Drawing by Jo Sandelson. All Rights Reserved
Alison Bentley has been a jazz singer for over 25 years. She has taught jazz and singing in many places, including Oxford Brookes University. After postgraduate jazz studies at the Guildhall School of Music, she released her first CD featuring her own compositions and has toured nationally and internationally, including festivals in Lebanon, Syria and Hong Kong. Other recordings followed an Arts Council-funded tour of her 7-piece band, as well as live performances on Radio 3 and 4. She also sings jazz and soul in a busy function band. She has been writing for London Jazz News for 6 years, interviewing artists and reviewing live performances and CDs. For this year’s International Women’s Day Sebastian Maniura spoke to her about jazz, criticism and much more:
LondonJazz News: When did you start writing jazz criticism and what inspired you to start?
Alison Bentley: It was a happy accident. A friend was down to write about the Oxford Jazz Festival and had to drop out at the last minute. It wasn’t something I’d ever thought of doing, but I found I enjoyed it – the result of a misspent adulthood, playing and listening to masses of music.
LJN: Are there any interviews or performances you have reviewed that stand out to you as memorable highlights?
AB: It’s been a real privilege to write about all this music. There have been opportunities to interview some of my heroes: Courtney Pine, Dianne Reeves and the late Kevin Mahogany. It was fascinating researching into instruments I wasn’t so familiar with, such as Bassekou Kouyate’s ngoni; Dhafer Youssef’s oudh; Sinikka Langeland’s kantele. Some bands have been a fantastic surprise: I never thought I’d be listening to techno, but loved avantgarde techno jazz trio Moon Hooch.
LJN: What advice would you give to people who are looking to start writing about jazz?
AB: Take opportunities and just write! I like to be open to all sorts of music, and styles of jazz. I try not to have preconceived ideas about what jazz should be like. I take lots of notes at gigs and while listening to CDs, trying to describe what the music makes me think of and feel. It’s also great burrowing into jazz history, to see where it’s all come from, to put it in context. I try to analyse the music and enthuse about it, so people can decide whether to listen or not. But that’s just my way of doing it.
LJN: How does your own musical training and career inform your writing?
AB: I studied English before studying jazz, so I’ve always been interested in writing. As a musician, I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of negative (as well as positive!) reviews. It’s a huge amount of work to create, record and perform music, but it’s so easy to knock it down in a review. If I don’t like something, I try to understand it. If I still don’t like it, I generally choose not to write about it.
LJN: You are a working musician as well as a journalist, and Sebastian Scotney encourages you to not hold back when being technical about the music. As your writing has evolved do you feel it has become more muso-friendly or more general reader-friendly?
AB: Sebastian has always been very encouraging. There are only so many times you can write about how the Phrygian mode over a polychord brings a tear to the eye! I love a good scale, but can see people glazing over when I talk about them. So I’ve tried to find other ways to describe the music too. I try to steal phrases from whatever I happen to be reading to help me describe the music. For example, floaty chords could be ‘counting clouds’ (John Ruskin) or ‘gauzy’ (fashion article).
LJN: What were the challenges you faced when you started writing jazz criticism?
AB: I still mostly don’t feel I have much to say! I find that actually writing gets the ideas going. There’s never enough time to write about all the things you’d like to write about, though.
LJN: What are the challenges faced by women who write jazz criticism and how can individuals and the industry in general address these issues? Is this part of a larger issue within the jazz community itself?
AB: I went to a comprehensive school in Glasgow where girls were encouraged to speak their minds! But it never occurred to me to write about music. Perhaps there are some kinds of jazz which are seen by some men as male preserves, and they don’t think that women should be writing about it – I don’t know. I think things are changing all the time. As more women play and listen to jazz, I imagine more women will write about it.
LJN: In recent years it has become fairly common knowledge that the internet can be a place where unpleasant and misogynistic views and behaviour can fester. LondonJazz News is an online publication which allows readers to comment on articles instantly, this can be both a blessing and a curse. What is it like writing jazz criticism on such an open platform?
AB: I’ve read that in the world of online gaming, for example, women have to pretend to be men to avoid aggression and be taken seriously, like Victorian novelists. I haven’t experienced anything like that – occasionally, my writing has annoyed readers by being too positive, or they’ve disagreed with me on a point, which is fine.
LJN: What’s next for you both in terms of writing but also musically?
AB: I’m looking forward to writing about this summer’s Suedtirol-Alto Adige Jazz Festival, which is focusing on cutting edge Spanish and Portuguese jazz. I’m happy just to keep gigging, and happy if people want to read what I write.
LINK: Alison’s Singing Lessons Oxford website