When people think of jazz music, it is predominantly artists such as Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie that pop into their minds eye––and they all have one glaring thing in common… they are all male. It’s this predisposed idea that jazz is a male centric genre that the Sydney Women’s Jazz Festival set out to challenge and hopefully rewire four years ago.
“As well as celebrating women as musicians, composers, conductors and band leaders, we hope the festival provides role models for young and emerging artists who are considering a career in jazz,” explained Festival Director and General Manager of Sydney Improvised Music Association Inc (SIMA) Amy Curl.
By simply looking at the growth of the festival itself, having gone from “a handful of events” in the beginning “to a continuous two week event that includes 14 club gigs, four free outdoor events and late sessions as well as developing its own exclusive international component”, it is fairly clear that the desired results are taking hold.
For artists this is an extremely positive evolution and one that they feel has long been overdue. Ellen Kirkwood reflected on her time at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music as “the only woman in my year, and out of the entire jazz course there were only three women total.”
Ellen believes the severe disparity in the gender mix can be put down to two main factors: historical precedence, and a lack of female role models thus following on from that. “Throughout history there has been mostly male jazz musicians, so it wasn’t really considered a feminine thing to do and it never really shifted away from that until now. So the more women we can get playing jazz and being seen, the more it will cease to be seen as a ‘boys thing’,” said Kirkwood.
The need for aspiring female musicians to have strong female role models is extremely high, because for artists such as Kirkwood they were hard to find initially. “Eventually I found Sandy Evans and Ingrid Jensen. Then when I was in year 12 I did the young women’s jazz course and met awesome female musicians like Cathy Harley and found out about Julie Bailey.”
Thankfully now as the gender gap is closing in Sydney, the city is also experiencing a “venue explosion over recent years” which is “largely due to efforts by the City of Sydney” according to Curl. Jenna Cave another artists at the festival reaffirmed this sentiment, pointing out that from her experience “especially within the past ten years there is just so many more female jazz artists and a thriving community in general.”
One of the complimentary elements of the festival that has been vital to the reinvigorated jazz scene in Sydney is the Young Women’s Jazz workshops which began in 2002, hosted by Sandy Evans OAM and SIMA. Over the years these workshops have hosted many of the faces that can be seen gracing the stages of this years edition of the festival. Such overwhelming success from projects such as this never go unseen, and as such they have been duplicated recently in Western Australia to hopefully replicate results there.
As the festival has grown in size it has also grown in scope, they have been able to commission new works created specifically for the festival since last year. This year the commissioned piece is Ellen Kirkwood’s ‘The Mieville Project’ which is inspired by British fantasy fiction author China Mieville. The Mieville Project also features narrator Caroline Leview, who will assist Kirkwood and her collaborators to conjure Mieville’s futuristic machines, creatures and constructions to life. “I’ve written a set of music that is essentially musical illustrations of excerpts from Mieville’s books that I really liked or felt had striking imagery. If you like music that is a bit different to what you’re used to, if you like stories or if you like stuff that is a little bit weird you will enjoy this,” explained Kirkwood.
While the future appears to be looking bright and sunny for women in jazz, Amy Curl stresses that it is crucial that “we as audiences play an important role in supporting live music, both performers and venues, too. We have to get out and hear it!”
FULL PROGRAM: sima.org.au
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