Book review

Sammy Stein with Debbie Burke – ‘Gender Disparity in UK Jazz- A Discussion’

Sammy Stein with Debbie Burke – Gender Disparity in UK Jazz- A Discussion
(Amazon KDP, 212pp, 2020. Book review by Ros Rigby)

The issue of gender balance in jazz has been a regular topic at jazz festivals, academic conferences and seminars in recent years, with a great deal of discussion as to why things are not moving more quickly towards an equal balance between male and female jazz musicians on stage, in recordings and the media. Particular attention has been given to what is or isn’t happening in schools and conservatoires, and why even when girls take up jazz they do not pursue it into the profession. For those of us, myself included, who have been part of these discussions, there is a general feeling that the time for ‘wondering why’ needs to be behind us, we need this issue to be properly addressed and in a decade’s time, to be something we no longer have to continue to discuss!

For the general public, however, this may be something new, and this book by Sammy Stein provides a useful overview of the history of jazz and women’s place within it, and also a host of observations and research data around the issue of gender balance in UK jazz. These are drawn from many interviews with musicians, festival directors, venue programmers and conservatoire musician/teachers, plus analysis on gender balance at some jazz festivals. Interesting data and material collected by others such as Vick Bain (see also the F-list launched today), Andrea Vicari and Gail Brand, are presented, with links to further studies.

As with any document where people or organisations are named, there are always those missed out, and there are some omissions here. Despite the title referring to the UK, attention is mainly given to England and in some sections predominantly London based venues and initiatives. It is acknowledged that talent development projects have been important in supporting young female artists, but alongside the groundbreaking work of Tomorrow’s Warriors, one might have also expected reference to the Take Five and similar programmes run by Serious, and the work of both national and regional youth jazz ensembles, many of which are making concerted efforts to address this issue.

The author refers to the current UK jazz scene as enjoying a youth-led current revival which “re-invigorated the fading scene” compared to a decade ago when “UK Jazz had lost its lustre and become enveloped in apathy.” It is worth noting that the programmes at major festivals around 2010 featured not only established artists like Carla Bley, Hugh Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim and Stan Tracey but also early appearances by younger musicians – Shabaka Hutchings, Jasper Hoiby, Arun Ghosh, Nikki Yeoh, Alice Zawadzki – all at that time receiving support from talent development projects which helped their careers to progress to where they stand today.

The Keychange initiative, developed by the PRS Foundation, hence the large number of UK festivals and venues involved, is given due attention given its goal of achieving gender balance across the European music industry as a whole, and its requirement that Festivals commit to a 50/50 gender balance in programmes by 2022. Those UK jazz festivals who signed up have found this association useful in providing a public indication of their commitment to gender balance, even though what seems like a challenging target can be almost too easily achieved because it only stipulates that an ensemble contains at least one female artist to ‘count’.

Interestingly, the academic Sarah Raine is about to publish an AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council) funded report called ‘Keychanges at Cheltenham Jazz Festival’ which analyses in depth the impact of signing up to Keychange, not only for Cheltenham, but also for Hull, Manchester and Glasgow Jazz Festivals. The report, which also includes the results of interviews with female musicians about their own experiences, will be available soon. LINK HERE

The final position of Sammy Stein’s book is that there is progress but still much work to be done, and few would disagree with that. As the book is sub-titled ‘A Discussion’ here are some points in response.

Brief mention is made in the book of the Europe Jazz Network’s 2018 Manifesto on Gender Balance in Jazz and Creative Music, and some other overseas initiatives, but there is a great deal more we can learn from our colleagues across Europe. The Scandinavian countries have been looking at this issue for many years, with Sweden leading the charge, a country where gender equality is enforced by law. Svensk Jazz launched their Europe Jazz Balance website back in 2016 – with advice and case studies on how develop a ‘norm-critical approach’ to work in jazz. Manifesto LINK HERE

Jazz Danmark have provided inspiring examples including their pioneering Jazz Camps for Girls (followed by Jazz North in the UK) whereby over 20 jazz camps just for girls are run each summer in towns across the country. For the first time, they have also introduced blind selection for the Danish Jazz Awards, increasing the representation of women amongst the winners. They are currently raising funds for a major research project to find answers to some of the many questions also raised in this book. LINK HERE 

In France, the organisation supporting the work of big bands and large ensembles, Grands Formats, have undertaken research into the gender balance in larger scale groups, and will work with the bands involved to address the major imbalances revealed – certainly an issue for us here as well.

Other studies have been done recently in Norway and Germany, and the Europe Jazz Network is continuing to survey its members to track how far they are honouring the commitment they made to the Manifesto published in 2018. One of their current series of public webinars also addresses the question of why there are very few women in jazz journalism – LINK

Finally, we need to look outside the jazz world to work with and learn from the wider music industry. In the recently published UK Music Report on Diversity gender and race are the key protected characteristics to be addressed. Clear public commitment to change from those in accountable positions is at the core of their approach. At the on-line Open Space event run by the Jazz Promotion Network in June 2020, Paulette Long, Deputy Director of the UK Music Diversity Task Force said: “It’s not about schemes, it’s about a desire from the top to bring about change.” And this is the key. We need public commitment to gender balance from principals of conservatoires, festival and venue directors, national jazz organisations and ensembles, and an agreement that this commitment will be regularly reported against. We need agents, managers, labels and publishers to represent more female artists, and broadcasters to reflect these changes more fully. We must not allow this to be thought of as ‘yesterday’s issue’ – there is still a long way to go.

The past ten days, through the on-line programme of the EFG London Jazz Festival and other live streamed events, have provided plenty of examples of superb work by female jazz artists and composers, and one hopes that one of the benefits of having to present these gigs virtually has been that they are seen more widely nationally and internationally. Particular highlights for me have been the live stream of Nikki Iles’ concert with the RAM Big Band of music by women jazz composers, the concert streamed from Sage Gateshead of Yazz Ahmed’s Polyhymnia, guitarist Shirley Tetteh playing as part of Gary Crosby’s Church of Sound gig celebrating Charlie Parker, and the indomitable Janine Irons from Tomorrow’s Warriors speaking about their work encouraging young female artists like Nubya Garcia, as part of a panel discussion about Black Lives Matter and Jazz. There were many more –  some of which are still available to watch on-line here.

These are reasons to be cheerful, and to be hopeful about the future. But it is time for people to step up and be counted!

Ros Rigby OBE was Chair of the working group which produced the Europe Jazz Network’s Manifesto on Gender Balance in Jazz and Creative Music, and is a Board Member of the Jazz Promotion Network.

LINK: Gender Disparity in UK Jazz on Sammy Stein’s website

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