ROSLIN RUSSELL is the co-founder and director of the recently established Cambridge Jazz Festival. A musician, mother, wife and full-time scientist alongside this, it is a remarkable achievement. Leah Williams caught up with her at Cambridge Modern Jazz to hear more details about the Festival as well as Roslin’s thoughts on the role and importance of women in jazz:
LondonJazz News: You’re co-directing the Cambridge Jazz Festival, which had its first very successful year last year. Tell us a bit about how the idea came about and what the inspiration was behind it?
Roslin Russell: When I first moved to Cambridge I was still going back and forth to London to get my jazz fix but after I became busy with work and had a family that wasn’t as viable anymore. I finally opened my eyes to the jazz scene in Cambridge and realised how much there was going on! There’s such a great scene here with so many talented musicians but the trouble was that it was all in disjointed pockets around the city without any larger community to bring everyone together. That was where the idea for the Festival initially came from; we wanted to give everyone a platform to find out about all the different jazz happenings around the city and to get involved all together.
LJN: Is it right that it was initially planned as a 5-day event that eventually turned in to a 11-day extravaganza?
RR: Yes! Everyone was so receptive to the idea and keen to get involved that we had such a wealth of great things to put on – not just gigs but workshops, talks, educational activities – that it took on a life of its own! When we got Hiatus Kaiyote on board to play an almost sell-out gig at the Junction, we knew we were on to something great and that it was worth putting in the extra effort to make it the full 11 days.
This year we’re hoping to put on even bigger events at West Road Concert Hall and The Cambridge Corn Exchange.
LJN: What were your most memorable moments from the Festival last year?
RR: There are so many but especially all the performances with Dennis Rollins! I took my kids to see him play with the Cambridge University Jazz Orchestra and it was magical.
Another event I really enjoyed was the Tara Minton Quintet at Clare College Cellars, an event co- hosted with student-run music society Clare Jazz. Tara’s harp playing, singing and storytelling was mesmerising!
LJN: Have you noticed any changes to the general Cambridge jazz scene since the Festival?
RR: Yes, definitely. The really great thing about the Festival was that it introduced a lot of new faces to the jazz scene in Cambridge and some of the smaller venues we worked with – like Hidden Rooms and La Raza – have really noticed an increase in engagement and support since, which is fantastic and exactly what we were hoping the Festival would accomplish.
Also, due to the success of the big band workshop many attendees have now joined a community big band and there’s also a newly formed local community choir being led by London Vocal Project member and local educator Andi Hopgood.
LJN: You had some really strong female musicians at the Festival last year – Nikki Iles, Karen Sharp and Sara Mitra amongst others. You’re obviously a big champion of women in jazz, which big names are you hoping to get along to the Festival this year?
RR: We are really excited to have some incredible female instrumentalists this year, among them are London-based trumpet player and composer Laura Jurd with her band Dinosaur, and Sue Miller, an incredible multi-talented musician who is flautist and director of Charanga del Norte, a specialist in improvisation, Cuban music and culture, and an educator and writer as well. We will be announcing the first line-up of artists at the end of April.
LJN: Which other female musicians do you think we should be looking out for right now?
RR: I think it’s really important to embrace the musicians who are not only working purely in jazz but are breaking down boundaries within the genre and really appealing to a younger generation. People like Laura Mvula, Esperanza Spalding and Nai Palm (the lead singer from Hiatus Kaiyote), whose influences seem to not only be rooted in jazz but also contemporary music, electronica, R & B etc. are really inspiring a younger generation to engage with jazz music.
Another young artist relatively new to the scene is vocalist and composer Lauren Kinsella. Her latest project Snowpoet with multi-instrumentalist Chris Hyson is a beautiful and distinctive mix of jazz, poetry, folk and storytelling.
LJN: There’s a lot of female talent being represented out there on the vocal scene but unfortunately still not so many instrumentalists. What do you think the challenges are facing women in jazz today?
RR: I’m really not sure. There’s probably not one clear-cut thing that will explain this disparity. What became obvious during the Festival last year though is that there are so many talented female instrumentalists out there, especially playing with the University bands. We need to really focus on encouraging and nurturing these young musicians and giving them opportunities to get involved in jazz outside of their studies. That’s why the Festival is so important.
LJN: Tell us about some of the female jazzers who have been big inspirational figures for you?
RR: Growing up, the main singers I listened to were Ella, Aretha and Nina. I love them all although they have such different styles. Nina especially was a huge inspiration to me and, over the years, as I’ve gotten to know not just her music better but also her life and struggles as a woman, musician and activist, I’ve fallen more and more in love with this wonderfully creative, strong and inspirational person.
Other inspirations include Erykah Badu, Bjork, Liz Fraser, Sia, Amy Winehouse and Dianne Reeves. They’ve all pushed boundaries and I love their harmonies, arrangements and phrasing – plus they’re all fascinating individuals as well!
LJN: You’re a busy vocalist yourself singing regularly with outfits Rcubed and your own quartet – what have you got going on at the moment?
RR: I’m working on an album with the very talented multi-instrumentalist David Burgoyne at the moment. We’ve been working on original arrangements and songs together; David’s a genius when it comes to creating and combining beautiful harmonic chords and grooves and he’s also a lovely guy!
LJN: Finally, what advice would you have for aspiring female jazz musicians out there?
RR: There’s so much I would like to say! The journey will be long but always believe in yourself and in what you do and learn from your mistakes. It doesn’t matter what gender, age or ability you are but you have to keep challenging yourself, work hard and be open to new possibilities and endeavours. Meet as many new jazz musicians as you can and learn from them. Never stop practicing and experimenting and listen to as much music as possible.