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.
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 …