about two gigs featuring, between them, ten male musicians and one female vocalist, the classically-voiced Trudy Kerr singing with the Geoff Gascoyne band, is, for obvious reasons, a strange choice for the International Women’s Day issue of Londonjazz. Unless, of course, I was planning to bleat about the lack of women in the bands.

Which I wasn’t, because

• the music was fab – and I enjoyed every minute of both gigs
• it was a last minute decision to do it
• from a cursory read of Jazz in London, the only female instrumentalist playing in any jazz gig in London that night was Karen Sharp on sax with Jacqui Dankworth at Pinner Parish Church.

My original plan had been to revisit a Guardian article I wrote, in the mid-90s ,about women in jazz and ask the same musicians what’s changed over the past 15 years. But I couldn’t find the piece.

So, instead, I scanned the audience at while listening to the Hans Koller Sextet and spotted crime-writer John Harvey – who wrote the sleeve notes for Hans Koller’s last album. A frequent King’s Place attendee, he noted that there were more women and more young people in the audience than usual.

As he and I were haring off in the midst of the second set (I had another gig to catch, he had a bus and an early morning) I tried to articulate my feelings about why so few women ever write about jazz – one notable exception being the great Valerie Wilmer. Neither of us could, in the short time available, come up with a good reason.

So, while driving from King’s Place to the 606 – where the audience was split pretty much 50-50 and the men talked more and louder – I reflected on the matter.

I started writing about jazz because listening to it was so different to reading about it. Whilst it can deepen listening pleasure to know the history of the form and be able to spot musical allusions, it’s by no means essential. Yet most of the articles I read back in the nineties seemed to focus on the musical genealogies of both jazzers and their tunes. Expert writing for expert audiences. Which is all very well, but it was never going to attract new listeners. And – make of this what you will – virtually all of it was by men. I wanted to write in a way that was accessible to people who knew nothing of the form but who, I felt, would simply enjoy listening to brilliant music.

I asked music journalist and academic Lucy O’Brien for her take. She reckons that “women don’t follow the music in as much detail as male jazz fans.” And, more than that, it’s regarded as “an aficionado subject. There’s lots of store set by knowledge and, to a certain extent, showing off that knowledge.” And, she points out, it’s still the case that “a lot of the top jazz performers are male”.

It hasn’t, in other words, been the done thing to write from the perspective of someone who loves jazz, but hasn’t studied it. It’s always been a tad, well, male and anoraky.

But – as Fran Hardcastle points out, jazz is changing. LondonJazz has 16 female contributors. 62% of the Londonjazz meetup group are women. And some of us are still celebrating Esperanza Spalding’s Grammy victory over Justin Bieber …

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2 replies »

  1. I totally agree that there is a tendency for jazz writing to assume a lot of knowledge about both the history and the theory of music, so that we get adjectives like 'Coltranesque' and frequent references to bands that a particular musician has worked with in the past. I also find the comments here about the audience very interesting. The tour with The Hans Koller Sextet went to three venues, the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, the CBSO Centre in Birmingham and Kings Place. In each of the three venues there was a younger audience than average in jazz and also a more equal gender balance. This may be because Hans Koller's music is less obviously 'masculine' and also possibly because the three venues are small and intimate concert halls rather than a club.

    The music on the tour was excellent with some arrangements of the material on Hans' recent album with Bill Frisell and some material written or arranged especially for these three dates. The band consisted of two friends and colleagues from New York, drummer Jeff Williams and alto saxophonist John O'Gallagher, two from Paris tenor saxophonist Francois Theberge and guitarist Michael Felberbaum and two from UK, Hans (although he is German, he is based here) and Percy Pursglove on bass, trumpet and flugelhorn. This coming together of three pairs of friends and colleagues created a special and very cohesive atmosphere on the tour which was, I believe, reflected in the music.

  2. The Hans Koller gig in Birmingham was notable for some imaginative, very thoughtful compositions and arrangements as well as fine playing, I thought John O'Gallagher was outstanding. Tony D-E is right, there was a good vibe about the group. However there are times when a little friction can lead to a more 'sparky' performance.
    I saw Steve Lehmann in Birmingham after having previously seen him at the North Sea Festival where the previous band had kept them waiting for over 20 minutes. They seemed understandably irritated but the performance was, I thought, more exciting than the B'ham gig.

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