#IWD2021: Women in Jazz co-founder Lou Paley

Lou Paley is one of the co-founders of Women in Jazz, a multimedia organisation dedicated to addressing the gender imbalance in the jazz industry by supporting fantastic female artists. Dan Bergsagel spoke with her for LondonJazz News about their work, the London scene, and what we can all do to help.

Lou Paley and Nina Fine

Lou Paley (L) and Nina Fine (R), co-founders of Women in Jazz. Photo credit @azcaptures

What is your connection to jazz?

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Without sounding too cheesy, music has always been a big part of my life. My parents cleverly situated the piano just in front of the kitchen so we couldn’t avoid it – it was a key feature.

As a teenager in North London I joined a big band – Young Music Makers (YMM) – which met every Saturday. I loved it, and made lifelong friends there. But it was also pretty intimidating – all the other members understood the maths of jazz, and up until then I’d just been tinkling around on the piano, listening to songs and trying to figure out how to play them. I really had no idea.

But it was the start of my musical education, and I went on to study music composition at university. On graduation I worked in a few different roles in the industry – music PR, programming (at the Roundhouse in Camden) – before moving into working with educational groups like the National Youth Jazz Collective, a school aimed at nurturing and developing young talent to get them to the next stage of their career.

Women in Jazz logoHow was Women in Jazz born?

While working in these organisations, I spent a lot of time interacting with women who wanted to get into jazz. And I noticed that lots of these young talented women – successful graduates of prestigious institutions like Berklee, Trinity, Guildhall – just didn’t feel that they were good enough to pursue careers in jazz. It reminded me of my time playing at YMM – when I was the only woman in a band of 15 – and I wanted to learn more about that lack of confidence and the consequences it might be having on representation in the industry.

In the summer of 2018 my cousin Nina Fine and I started the Women in Jazz show on Soho radio where we would interview some of the artists that we had been working with for so many years, trying to understand their musical journeys. From that small show grew a community of over 8000 artists, from all different jazz genres and expressions. We do what we say on the tin – our mission is to solve gender inequality in jazz. We now run two radio shows, a musician mentoring programme, host live events all over the UK to champion female artists, and we’ve recently launched a digital channel called ‘UNCOVERED’ which spotlights new talent in a series of 10 minute episodes.

How do all these different activities knit together in the organisation?

Everything we do is about nurturing and championing female talent. Our career development programme is catering to independent artists who need additional tools to develop their career. When artists graduate from college and enter the world of jazz, they’re essentially starting their own businesses. Up until that point they have had so much support in developing their musical craft – playing, refining their sound and technique – but they have had much less support covering the practicalities of being a musician. They need tools and advice to get through life in the industry – how to go about marketing themselves, building their brand and audience. Importantly this isn’t a problem unique to young artists. Some people may assume that by the time you’ve made it to 30 you’ve figured these things out, but it’s just not the case. Our development programme is for musicians from all the stages of a career, and we’re currently working with artists from ages 18-65 years.

Everything we do is about nurturing and championing female talent

We held our first live event in spring 2019 at Ronnie Scott’s, and up until COVID we were developing partnerships with festivals across the country – We Out Here, the London Jazz Festival – offering masterclasses and workshops. All to solve the under-representation of female jazz artists. 

This last year has been unpredictable – how have you steered your projects through COVID?

We’ve tried to be positive about it. The industry has obviously suffered, and a lot of our musicians had to cancel long-planned tours and things like that. But I think people have sometimes surprised themselves with what they have achieved and created in this time. Along with the rest of the creative industries, we’ve had to adapt; we wanted to keep on promoting and supporting our female talent, so without the live events we jumped into building a digital channel.

Some music festivals have been visibly working to challenge gender inequality through their programming and the formal embrace of the Keychange Manifesto. Do you feel encouraged by this?

I think aspiring to better gender representation in festival programming is a really good start. I don’t think we’re going to see change overnight, but working towards that is an important step. We think change needs to come from the music industry as a whole – the labels, the fans, the artists, the radio stations. At Women in Jazz we’re working at the other end of the industry and focusing on nurturing positivity and excitement around all the female talent that is coming through. We want to support and champion artists to feel empowered to take their next steps into an industry that is ready to welcome them.

Women in Jazz is doing a lot. How would you like to see the rest of the industry respond?

We would like to see more women spearheading organisations in jazz, more women on festival line ups, more women included on panel discussion, more opportunities for female instrumentalists, more opportunities for women to curate, more women studying jazz at conservatoires. 

I think representation is so important. Artists in our community often cite female role models – people like Nubya Garcia and Yazz Ahmed – as inspiring them to get into jazz. And I think we can all do more to shine a light on that part of the industry. This is about providing a platform for women to share their feelings about the industry and their journeys.

As fans, it is simple: you can buy more music on bandcamp! Keep supporting artists by buying merchandise and seeing your favourite acts at your favourite venues.

Finally, what artists are you most excited about for 2021?

There are a lot of really exciting artists who are coming through the scene – some who haven’t released their own music yet. Marla Kether is one to look out for – she’s an unbelievably talented young bassist. Jas Kayser is a really awesome drummer and composer with a great groove and some really nice afrobeat influences. And it’s maybe a little cheeky as I’m also her manager, but I’m always excited about Yazz Ahmed and her psychedelic arabic jazz.

LINKS: Women in Jazz website

WIJ presents Trish Clowes’ My Iris at Ronnie Scott’s on 8 March

Watch ‘UNCOVERED’, the second episode of which goes live on 8 March

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