#Womensday – LondonJazz Interview: Amy Pearce – Associate Director of Serious

Fran Hardcastle writes:

Amy Pearce is an Associate Director of Serious, managing the planning and production of all their events including the London Jazz Festival and last summers’ BT River of Music. She worked her way up, having been with the company since 2000, starting as a volunteer at the London Jazz Festival. She has been a jazz fan since her tenth birthday, when ‘my Dad gave me Andy Sheppard’s Andy Sheppard, Sonny Rollins’ Dancing in the Dark and Abdullah’s The Mountain, from that moment, I was hooked!’

We started (over a bottle of wine) by discussing the problem of talking about issues of feminism. At the recent Women of the World Festival at the Southbank, Pearce noted that even within a discussion group of 20 prominent women in music, “watching the reactions of the panel to discussions of feminism was interesting.”

“Some people were proud to call themselves a feminist, some people you could see thought, ‘I’m not sure if I am’”. She links feminism to the word ‘jazz’. “Some people are happy to be called a jazz artist and are proud of the music they create – they want to change peoples’ perceptions…. but there are so many misconceptions about what jazz is, just as there are so many misconceptions about feminism is.” She raises the point that if you ask people if women should have equal opportunities to men, there are very few people who would disagree with that. “But if you say, do you believe in feminism, they think ‘oh no, not that’. Where does the line lie?”

“Another issue is that it’s only women talking about it. It has to be men as well. It’s not our problem, it’s society’s problem. I feel a lot of men sometimes feel uncomfortable taking about gender or sexism. They think, can I talk about this, because I’m a man? Hell you can! You can play a really big part in changing how things are.”

What does she think of the current state of play for women in jazz?

“If you look back, so much of this music’s history is very male dominated, the story is male dominated. When you work in jazz there is a huge responsibility to understand the importance of the history of the music. You need to respect that. However, despite the fact that there have been all female bands in this history, it is still quite a male canon. I feel a responsibility to promote where the music is now and I also to try to project into the future about where the music could be. If there are more female musicians coming through, how could that ever be a bad thing? There is no downside to it.”

She wants to get the balance right, so that in 10-20 years time “we’re not looking at a band like ACS and getting all excited because they’re all women, because at the moment, you’re looking at them on stage and wondering why something feels different. It’s because you’re looking at three women on stage which is so unusual for jazz fans.”

So steps need to be taken to move forward. What does she think needs to be done?

“If we were going to fast forward to a world where there is a 50/50 split and what we’d need to do to achieve that, I think role models are a big part of that. Some women will feel comfortable talking about their gender and some won’t. You can’t insist that every leading female festival director or musician should talk about it. But those who do, who are happy to speak publicly about it, we need to then give them that platform. You look at what Terri Lyne Carrington is saying and you look at the work that Esperanza [Spalding] is doing with younger musicians and it feels like there is a real opportunity at the moment to actually begin to make some difference.”

And what about behind the music?

“If you look at how jazz organizations are made up, you often get quite a lot of women working behind the scenes in music but few reaching the upper levels. I think how we nurture that young female talent and get them to keep going is important. I don’t have kids, but some people do. This business is hard when you’re trying to balance it with a family. The hours are long and there is a lot of evening work and weekend work. It’s not a regular 9-5 thing. So I think getting to a place where you can work flexibly and that becomes acceptable is important. To get rid of this whole idea that it’s a badge of honour or a competition to work extremely long hours, would benefit everyone. If we did address issues around gender, there are all sorts of other areas that would benefit. It’s not just sexism that is still a problem, racism and disability discrimination still exists. If we could work with all groups collectively for a more balanced world, we could all benefit.”

Does she think that women need to push themselves more? Network more? Is it just a lack of awareness that there are talented women out there, that is the issue?

“If you want to book female instrumentalists, there are lots of female instrumentalists. We started last year’s Jazz Festival in looking to find prominent slots for people like Zoe Rahman, Michele Drees and Laura Jurd, to show the world that these people are there and they’re doing brilliant work. Booking women does not equal not good music. We were incredibly proud of our commissions for the Jazz Festival. There was no compromise on quality.

“It was also an opportunity to let people who have been in the business along time know what talent is around them. People do work within networks and if there aren’t enough female instrumentalists at the start, you don’t always follow those progressions.”

Are there enough women coming through the ranks?

“The discrepancy between vocalists and instrumentalists is interesting. Female vocalists aren’t a rare breed, there are lots. But there are fewer female instrumentalists who are at the stage where we are most directly with them. There are definitely fewer female musicians than men coming out of the music colleges to choose from. So I’m quite interested in what happens before then. At Dune, Gary Crosby and Janine Irons have started saying that Tomorrow’s Warriors will be 50/50. There are some amazing young female musicians coming through that, whom are just extraordinary.”

Have you noticed any changes in the gender balance over the years?

“When I started out, learning to play sax in Devon, I did a lot of workshops with Kathy Stobart. She was my hero for a long time, she was the most well known jazz musician that I worked with and she was a woman. For me that didn’t seem weird because it had always been the case. But the longer I’ve been around you begin to realise how male-dominated the world actually is. Then you begin to think, how do we create more opportunities for women?”

Women have been creating opportunities for themselves for a while and still are. “Yazz Ahmed has a new all-female band and Blow the Fuse have been promoting female musicians for 25 years. It’s not going to happen overnight. I don’t think suddenly things are going to change, but there is so much more we can do to support people.”

She says “you have to give artists the support and exposure that they need to do what they want and to make sure they don’t get marginalized for doing something different. It’s interesting how many more women often seem to be creating through the free improv side of the music than the post bop side. The artist needs to be given space to be who they want to be.”

“I don’t want to dictate to people that they only book female musicians. I’m not going to tell Laura Jurd to only work with women. Terry Lyne Carrington, Esperanza, they sometimes work with men or women. Nobody wants positive discrimination, they just want a fair playing field.”

Pearce thinks that imbalance isn’t a UK problem or even a jazz problem, it happens in the classical world, in the arts in general. “It’s a world issue. Finding positive ways to facilitate women is the way to change history. “

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