UK jazz is having a moment, and women are developing the sound in bold new ways: they’re changing some of the old-fashioned attitudes held in corners of the jazz scene, but also completely sidestepping old frameworks and old hierarchy, creating new structures for themselves with their own collectives, spaces and platforms.
And the world’s sitting up and taking note – it’d be hard not to. From entire exhibitions dedicated to women in jazz, and female-led / female-focussed shows and workshops at next month’s EFG London Jazz Festival, to international tours: these artists are placing themselves at the front and centre of this golden age of UK jazz.
Worldwide FM’s Tina Edwards has been flying the flag for UK jazz for a long time, and has just launched Supreme Standards – a platform for celebrating the genre and its musical brothers and sisters, like funk and soul.
She’s spoken on her radio show about the importance of supporting and celebrating female jazz artists and shattering the old school notion that a woman in a jazz band ‘must be the vocalist’, while steering clear of unhelpful tokenism.
“Attitudes about women generally have a fucking long way to go; it's ridiculous how archaic some people's conditioning is,” Tina says. “I'm not an artist per se, but as a DJ and broadcaster, I can imagine I'm not the only one who wants to get past our gender identity and get on doing what we do.”
Collectives like Women In Jazz are a part of this ‘getting on’ – they not only highlight the mountain of misconceptions female artists must scale whenever they walk on stage, but more importantly they put in place practical solutions to overcome issues, with live events, workshops, radio shows and an upcoming festival, all led by the most critically acclaimed female Jazz pioneers in the UK.
This list is far from exhaustive, there are countless women that could be on it – Tina Edwards rattles off Laura Misch, harpist Alina Bzhezhinska, Cherise Burnett-Adams, Cassie Kinoshi, Rosie Turton and Laura Jurd as other artists that should be highlighted – so treat it as merely a starting point to exploring the boundary-pushing, innovative and supremely talented women of UK jazz.
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“When I hear Sheila Maurice-Grey play trumpet, for example, her playing descends directly from the body – it’s so earthy, there’s nothing false about it, it’s so beautiful. And when I hear Cassie Kinoshi play alto sax, I hear a gorgeous fierceness and willingness to listen, which a heavenly combination.
So I’ll say that what we women all bring to the jazz scene is that players can come in many different forms, not least women ourselves!”
Winning Jazz Newcomer of the Year at the Parliamentary Jazz Awards this month, Shirley Tetteh (aka Nardeydey) is a key component of London's jazz scene – an effervescent guitar talent with a knack for fluid improvisation.
Growing up in Hackney, London, she perfected her instrument jamming at London's Tomorrow's Warriors, a pivital organisation that reached out to young people to nurture the next generation of British jazz (other luminaries of the current scene started there too, like Moses Boyd).
Alongside her interest in jazz, she connected artists as wide ranging as Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, D'Angelo and gospel singers like Fred Hammond, right up to contemporary 'jazz adjacent' artists like Thundercat and Kendrick Lamar.
Shirley has drawn inspiration from all parts of the musical spectrum, and has embraced the collective approach that permeates UK jazz right now, working with groups such as Jazz Jamaica, Groundation, Maisha, and the Huw Marc Bennett Quintet, as well as co-founding radical femme collective Nérija (who recently signed to Domino Records) and working on her own solo projects. She also joined Gilles Peterson's All-Star band for the Worldwide Awards in 2016, playing for Little Simz and Anderson .Paak,
A truly exciting and dynamic artist, Shirley explores ways of combining jazz and left field pop, presenting high-quality original, improvised music to a younger, wider audience. For those wanting to experience this live, she is playing at two events as part of this year's EFG London Jazz Festival, performing with Camilla George and Sarah Tandy on 23rd November, as well as with Makaya McCraven and Nubya Garcia (plus guests) at Chicago X London on 24th November – a show celebrating the thriving jazz scenes in Chicago and London in recent years.
Shirley says while it’s frustrating when people assume things about her due to her gender, this is occurring less and less (“There is, of course, still a way to go,” she adds), and is excited about what women are bringing to the UK jazz scene. “Trombonist Rosie Turton, tenor saxophonist Nubya Garcia and drummer Lizy Excell who I happen to play alongside in the collective Nerija with bassist Rio Kai are all great,” she says.
