Feature/Interview

#IWD2020: Chelsea Carmichael, saxophonist

Manchester-born saxophonist and composer Chelsea Carmichael made the move to London to study at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. Carmichael has since been an active part of London’s thriving jazz community; she is a member of Mercury-nominated SEED Ensemble, regularly tours with Theon Cross, Joe Armon-Jones and Neue Grafik Ensemble, and has recently been working on a new solo project. Gareth Thomas interviewed her to hear about these various endeavours and to get her take on being a woman in the industry.

Chelsea Carmichael

Chelsea performing at John Coltrane’s Giant Steps 60th Anniversary. Photo Siobhann Bradshaw.

LondonJazz News: You’ve been debuting your new solo project. Can you tell us a bit about that? 

Chelsea Carmichael: The core group of it is a quartet: a saxophone, bass, keys and drums. It’s kind of contemporary jazz, with some groove stuff in there. It’s a work in progress as we gig really so it’s just kind of getting better and better as we go on. Fingers crossed, I’m hoping to be able to go into the studio to record a couple of things towards the end of this year or the start of next year. 

LJN: SEED Ensemble were nominated for a Mercury Prize last year. How important was this for you as a musician? 

CC: So important! I think the importance of what we achieved only really sunk in on the night when we were in the room with people like Little Simz and Dave, who have been international stars for a while, so that was quite crazy. But yeah, it’s really important for us all as musicians and I’m super happy for Cassie because it’s just a recognition of all the hard work that she’s done. 

LJN: Some people have criticised the Mercury Prize for having a “token jazz nomination”. What’s your take on this? 

CC: This music (jazz and improvised) has always been part of the fabric of British music, and to get recognition on a ‘mainstream’ televised show is only a positive thing for the community. So in that sense, that sort of criticism doesn’t really make sense to me. Yes, there might only be one space in the awards for this music but at least there is a space for it. 

SEED has been criticised by a few people as being a kind of diversity project – I’ve seen the comments. There’s something about brown women being successful that seems to ignite anger in some people. We’ll just keep doing our thing.

LJN: Do you think the media has put too much emphasis on this idea of ‘new wave jazz’? 

CC: It’s definitely a phrase which is getting the community talking, but I think most of us are quite wary of it. Just because sometimes it does feel like a media phrase that’s really focused on London and excludes a lot of really incredible music that’s happening elsewhere. Also I think the phrase doesn’t pay homage to the people that us younger people look up to – people who have been here doing their thing which has allowed us to do what we do – people like Courtney Pine, Denys Baptiste, Jason Yarde, and my teacher from college, Jean Toussaint. There are so many other incredible men and women that I haven’t mentioned but those people really are an inspiration to our generation. 

LJN: You’ve led the NYJO Jazz Messengers. Can you tell us about that? 

CC: It was a sextet I was asked to direct that would go into schools. The aim was to inspire kids who haven’t had a chance to learn an instrument to maybe pick one up. And for the ones who already have, to keep going with it, to show them what possibilities there are within music. 

It was a really humbling experience for me actually. You sometimes get these kids who are so taken by it, and as a musician I think we take for granted the profound impact that playing your instrument in front of young people can have. We had this one little girl: she was walking home, but then she decided to come back as we were packing up and tell us how much she enjoyed it. She then sang a song for us, which was really touching. It seemed like she was a girl who might have been struggling a little bit in some way from what she was saying to us, but music was the thing that really brought her happiness. It was really sweet. The early mornings and long days were worth it just for that.  

LJN: Do you think the current arts curriculum in schools is lacking? 

CC: Generally, across the board I kind of feel like music isn’t something that’s particularly encouraged by schools. It’s more the STEM subjects, which are great but there are so many kids who have got so much potential in music and the arts who are being channelled into a different route.

I think generally as a society we don’t place enough importance on pursuing the things we love. In a time where mental health issues are on the rise, and in a time where stresses are being introduced into our lives earlier and earlier, I think there needs to be a shift in what is seen as a ‘valid’ way to live your life and earn a living. Too many people spend the majority of their lives hating their day to day, and I really think that is hurting people. 

LJN: Do you think there are enough women role models in jazz?

CC: The short answer is no, I don’t think there are. It’s a funny one because in this ‘London jazz scene’ – if you want to call it that – I work with loads of incredible women like Cassie Kinoshi and Nubya Garcia, Sheila Maurice-Grey, Shirley Tetteh and Rosie Turton to name a few. I work with them on a regular basis, so sometimes I feel a little bit spoilt in the sense that the family that we have here is a really diverse family and gender has never really been something that we have had to think about. 

That is thanks to organisations like Tomorrow’s Warriors. Women have always been championed by projects like that. I didn’t even go there, but they still have my back. They saw me come to London and took interest in me even though I’ve never been part of their regular Saturday sessions. It’s just an organisation that cares.

LJN: Quite a few musicians have expressed their frustrations with being labelled as ‘female musicians’. Do you share that frustration? 

CC: I do. My anatomy doesn’t make a difference to how I play. When we talk of male musicians we dont place special emphasis on their gender. Being spoken about like a novelty is patronising.

LJN: What’s the best way of supporting women in jazz while avoiding treating them as a novelty?  

CC: Just supporting them through buying their music, going to their gigs, taking an interest in what they’re doing for their excellence and nothing else. I think that’s it.

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