Photo credit: Nick White

Does jazz have a glass ceiling? Nikki Yeoh on smashing it and being brave with Courtney Pine

Photo credit: Nick White

Birmingham is one of the many special places where Abram inspired young people with his warmth, enthusiasm and music. Back in 2012 he was working there with 350 children on a new commission for the city’s Symphony Hall to be performed as part of their first ever Generation Ladywood Showcase Event. Sadly Abram never got to see his music performed. The following year Birmingham Town Hall & Symphony Hall’s education team contacted me to let me know they were establishing an award in honour of Abram sponsored by Capita and what would I like to call it? In honour of Abram’s war cry to the children of Ladywood (and many other young people around the country and beyond) when he was teaching them to improvise, I asked if we could call it the Abram Wilson No Fear Award.

On Tuesday 17th July I presented an Abram Wilson No Fear Certificate for each type of instrument, to each school,  chosen from the hundreds of primary school jazz students.  Plus Abram Wilson No Fear Awards to two courageous young jazz musicians, which includes an instrument of their own and private music lessons for a year. It’s always a privilege to be invited back to present the Abram Wilson No Fear Awards and talk to an audience of 1,000 or so children from 5-11 years about fear, and how to say no to it.

Before the annual event and presenting the awards for the fifth year, I was thrilled to catch up with critically-acclaimed jazz pianist and composer Nikki Yeoh who, like Abram, was a commissioned composer for the Generation Ladywood project. A former winner of The Independent award for Best Jazz Musician Of The Year, Nikki’s performed with everyone from Neneh Cherry to Courtney Pine.

Jennie: You’re a trailblazer for women in a traditionally male-dominated jazz world. What advice would you give girls starting out in music?

Nikki: Very nice of you to say! My intention was never to be a ‘woman in jazz’ but just a good jazz musician. When I was coming up there were even fewer women playing jazz – I really love how many young women are embracing improvising and playing now. There will always be male musicians who feel uncomfortable with having a girl in the group. Not all boys or men have this approach but it does exist … even now. My thoughts have always been to be the best you can be, so that will speak for itself. Don’t be put off by the macho vibes, a lot of the time it’s just bravado because they generally feel just as self conscious as we do (especially as teenagers!)

J: Younger female musicians breaking through cite you as an inspiration and mentor. Is it important to have female role models or do we focus too much on gender in music?

N: It’s an interesting area of psychology for me. When I was 19 and playing with people like Courtney Pine and The Roots, audience members would often come up to me and say ‘you remind me of Patrice Rushen.’ Now don’t get me wrong, Patrice is one of the most wonderful musicians to have ever graced the planet, but stylistically we couldn’t be more different. We just both happen to be women and played piano and keys! I was more into Herbie, Chick, Keith Jarrett, Monk, Hermeto Pascoal, George Duke and Joanne Brackeen.

Joanne is a real musical inspiration to me because she is not only an incredible pianist and composer, but had several children with Charles Brackeen, and subsequently went through a divorce. For me I thought ‘wow…that’s a WOMAN!’ So I figured you can still have kids (if that’s what you want) be a mummy and be a muso, like the wonderful Geri Allen too.

All of these musicians were important role models for me … and still are. The female life experience of Ms Brackeen and Ms Allen were poignant because they showed me how you can still have a family and be a jazz musician. Given that women have a different time clock from men, which usually coincides with ‘getting it together’ musically … they showed me what’s possible. They have my full respect. RIP Geri.

You’ve worked as a performer and composer with some big names – who are your musical inspirations and why?

N: Different musicians inspire me at different times. I love people with their own voice. So I’ve always focused on sounding as much like myself as possible. Herbie for his sense of harmony, rhythm, phrasing, comping, technique and voice. Miles for his complete honesty and innovation. Wayne Shorter – compositionally there’s no one that comes close to the complexity and uniqueness of Wayne, except for Hermeto Pascoal – those two guys are genius composers! I could write a list that could take up all of the space, so I guess the criteria for me is people that are individuals and that move me emotionally. If I can hear your soul in your music, then you’ve won me. Play from your heart!

J: As the commissioned composer for the jazz electives of Birmingham Town and Symphony Hall’s Generation Ladywood last year, tell us why it’s such a special project?

N: It was an absolute honour to work with the young people of Ladywood. Their experience reminded me of my childhood. I grew up on a council estate in inner London. I’d always sign up for every community project that was going on. I grew up near Sadlers Wells Theatre and was involved in several community plays. There’s something special about playing music in your neighbourhood. I’d bump into other young musicians in the market and there was an instant sense of shared experience. In fact one of the bass players I met there, Dean Mark – he was in Don Blackman’s band for a long time – and I are still professional friends.

Coming from a working class family, the Sadlers Wells project suddenly made that space accessible to me. I felt at home ‘back stage’ and found a kinship with other artists. I felt like it was ‘MY’ theatre…in fact I still do!!

Having the Symphony Hall (an absolutely ma-hooooosive space) open its doors to the young people of Ladywood is vital, not only for creating the next generation of musicians but also the next generation of concert goers. We need to approach creating new audiences in the same way that certain junk food places encourage ‘familiar happy childhood memories’ with association, having play areas and ‘happy food’ options. Next year I reckon we need a big bouncy castle in the middle of the stage – am I taking this too far? Haha!

I just know that through this project, Generation Ladywood will feel ownership of the Symphony Hall for the rest of their lives and not be intimidated but the grandness of it all. They’ll perform there, take their kids there and the legacy lives on.

J: What’s the biggest fear you’ve overcome? And anything you’re still scared of?!

N: When I was 18 I attended a jam session. Courtney Pine was one stage. They asked the audience if there were any piano players that wanted to ‘sit in’. I was terrified and almost didn’t go up. I faced that fear and sat in, convinced that Courtney would tell me I should give up. He actually asked for my number and called me for a few gigs to start with. I was in his band for three years after that! We still play together from time to time …SO glad I faced that fear. I’m yet to conquer my fear of heights…watch this space!!

J: What’s your top tip for a musical night out in London?

N: There’s always fantastic bands on. One of my favourite clubs is The Vortex in Dalston. You can hear the best international musicians there and also there’s a radical coffee shop in the square where the owner grows his own beans in Ethiopia and sells them directly to the customer, either as a coffee or the beans. You can’t get more fair trade than that! Everyone who plays the Vortex gets their coffee from him, plus you can go there from a young age, unlike a lot of London jazz clubs. They’re an independent not for profit organisation that give the artist complete freedom to play whatever they want … this makes for some INCREDIBLE gigs!

Ronnie Scott’s is my other fave club. It was my university when I was coming up. It’s still a great place and the menu is a million times better than back in the day. You have to be 15 to get in though.

J: It’s hot, hot hot! What’s your fave chill out summer tune?

N: That’s easy! ‘Brazilian Love Affair’ by George Duke! Vibesy, great production, amazing musicianship and full of summer.

J: What’s in the diary for the rest of 2018?

N: More gigs, I’m at Hull Jazz Festival on 21st July with Denys Baptiste. Then more gigs and a few projects I’m working on. I’m usually signing CD’s at the merch desk after shows, so come and say hi!

Follow Nikki on Twitter @NikkiPianoYeoh, Instagram @NikkiYeoh and like her Facebook page (@Nikki YeohArtistPage) for all the up-to-date info!