“Cassie Kinoshi’s got an INCREDIBLE 10 person collective she writes for called SEED Ensemble, which also features another great tenor player called Chelsea Carmichal – they’ve got an album coming out next year. And I love Ruth Goller’s electric and Double bass playing, I love Bex Burch’s Vula Viel band, their debut album ‘Good is Good’ was amazing and they put a new single out this year. Kokoroko are amazing. So many great women on the UK jazz scene. Also, shout out to pianist Nikki Yeoh!!”
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“Right now in the UK I feel like we’re reaching a point where listeners see female jazz artists as normal, rather than token.
“There are great strides being made in the electronic world too, with Normal Not Novelty for example. As someone who straddles both worlds, it feels very positive right now, and empowering that young listeners, particularly young women and non-binary listeners, will be inspired by us and want to pick up an instrument.
“I hope each generation find it easier and easier on their journeys, until we get to the day where we can’t quite remember why it wasn’t always balanced in the first place.”
Emma-Jean Thackray is an award winning composer, producer and multi-instrumentalist – known especially for her trumpeting – is influenced by everything from J Dilla beats and Madlib’s characters to the sounds of Afrobeat.
This versatility began when she was young, growing up in Yorkshire. Emma-Jean started playing the cornet as a child – “Because my friend had one and it was really shiny…that’s what attracted me to it, it was loud and shiny,” she told Emma Warren in an interview last year – surrounded by the tradition of brass bands historically linked to the mining industry (and playing in them), but also developing a fascination with the likes of Gil Evans and Miles Davis.
She demonstrated that same versatility earlier this year with her ‘Ley Lines’ EP, evoking Madlib’s jazz adventures with Yesterday’s New Quintet and recording the whole thing single-handedly in her South London home, instrument by instrument – sometimes even taking on different characters to play different parts.
One minute Emma-Jean can be found working with the the London Symphony Orchestra as part of their out of their programme for emerging composers – the Jerwood Composer+ Scheme, which supports composers in programming, planning and delivering chamber-scale concerts, including work of their own – the next she’s hosting her own bi-monthly show on Worldwide FM, exploring the latest and best in jazz (and beyond) or she’s bringing her unique fusion of brass, beats and vocals to live venues, with her four-piece ensemble, WALRUS.
Despite all these achievements, Emma-Jean still faces challenges and misconceptions based on her gender. “As a trumpeter there have been maaany. As a producer, even more,” she says. “I’m constantly asked who produces me – it’s ME, damnit. And on my last record I took on every role, played every note myself, yet people still assume there must be some man sat behind me. I even had the Evening Standard refer to me as a ‘one to watch jazz vocalist’, which although on the surface seems positive, oozes a sinister sexism through what they don’t refer to me as. I bet Chet Baker never had to put up with that.
“I really have to think about choosing my battles. Sometimes I speak up, and sometimes it’s not worth it. I still struggle with owning what I do and confidentially saying, ‘I do this, this AND this AND this...’ instead of being self-deprecating, as women are often programmed to be. It’s a long journey but hopefully the more we try and stand up tall and take credit, the easier the next artists will find it. If you’re finding it hard, try thinking ‘WWSWMD’ – what would straight white men do?”
Emma-Jean is definitely not shy about giving other women in jazz their props. “Tina Edwards is killing it on the daily, female-fronted Kokoroko smash it up, and my girls Rosie Turton and Nubya Garcia always play hard,” she says, when asked who she rates right now. “And my moon sister And Is Phi.
“Shout outs to gal-Dem that are telling the stories from the voices often silenced, also lots of love to the women who are helping make the art happen like Vickie at Vinyl Factory, all the wonderful women at Brownswood, Sara of Total Refreshment Centre (long live TRC!) and so many more. There are so many women not in the spotlight that deserve just as much love as the ones on stage, they’ve been there for a minute and aren’t going anywhere.”
