|Airelle Besson. Photo Credit:Hélène Collon|
Trumpeter/ bandleader/ conductor/composer Airelle Besson has just been awarded the Django Reinhardt Prize and is French Jazz musician of the year. Sandie Safont interviewed her(*) :
LondonJazz News : As a female trumpeter in France you are a very rare specimen indeed. Why do you think that is?
Airelle Besson: That’s a very difficult question to answer, because I am not at all clear in my mind why more young women don’t get interested in the trumpet and in other wind instruments. They do tend to be thought of as more ‘masculine’ – but that’s not the way I see these instruments, as you’d probably imagine!
LJN: Could it be that these male associations persist because of the long tradition of military bands in France?
AB: I’m sure that’s part of it.
LJN: Or could it be that the trumpet is just a difficult instrument for women to play?
AB: Up to a point. It is true that the trumpet is very demanding, it needs rigour and extreme regularity (of practice) and for the player to be in good physical shape, like an opera singer. These are quite constricting things to have to live with every day. The first years of study are hard, it takes time before you get a decent sound, that you and other people can like, and that can easily put you off.
LJN: Was the trumpet an obvious choice or did you fall into playing it? Did you feel different from your contemporaries at music school, and was that something you were able to use to single yourself out from them?
AB: I always wanted to play the trumpet (from the age of four years old); I’ve no idea why or how or where the idea first came from. I’ve always inhabited masculine environments, often in spite of myself. At music school I was always the only girl in the classical trumpet class, and the same thing happened when I started jazz at the age of eleven or twelve years, the only females were singers) but I’ve never felt different. On the contrary, I always positioned myself on the same plane as the others. I didn’t feel different; gender did not matter to me in music, and it doesn’t today either.
LJN: In June 2014, you became the first woman to be given the role of Associate Artist of the Municipal Theatre of Coutances / Jazz sous les Pommiers for a two-year residency. Will this be an opportunity to build awareness of wind instruments among girls, as part of your education work?
AB: Yes I’ll do everything for that. It is already underway in one of the classes in l’Orchestre des Ecoles, that I met recently. It was so touching to see these girls having a go at the trombone.
LJN: The Académie du Jazz has just given you the prestigious Django Reinhardt Prize, and by the same token you have just been anointed French “Musician of the Year”. Do you have the sense that you have a role to play as a “female ambassador” for French jazz?
AB: It was a massive surprise (I did not realize at first!) and a very emotional moment. The prize is very rewarding in terms of getting bookings, since this year I have the role as an element common to three festivals: the Pestacles Festival, the Paris Jazz Festival and “Classique au Vert”. It may be a source of pressure, but I am keeping my feet on the ground and staying focused. I am very grateful to the profession and I take this award as an encouragement to proceed further along this path of mine.
LJN: You had your debut as conductor last year with l’Orchestre des Gardiens de la Paix. Women conductors are far too rare . There’s Carla Bley and Maria Schneider, but none in France (?)
AB: There are quite a few women choral directors, but in orchestral conducting the progress of women is indeed much slower.
I know the music of Maria Schneider well. I studied it and transcribed it, I love this woman, what she composes and what she evokes. There is a certain gentleness in her music and in how she directs it, but that’s not all she does, she can also write strongly and poignantly.
I was fortunate enough to play with Carla Bley in Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra a few years ago. We had a very good discussion and we saw each other again in 2013 in London as part of Take Five Europe program in which were both participants.
I don’t want to be like anyone else in particular, but it’s true that Carla and Maria are people that I like a lot and admire, because of what they bring to the music. I do not think that they are women who make a big deal of being women in this business and that is precisely what I like about them. Just a few years ago, women instrumentalists in jazz were something of a new phenomenon, especially in France, and people sought me out because of that, but that wasn’t a page I ever wanted to play from. Whether it’s a male musician or a female musician, what interests me is the music itself.
The studies in orchestral conducting which I have undertaken in the past four years were more related to my need at a particular point in my life to deepen my musical knowledge and my education. I don’t have some madcap plan to become an orchestral conductor and to conduct a classical work, for that you need a whole level of expertise which I don’t have yet, even if I have taken up the challenge of conducting from memory one of Haydn’s London symphonies at the end of the first six months, then Beethoven Symphony No. 1 and then the second … this experience was something to treasure, and it also permitted me to get offers to direct large orchestras, the silent film of Lulu by Pabst with the Orchestre National de Lyon, and then my recent collaboration with the Orchestre des Gardiens de La Paix. Denis Lebas who is mentoring me would like to initiate a project in that direction and I would too, so we’ll see what happens and what the time we have will permit.
LJN: Would you like to see a festival in France on the model of Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival in Washington DC?
AB: It’s good you mention this festival which I know from having taken part in it. While I was studying at the Paris Conservatoire, Iwas part of Sisters in Jazz, an ancillary programme of the IAJE (International Association of Jazz Education) when it still existed, in 2000/01. It was done by competitive entry and I was selected. With me in the sextet there were, among others, Kimberly Thomson on drums (now with Beyoncé !) and we played in New York, Washington and in all the main festivals in Europe. I loved this time, it was a fabulous adventure! But I don’t think it’s a good idea to have a festival like this in France; as I was saying to you before, I’m not in favour of these classifications, it’s the music which should be out in front. Of course the fact of being one of the rare women to play some instrument or other does lend us a characteristic which can draw the interest of programmers. It is good to keep this kind of openness, but it should never be a criterion in its own right.
LJN: What are your thoughts about International Women’s Day?
AB: My wish would be that all women everywhere could have the same freedom that I am very lucky to have, which we enjoy in France. Obviously that is a Utopian vision, but if we could move in that direction it would be wonderful for women, because we are a long way from it. That was what I could observe for myself on a recent tour of Algeria, it was very disturbing to witness. The freedom to express oneself, to create is a fundamental right and my career would have been very different if I had lived in a country where the voice of women is not heard.
LJN: You speak English superbly, what links do you have to the UK?
AB: I have an emotional connection to Britain because I lived for some years in my youth in Oxford, Wales, Orkney and Devon. So I spent some of my school years there, and one of my young playmates was none other than Joseph Mount who leads the band Metronomy. His parents were best friends with Joanna, my former step-mother. It was only many years later that we re-established contact, when they played a concert at Zénith de Paris, and thanks to Joanna. After this reunion, Joseph asked if I would do the brass arrangements for his album Love Letters, which came out in 2014. What an amazing moment! I really hope to return to play in London soon – perhaps next year at the London Jazz Festival…
(*) The interview was conducted in French and this is Sebastian’s translation. A different version of this interview has been published in FRENCH on Citizen Jazz (France) HERE and on Jazzaround (Belgium) – HERE, and in DUTCH by the Belgian site Jazz Halo HERE.