From challenge comes change – women in UK jazz
‘A challenged world is an alert world and from challenge comes change.’ That’s the message of this year’s International Women’s Day on 8th March – and it’s a super relevant one for the UK jazz world.
Only 5% of UK jazz instrumentalists are women according to Women In Jazz, one of the reasons Lou Paley and Nina Fine set up the organisation to champion and nurture female talent. Dr Sarah Raine’s recent research ‘Keychanges at Cheltenham Jazz Festival: Challenges for women musicians in jazz and ways forward for equal gender representation at jazz festivals’ found continued gender imbalance, with women making up at best a third of the total musicians scheduled at festivals. It highlighted that the majority of female musicians had faced gender discrimination; that some experienced sexual harassment in the industry; and also identified barriers to equality in music education.
At Abram Wilson Foundation we champion female artists and offer support through our career development programme, where three quarters of the current cohort of artists are women and half from diverse backgrounds. Similarly, representation is a key in inspiring the next generation via our Future Sound music education programme.
We asked two of our career development mentees about their experiences – singer/songwriter, artistic director and studio manager Shereece Storrod and saxophonist, composer and bandleader Emma Johnson – plus how the tide is turning for the current and future generations.
Emma says: “These issues shouldn’t be the case in 2021. I think the main challenges I’ve faced are to do with assumptions about my ability as a musician. In the past it has been glaringly obvious to see people assume that a male musician will be great (and a bad performance seen as an off day) but that it’s almost the opposite for female musicians. The assumption is that you’ll not be great with the pressure to prove them wrong, and then be expected to not be offended by them being surprised if you play well.
“Other challenges mostly involve performance settings – sound engineers and other musicians assuming I don’t know how to set up equipment, and especially sound engineers not listening to requests or problems with the monitoring until they are brought up by a male band member.
“I’m lucky to have come up with a great network of fellow musicians that actively combat this kind of thinking, but it’s taken a long time for me to learn to handle people’s preconceptions.”
Shereece is artistic director of Black Voices, an all-female a capella gospel group plus centre manager at Grosvenor Road studios and has experienced similar attitudes, in addition to racism as a black women in the industry.
She says: “Singing in the black oral tradition and a cappella is very unique and not as popular in the UK as other countries. I’ve had challenges with sound engineers’ lack of understanding of what constitutes a ‘good mix’ for a cappella singers. If I had a pound for every time someone told us we’d sound better with a band or that we should go on Britain’s Got Talent or The X Factor…. for me success in music is so much more… I’ve learned about live sound production so that I can articulate what I need. I’ve been doing this for over 20 years and I let my work speak for itself!
“It’s always been harder for black women in particular, we’ve not only had to negate gender issues but racism too. Women definitely have to work twice as hard to be taken seriously and we have to avoid falling into the pitfalls of being sexually exploited to ‘sell’ music.”
So what needs to change for the next generation of women?
On a positive note the Keychanges report found that informal mentoring, industry talent development schemes and diversity-aware collectives had a significant positive impact. And both Shereece and Emma stress that conversations and actions for change need to be consistent and sustained.
Shereece says: “There are lots more opportunities for funding and training to support young emerging artists and women. Organisations like Arts Council England, PRS and Abram Wilson are investing in the next generation. They are not offering one-off opportunities, the programmes have progression routes for all of the artists and AWF are invested in each individual’s journey. Gender equality in the music industry is definitely being addressed more seriously as well as cultural diversity. We still have a way to go but I’ve been involved in some great conversations about strategy with the Ivors Academy, Connects Music and AWF. I hope it will tip the balance so the role of women in music is equal.”
Emma says: “One of the most brilliant, thought-provoking articles I’ve read about this is from Kim Macari in which she talks about unconscious bias, how there is no one ‘right way’ to create meaningful change and how being uncomfortable is crucial to start to bring about positive change. It can seem like an overwhelming challenge and it’s stressful to feel like you don’t have all (or any) of the answers but this quote from Kim really inspires me: ‘We need the loud, placard-waving protesters as much as we need the quiet policy-makers and writers. Far more important than the choice of activity is that we are all travelling in the same direction. That we use our energy to propel us forward.’”
And finally, we’re proud to bring to your attention that our career development mentees Women In Jazz have recently launched a new documentary series called ‘UNCOVERED’ which champions the top, emerging female talent to a global audience. Speaking to the Guardian co-founder Lou Paley emphasised the value of representation. “Often, the artists we work with say their reason for [getting into] jazz was because they were inspired by artists such as Yazz Ahmed, Nubya Garcia and Emma-Jean Thackray, who are at the forefront of UK jazz. The visibility of women is so important for inspiring the next generation.”
More about Emma Johnson and her forthcoming releases.
More about Shereece Storrod’s Black Voices.
P.S. If you found this blog useful, interesting, eye opening or inspiring then please donate to the Abram Wilson Foundation to help us challenge inequality in the music industry and support female artists through our career development and music education programmes.
Keychanges at Cheltenham Jazz Festival: Challenges for women musicians in jazz and ways forward for equal gender representation at jazz festivals by Dr Sarah Raine, Edinburgh Napier University, December 2020.
Where are All the Good (Questions About) Women In Jazz? by Kim Macari, Jazz Connective, 2 December 2020.
Female UK jazz musicians face sexual harassment and discrimination, says report by Tina Edwards, The Guardian, 16 Feb 2021.