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“The presence of strong female artists are what make jazz relevant to the 21st century today, I hope this neutralises until we no longer have to mention it.”
Vocalist Poppy Ajudha uses her nimble fusion of jazz and neo-soul to express herself in a highly personal way, and to tackle important subjects with a soft (albeit steadfast) touch – informed (in part) by her academic studies and socio-political thought.
Her track 'White Water', for example, explores the many facets of the immigrant experience; how people are often forced to peel away aspects of their own heritage and identity so they can fit in with Western culture.
Her 'FEMME' EP, released in early 2018, melds improvisational jazz with other sonic influences (echoes of Amy Winehouse, as well as electro R&B) as well as featuring Kojey Radical. Here, she explores the nature of ethnicity as well as gender: ‘Tepid Soul’ looks at Poppy’s dual heritage, for example, and the EP’s cover displays a reimagining of Henri Roussau’s The Dream, by the illustrator Alice Bloomfield. Poppy explained in an interview with gal-Dem how these visuals also form part of her record’s narrative: “[Roussau’s oeuvre] reflects the highly fetishised ways in which the ‘Other’ was presented in the West.”
This is an artist of great depth and thought, shown not just through her music, but by her academic life – Poppy studied gender as part of a BA in Social Anthropology and Music at SOAS, and this greatly informs her work. “My studies have shaped me into the political thinker I am today,” she reflects.
“They helped me to see gender in new ways and speak out about what I believe in, I am forever grateful for that and will always try to share it through my music. There are a load of amazing artists I’m excited about [in the current current UK jazz scene] – the progress and support we’re given gives me hope for the future.”
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“I feel really lucky to be surrounded my really inspiring women in all areas of the music industry to be honest! Esperanza Spalding, Terri Lyne Carrington, Tori Handsley, Frida Touray and Poppy Ajudah.
“The list genuinely continues – these aren’t all the women that inspire me and I’m really interested in what they’re doing.”
Winning Jazz FM’s Breakthrough Act of the Year in April, releasing her 'When We Are' EP and touring on an international scale, saxophonist and composer Nubya Garcia has continued the hype she built in 2017 with her brilliant debut ‘Nubya’s 5ive’ EP – blending echoes of spiritual jazz, jazz-beat, R&B and hip-hop – which reportedly sold out on vinyl in just one day.
‘Nubya’s 5ive’ has been held up as a shining example of the new scene’s ability to appeal to – and get air time with – both jazz audiences and modern UK club culture. Moses Boyd's drumming, for example, echoes more contemporary sounds like J Dilla on ‘Hold’, while ‘Lost Kingdom’ maintains a neo-soul quality.
Growing up in Camden, North London, she came to her idiosyncratic form of jazz via Tomorrow’s Warriors – an initiative that opens up music opportunities to families who can’t afford expensive lessons and instruments for their children – along with the likes of Yazz Ahmed and Ezra Collective.
Since then – like most of her peers – Nubya has embraced collaboration as part of her musical journey, playing with female jazz septet, Nerija, the Maisha collective and Theon Cross Trio, as well as being part of the live bands for Congo Natty – legendary Jungle producer and toaster – and Kiko Bun and South East Dub Collective.
Tracks on the 'When We Are' EP were remixed by South London producer and bassist Maxwell Owin and house producer K15 – showing her reach in London’s musical community – and she also featured on ‘We Out Here’, the pivotal compilation from Gilles Petersons’ Brownswood Recordings earlier this year, alongside heralded artists like saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings and the aforementioned drummer Moses Boyd. Plus, she’s got her own monthly show on NTS, spinning everything from funk, soul and R&B to dub, broken beat and spiritual jazz.
“I mean there are loads! I’m so inspired by Sheila Maurice-Grey, Cassie Kinoshi, Emma-Jean Thackery, Rosie Turton, Chelsea Carmichael, Liz Excell, Shirley Tetteh,” she says when asked about her female peers in UK jazz and beyond. “I love listening to Emma’s show on Worldwide FM, I always really love Teju Adeleye’s show on NTS, Erika McKoy and Tina Edwards on the daily show on Worldwide FM. Jamz Supernova, Ruby Savage, Tash LC, Alex Rita and Shy One can turn up the dance – I love their DJ sets and radio shows too!”
