“Don’t be placatory – it’s such a waste of your time and effort. When you’ve got something to say, then say it,” says author, journalist and critic JANE CORNWELL. In this interview for International Women’s Day 2018, she talks about music, life and why this is the time for women to be making themselves heard. Profile by Leah Williams:
The day we’re due to meet up, Jane has succumbed to the flu that’s dropping Londoners like flies. We’re also undergoing the fifth whiteout day and to be honest even I, minus the flu, don’t feel like venturing out. So we arrange the modern-day equivalent and get on Skype where I expect a snivelling, bleary-eyed appearance but Jane is still bright, animated and full of laughter, which is pretty much everything I’d expected from her memoir The Whirl: Men, Music and Misadventures (HarperCollins).
It’s a rather racy read, but I’m more drawn to the other, larger themes: a woman who’s open and full of wonder, a bit restless perhaps, looking to follow adventure and experience rather than simply do what’s expected. It’s a book about relationships, sure, but it’s also about independence, fortitude, subcultures and, most strikingly, music.
“I wanted to write a book that was honest and that talked about life, female friendship and women who love music,” Jane says. “You’ve got your Nick Hornbys flying the flag for men on that front and there’s this general perception of men being the enthusiasts, the collectors. But music has been such a driving force in my life – as I’m sure it has for many women – so I wanted that to be a focus.”
Music came to Jane early in life. Growing up in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia, some of her earliest formative music memories included such things as ice skating at the local rink where AC/DC just happened to be playing a gig down the other end, watching Countdown (Australia’s equivalent of TOTP), and spending her pocket money at the local record store discovering first loves like Patti Smith and Phoebe Snow.
It was here that she randomly picked up a Keith Jarrett album and found her first foothold in jazz. “I had absolutely no idea what it was going to be and just remember being entranced by this incredible stream-of-consciousness playing and disembodied voice grunting,” she enthuses, promptly doing a pretty apt impersonation.
But it was later at university upon discovering spiritual jazz through big names like Coltrane (both John and then Alice), Pharaoh Sanders and Sun Ra that Jane found the jazz that really drew her in. Self-confessed as a “bit of a hippy”, it was this transcendental, ultimate expression of freedom that really captured her ears and heart.
As a successful music, travel, arts and culture writer, Jane has travelled extensively and experienced first hand some seriously spiritual music moments of her own. “I went to Essaouira to cover the Gnaoua World Music Festival in 2003, and have been every year since,” she recalls, a real passion imbuing her voice. “It’s freedom and healing and anything goes and it just gets under your skin and stays there.” Also known as the ‘largest jam session on the planet’, the pentatonic scale the Gnaoua maalems (masters) play makes it perfect for integrating other musicians and styles, and many jazz greats have been there to join forces with these spiritual leaders over the years.
When Jane’s not travelling the world, seeing Roberto Fonseca in Cuba or interviewing Fatoumata Diawara in Italy, she’s soaking up the London scene where she has lived ever since her very first international adventure brought her here in the late ’80s. So what does she think about the current burgeoning jazz scene in the capital?
“It’s really great to hear people talking about a ‘jazz resurgence’ and I like how many boundaries are really starting to come down. Although, I recently covered Ruby Rushton at Ronnie Scott’s and, while they totally blew the roof off, I still thought to myself that it was pretty reminiscent of spiritual jazz, just given a 21st Century slant. It all comes round in spirals. Perhaps that’s the beauty of it.”
Jazz has undoubtedly been a bit of a boys’ club over the years and in line with the current wider political climate, with women speaking out and coming together to fight disparity and injustice, more and more noise is being made about this imbalance. As one of the very few female writers working in this historically patriarchal industry, Jane has experienced it first hand.
“I only started writing about jazz later in my career and I think that was because, more than in any other genre, I felt like a lot of doors were closed,” she sighs. “There was this air of needing to be a complete jazz nerd, and to have a certain anatomy, to be accepted in the community.” Jane is currently one of the few female contributors for Jazzwise magazine and also covers the genre for the London Evening Standard. “It’s great to finally start seeing so many talented young female musicians rising and people like Tina Edwards [journalist and broadcaster of Jazz Standard radio website] forging a path.”
Of these many up-and-coming stars, Jane has interviewed a fair few herself – saxophonist Camilla George, singer Zara McFarlane and Tarriana Ball from New Orleans outfit Tank & the Bangas to name just a few – and is getting swept away by many others. “When I listened to Yazz Ahmed’s album recently I just thought it was so gorgeous with all those Tunisian motifs. I had to email her straight away and tell her! I think it’s awesome to see so many female band leaders in jazz now.”
With women taking the spotlight and stepping into the conversation, this could be another way for jazz to do what it does best and give voice to the political happenings of the time. “People feel so let down by politicians, it’s all a fucking mess right now,” declares Jane, matter-of-factly. “But music has really got the capacity to elicit change and jazz especially, with its political aesthetic, has always been somewhere that messages can be expressed and heard.”
Someone like sitar player Anoushka Shankar, who spoke out publicly about abuse in support of the One Billion Rising movement and who Jane recently interviewed, has shown just how important it is for women to use their platform. “Music can really step up in these times and I’m looking forward to seeing this young generation of female jazz musicians push the gender side of things further. It’s still all a bit new at the moment and there’s this slight feeling of reticence, like they don’t want to say the wrong thing. But they deserve to be up there and to use their music and voices to be heard.”
It’s advice Jane would give to all women, no matter what passion or path they’re following. “Don’t be placatory – it’s such a waste of your time and effort. When you’ve got something to say, then say it.”
This is a subject we could carry on chatting about for days but for now I need to let Jane go and continue recovering. She’s off to Australia in a couple of days to compere at the WOMADELAIDE festival where billing includes Kamasi Washington and Thundercat, further evidence of the loosening of musical boundaries and wider inclusion of ‘jazz’. Let the adventures continue…
LINK: Jane Cornwell’s website
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