While the world may have paused this past year, award-winning jazz artist Fiona Ross most certainly has not. A whirlwind of activity and creativity, her decades-spanning career has seen her enjoy and excel at everything from musical theatre to composing, teaching and now her own music. Leah Williams spoke to her for International Women’s Day about going with the flow, finding freedom in jazz, speaking up to address inequality and finding ways to help others during difficult times.
Jazz has always been a part of Fiona Ross’s life, growing up listening to legendary singers like Ella Fitzgerald and watching golden-era Hollywood movies with her parents. However, she only established herself as a jazz artist five years ago. Up until then, she was more than just a little busy. Trained in musical theatre, she was treading the boards in London’s West End by the age of eight – and it’s been non-stop ever since.
From musicals and session singing to composing for film and songwriting, very few people have been so fully immersed in the many different strands of the music and theatre industry. That’s not forgetting an eight-year stint as Head of the British Academy of New Music where she taught such notable students as Ed Sheeran and Rita Ora.
It was following the decision to leave this post that the idea to pursue her own music finally solidified. “I’m very much a ‘go with the flow’ person,” Fiona smiles. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m very disciplined, but I don’t really plan. I take each day as it comes. So when I decided to leave BANM, I really didn’t have a clue what my next move would be. It wasn’t until a friend casually said to me, ‘I suppose you’re going to pursue your own music now?’ that I realised, yes, that was precisely what I was going to do.”
Having already put an album together in between other commitments, the initial thought was to “put that out there and see what happened”. And what happened was that her individual style blending contemporary sounds and jazz influences immediately took off. “I was featured in an article in one of the big papers, and everything just kind of exploded from there. Suddenly, it was like ‘OK, I guess I’m definitely doing this now!’”
So why jazz? “For me, jazz means having the freedom to explore and to improvise,” she says. “If I want to do something that has an old-school bassline then throw in some latin or hip-hop, jazz is where I can do that.”
Since then, three further albums have followed, as have more fans, accolades and several awards, including, most recently, International Female Songwriter of the Year 2020 from the International Singer Songwriters Association. Still, Fiona is full of modesty for her achievements.
“I know it seems overly productive, or people think I’m crazy creative or something,” she says, waving her hand as if to dispel this idea. “But I think it’s just I spent so long writing for other people, playing other people’s music, performing other people’s material, that when I actually started on my own stuff, there were years and years of it just waiting to come out.”
In addition to making her mark on the music scene, Fiona has also forged an impressive path as a jazz journalist over the past few years, regularly contributing to several jazz publications and sites. She remarks on the opportunities this has given her to connect to others within the industry, citing interviews with the likes of Steve Gadd and “absolute goddess” Dee Dee Bridgwater as highlights, and to find inspiration in sometimes unexpected places.
“A real turning point for me as a writer was when I travelled to Paris to interview Maxine Gordon,” she recounts. “She’s known as Dexter Gordon’s wife, of course, but she’s so much more than that. She’s been at the heart of the jazz scene for years and the work she’s done is just incredible. She’s my daily inspiration and every article I write, or every thing I do, I now think to myself: what would Maxine think? Within that, I mean: am I helping someone? Am I being respectful to the jazz industry? Is this supporting those groups that aren’t being represented?”
For me a driving force is definitely helping people
And it’s clear how much lifting up her fellow musicians and having a positive impact on the industry mean to Fiona. As the world closed down over the pandemic, the woman who “never stops” found a way to keep going and to find a way to support those in need.
“I know so many people who’ve struggled in one way or another over this period; I consider myself to have been very fortunate,” she says. “Over this time, we’ve all been reflecting on who we are and what makes us happy, and for me a driving force is definitely helping people. So I just wanted to do what I could.”
Having allocated the time to writing for her new album, Fiona made the deliberate decision to step back from that and throw herself into journalism instead, trying to promote music and create connections where they were suddenly severely lacking.
Towards the end of last year, she also founded a new network, Women in Jazz Media. What initially began as “simply a Facebook page to provide a platform for a community of women in the industry” swiftly turned into something much bigger.
“Almost overnight, I was inundated with messages from people from across the globe,” she remarks, the disbelief still lingering. “And it was immediately clear that there was a real need for something like this and that its potential was going to be so much more than I’d imagined.”
Over the past few months, this blossoming community has created a safe, healthy space to support and promote women who work in the jazz industry. An international team are bringing passion projects to life: podcasts interviewing writers and musicians from under-represented areas; a mentoring scheme addressing gender and diversity balance in jazz publications; and workshops introducing young women to the possibility of a career in jazz media. The future is set to be significant.
“One of the writers from our mentoring scheme has just been published and she’s the first Black, and the youngest, writer this publication has ever had,” Fiona states. “We’ve helped another publication to double the number of female writers on their roster. Achievements like this have made us realise that what we’re establishing here has the possibility to really change things. And we’re excited for it.”
As a performer who grew up in the industry, Fiona is in no doubt that things do need to change. Remembering her time in the theatre world, she remarks on “the many amazing things about it but also, ultimately, how unhealthy an environment it is, especially for women,” adding that “the most saddening realisation for me was how for so long it was just accepted as ‘the normal’. But it shouldn’t be normal and that’s why it’s great to see people of both genders standing up to challenge this now. We need the ingrained mindset to change, and that will take time.”
And in scenes such as jazz that have for so long been dominated by older, white men, Fiona is clear on how important it is to see men also getting involved in redressing the balance. For International Women’s Day, she did a social media shout-out asking men to submit videos talking about the women who have inspired them and was “so happy to see the amazing response.”
And so what part does International Women’s Day have to play in this work?
“I used to feel really annoyed by these types of awareness days as I felt these were issues we should be addressing all the time,” she admits. “But now I recognise they provide a perfect opportunity to promote and to raise awareness, because actually so many people still don’t know why there is a need for such a day. People need to understand why we have these issues but also what we can all do to help.”
But more than that, Fiona sees it as reminder even for herself to reflect on all the incredible women who have had an impact on her and inspire her to do what she can and believe in her own power to achieve and affect change.
The goal is that at some point we won’t need a day like this anymore
“The goal is that at some point we won’t need a day like this anymore. Until then, it’s a great opportunity to highlight the problems that exist and reflect on the battles that have been fought, the trailblazers who’ve brought us to this point, and those who are fighting to take us to the next one.”
I, for one, am glad we have Fiona Ross on the case, someone who it is clear will never stop striving for change or pushing the conversation forwards.
LINK: Fiona Ross’s website