Women pushing ideas and conversations around culture are important to Nubya too: “I love Brainchild Festival – run by Marina Blake and an incredible team – and also Anu Henriques who runs Skin Deep [an online and print magazine, offering fresh perspectives on race and culture] – she’s an absolutely incredible soul doing amazing things and spreading thoughts and ideas that we all need.”
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“Women are still very much in the minority in the jazz world, but we do seem to be making an impact. Broadly speaking what we bring is balance: we offer a slightly different perspective, perhaps have different motives driving our creativity, which is informed by the whole sum of our life experience.
“Women have stories to tell, music to share and an equal contribution to make to the sum of human creativity. If women don’t get opportunities to flourish, then we are all missing out and the world will be a poorer place.”
Born and raised in Bahrain before moving to London at the age of nine, jazz trumpeter and composer Yaz Ahmed fuses Arabic music with British jazz, finding a compelling niche at the centre of where the rhythmic charge of traditional Middle Eastern percussion overlaps with the groove of contemporary jazz.
Inspired to learn the trumpet by her grandfather, Terry Brown – who was a trumpeter playing with 1950s British jazz legends like John Dankworth, Tubby Hayes and Ronnie Scott – Yazz’s sound has benefited from a grounding in the traditional, with the innovation and foresight to push into the new. When she was getting into music, she wasn’t aware of any female jazz musicians, except for singers, so sought out role models via MySpace, finding inspiration people like trumpeters Kiku Collins (who played with Beyoncé) and Ingrid Jensen.
The range of work she’s embarked on speaks to her melding of identities and traditions: Yazz has recorded and performed with artists like Radiohead, Lee Scratch Perry and These New Puritans, and represented Bahrain in London’s Cultural Olympiad, joining renowned musicians from the Arabian Gulf, performing in both Dubai and London. She’s also led her various ensembles in concerts around the UK and abroad, including New York, Kuwait, Algiers, Berlin, Paris, Istanbul, Tunis and Amsterdam, and at festivals such as like WOMAD.
2017 saw the release of her second album, ‘La Saboteuse’, which made many ‘best of 2017’ lists around the world – and not just in the jazz record categories. This year, Yazz released an EP of remixes from that LP, featuring collaborations with Hector Plimmer, DJ Khalab and Blacksea Não Maya – showing her versatility.
She takes pushing forward women in jazz seriously too. Commissioned by Tomorrow’s Warriors, and PRS Women Make Music, in 2015 she wrote a suite inspired by courageous and influential women. Polyhymnia was premiered by a special all female ensemble at the WOW! Festival that year.
“The traditional jazz culture has been very macho in its nature,” Yazz says. “Development and learning often took place in highly competitive jam sessions, where players tried to outdo each other in a sink or swim environment. Not many women would have been prepared to risk the ridicule and humiliation of potential failure or simply being judged by very superficial criteria. The phrases, ‘not bad for a girl’, or even worse, ‘she plays like a man’, are all too familiar.
“I actually feel like I am just a small cog in the jazz world, quietly doing my own thing and trying to get better each time I play. I hope that through my music I can bring people together, building bridges between cultures and changing perceptions about women in jazz and about people of Muslim heritage. I hope to inspire other young women to explore and express their creativity.”
This means there are plenty of artists she’s excited about: “Cécile McLorin Salvant absolutely blew me away with her performance of A Timeless Place (Norma Winstone’s lyric to Jimmy Rowles's tune ‘The Peacocks’) at the Jazz FM awards earlier this year. I also love the work of the pianist Alcyona Mick and saxophonist Tori Freestone. They released a wonderful duo album this year, ‘Criss Cross’, and they will both feature on my new album ‘Polyhymnia’, which will be released in June next year.
“Actually, that album features a host of talented female jazz musicians including the incredible drummer Sophie Alloway who is absolutely fierce. You can check out her playing on countless Youtube clips – especially with her highly regarded fusion quartet, The Lydian Collective.”
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