Freda Knowles spoke with Catherine about life back-of-house on the Jazz scene and founding saltjam. – a collective that offers creative support and consultancy to artists.
LondonJazz News: Tell us what you do and how you survive in a male-dominated environment.
Freda Knowles: I work in a number of different capacities in the jazz world, mostly as a problem solver: I Tour Manage, Show Manage, produce festivals and have just founded saltjam. – a collective that offers creative support and consultancy to artists. I really enjoy my job so I just get on with it! Working in a male-dominated environment has never fazed me, but the way in which it reflects a broader social context is something that certainly concerns me. I have, and still do occasionally encounter a degree of condescension. Once, at a festival when I was 17, I carried heavy backline onto the stage along with the male crew. Afterwards, the male Tour Manager patted me on the head and said ‘good girl’…it was one of those moments that makes you wonder if it really happened!
More generally, the industry is still quite hierarchical in an antiquated way: a pyramid headed by a white middle-aged man with a lot of office-based young white middle-class women working beneath them – and very few in technical and tour manager positions, which are traditionally more hands-on. I feel that this lack of diversity really points to a social issue: not only of traditional employment expectations, but also who can afford to work in the industry and who can access it. I’d hope that this will change, and it’s something that we want to recognise and address with our work at saltjam.
LJN: Why did you choose to work in Jazz?
FK: I grew up with jazz and first heard Bill Evans the day I was born. My Dad, Nod Knowles, ran jazz festivals and from when I was a baby I was in my cot at the side of a stage. Dad is passionate about jazz and specialised in bringing European jazz to the UK and collaborating with EU festivals: he worked hard for little money but loved what he did. This was my first exposure to the music world: it taught me that it is more than a job – it’s a family. His respect for musicians and music was also hugely influential – it’s at the heart of why I do what I do now.
I’ve always been drawn to jazz because of its social and political message. It is fundamentally radical music: about community and protest. This is something that we were very conscious of when founding saltjam. – we want to use our collective experience to recognise and support a community, creating new opportunities, and new models of creative success.
LJN: Who are some of the musicians you work with?
FK: I have a long-established relationship with Robert Glasper and work as his Tour Manager in EU whenever he is over here. I also work with Derrick Hodge, Mulatu Astatke and more recently Anoushka Shankar, who is a powerful, dynamic and unconventional person. I have really enjoyed getting to know her and her music. She’s a killer musician and surrounds herself with great musicians who are great people as well. This is my close family.
LJN:What are the differences between rock/pop and jazz gigs?
FK: Money and infrastructure are the biggest differences! Crew sizes are hugely different in the mainstream rock/pop world and there is more money invested in infrastructure. I admit I occasionally feel envious of their chic bus in place of our usual tumble-down splitter!! However, I think every artist is different, each with their own idiosyncrasies and interpretation of what music means and priorities in terms of sound and environment.
LJN:What is your connection with London Jazz Festival and Love Supreme?
FK:I produced the London Jazz Festival when I worked for Serious 2009-2012, and it’s a festival that’s close to my heart. As for Love Supreme, I have been with them since the beginning (2013) and manage all aspects of artist advance; the creative delivery. Its a wonderful festival; I’m very proud to be able to be involved.
LJN: Do you have any favourite moments you can share?
FK: I have so many – so lucky! I work with artists I love, and so seeing the same gig every night for six weeks does not get old. There are always euphoric moments hearing music and doing this job. Anoushka played at the Boom Festival in Portugal in 2014 which was a wonderful, trance-like experience with festival goers dancing and chanting to her set. I watched from the FOH desk – a roped-off bamboo structure in the middle of the crowd – and had to join in the dancing. The atmosphere was so alive, just amazing!
As for my favourite human moments, I spent six hours playing charades, crying with laughter, with Anoushka and her band. With Robert Glasper in an Italian city famous for cycling, we hired bikes and rode around trying to read maps in Italian and find somewhere to eat. Weird and beautiful experiences!
LJN: What is your ideal project?
FK:I am actually working on something I am really excited about: a creative consultancy role in collaboration with my saltjam. co-founder Steph Thom. We’re working with drummer and percussionist Jaimeo Brown on the release of his next album. I listened to his music a couple of years ago and immediately loved it. When we met in person we discovered that we share ideas on music and politics (Jaimeo is committed to music as a social force and does amazing work with inner city kids in New Jersey), and so we are exploring alternative avenues of how and where music can be heard, and aim to create new models in the music industry connected to activism/social justice.
LJN: Do you have any survival tips for those interested in working in the music industry?
FK: * You have to genuinely love it, especially the Tour Manager role with hard and long hours.
* The absence of sleep is soul destroying; you have to learn to sleep in shifts – and to nap whenever you can! I had a three minute nap once…that still counts!
* Approach everything with positivity and keep remembering why you do it and why you chose to do it. As a freelancer, you also need faith as the situation is precarious and that can be stressful – I can live off very little if I need to!
* Ginger fixes everything! It alleviates nausea, stomach ache, coughs/colds, and keeps you well and healthy. People laugh at first then they get it and come and ask me for some – it is in my essentials ‘tools-of-the-trade’ box. I carry around a printer, cables, gaffer tape and root ginger!
LJN: What’s next?
FK: saltjam. is my main focus at the moment – borne largely out of a sense that it was important to respond to some of the the problems that people had come to us with, particularly the lack of managerial and creative support in the music industry. I founded the company with two great friends and wonderful colleagues: Jonathan Potard (another freelancer who was formerly Production Manager at Serious), and Stephanie Thom (who is also Lalah Hathaway‘s Creative Manager).
The guiding principle of saltjam. is community (it’s something of a theme for us!). We want to be a kind of home for those who haven’t found a welcome in the traditional industry structures. We have seen great projects and people get lost in a system that doesn’t always have the space or time for them, and really want to provide an alternative to that. It’s a challenging time, but an exciting one too!