This year the theme the National Women’s History Alliance has chosen for National Women’s History Month is Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories.
In 1978 in Sonoma, California, a week-long celebration was held to recognize the significant contributions in all aspects of American life women have wrought with little recognition.
Subsequently, President Carter signed a proclamation declaring the week of March 8th, 1980, as National Women’s History Week, and in 1987 the National Women’s History Alliance successfully lobbied Congress, which passed public law designating March as National Women’s History Month now observed in the UK, the US, and Australia.
Jazz singers as storytellers began with the birth of jazz.
As Gillian Margot says of one of the most important lessons she learned as a student, “Don’t worry so much and get stuck in the music; remember that you have a different role to play; you have a story to tell….”
This month Jazzfuel is celebrating three exceptional jazz storytellers who, full disclosure, also happen to be my label mates on Ropeadope:
- Canadian vocalist/composer Gillian Margot
- British-Bahraini band leader, trumpet player, flugelhornist, composer Yazz Ahmed
- German violinist, singer, and composer Johanna Burnheart
The music industry, in general, and the jazz world in particular, has been traditionally dominated by men. I wondered how that has affected the professional lives of these powerhouses and what women helped shape, guide, and inspire them to become the frontrunners in the jazz world they are today.
LMS: Yazz, jazz is often criticized for being a male-dominated field with women pushed towards two roles, typically, pianist or singer. What was your experience in the UK as a female student at Kingston University, then the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, as you studied music in preparation for becoming a professional musician? Did you find the numbers skewed more towards men regarding your chosen instruments? Was it ever challenging to assert yourself and your musical ideas with your professors and fellow students? Were there any women professors who inspired you?
Yazz Ahmed: During my studies, I was very aware of the lack of female members of staff. The course at Kingston Uni was very broad so there were a few female professors and students. However, whilst studying for my master’s degree in jazz at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, there weren’t any female staff members and no female instrumentalists on the course, which did make me feel alone. However, whilst studying at the GSMD, we did have three visiting women artists: pianist, Nikki Iles; vocalist, Norma Winston; and a spectacular big band project with the incredible pianist, Toshiko Akiyoshi, who I found particularly inspiring. But, as you have noticed, none were horn players.
These moments were very special to me but still, female jazz musicians were never mentioned in our composition or repertoire classes. This filled me with doubt and gave me the impression that women just didn’t become composers as they were not as skilled as men, so I instead focused on my trumpet playing. All my role models at that time were men, so it was incredibly challenging for me to picture myself becoming a professional musician.
LMS: One of your mentors was your maternal grandfather, who also played trumpet. Were you able to find any women to mentor you as well?
Yazz Ahmed: I was very lucky to be taught by a brilliant trumpet teacher, Norma Whitson, when I first began learning my instrument. Looking back, I really appreciate her for keeping me grounded by being honest with me, working me hard and warning me that the music business can be a dog-eat-dog world. I think these lessons made me determined to keep going despite the difficulties I sometimes experienced along the way.
When I reached my early twenties, however, I discovered jazz trumpeter, Ingrid Jensen. I had never heard a woman playing jazz before and I was totally blown away! My confidence grew with this new discovery.
After graduating from the GSMD, my high school in south London very kindly funded a trip to New York for me to have lessons with Laurie Frink and Ingrid. Ingrid was very encouraging and helped me open my mind to new techniques in improvisation. One of these which I found particularly helpful, was to freely play over a drone, to get into a trance, totally into the world of sound, and to let my imagination run free. On returning to London after this lesson, I immediately bought a drone box (a shruti box – common in Indian classical music) and still use it in my practice today.
LMS: Gillian, you have studied with many jazz icons, including Oscar Peterson and Freddy Cole. Carol Welsman is another of the greats with whom you’ve studied. Was there ever a conversation with Carol about the gender disparity in jazz?
Gillian Margot: No. I had a few lessons with Carol when I was preparing for my earliest auditions. She never spoke of personal experiences and wasn’t the mentoring type. I do remember her career had really just taken off at that point and she was very business savvy; buying gifts for her management and label reps, and any other biz connections she had at the time. I remember Oscar Peterson mentioning gender (and race) disparity and he was maybe the first teacher figure in jazz who spoke to me about self-advocacy as a singer, as a woman, and as a person-of colour.
LMS: You often perform with your husband, pianist Geoffrey Keezer. I also compose and perform with my partner, pianist Marco Cremaschini. I wonder what that dynamic is like for you; again, thinking of balance and, in particular, within that framework, how do you avoid any societal roles imposed upon us that we might have subconsciously absorbed?
Gillian Margot: As you and Marco probably know, the societal roles are deeply systemic and the impositions normalized. There are a few layers to this. So, I will start by addressing the fact that Geoffrey and I worked together before we were a couple. We each had our own careers and music. However, having left Canada and moving to his country (the USA), I was absorbed into his life and everyone I met through him (in music and otherwise) greeted me as “the wife of…” and showed little to no interest in considering me as an individual.
Of course, I had my own small group of American jazz musicians with whom I had worked, and they know me and were cool, but connections via my husband seemed to mostly stop at “wife.” So, we stopped sharing the fact that we are married with the public for a long time. We recognized that our marriage is irrelevant to the music and so we generally keep it out of our publicity. And when we tour, it’s like it always was before — separate dressing rooms, hotel rooms, etc. If we are in the same band, we still need our own space, just like any other bandmates. On the bandstand, we have our musical connection which is enhanced by the fact that we know each other so well.
The nature of any relationship with a bandmate directly affects the stage experience and the music. Otherwise the fact that we are married is incidental, because we started making music together well before we became a couple. I don’t know if would be different had we been married first.
LMS: Johanna, You are supported by the PRS Foundation’s Women Make Music which assists the efforts of outstanding women, such as yourself, and gender-expansive musicians in an attempt to address the issue of gender inequality in music. As a singer, producer, composer, and violinist, how has gender inequality in music affected you personally, and what do you think the future will bring for young women as they take on the roles traditionally considered the purview of men, i.e., composer, producer and take up instruments also often regarded as best played by men?
Johanna Burnheart: I want to start this paragraph by making clear that I find it difficult to navigate the complexity of this topic as there are so many layers involved and I don’t think I can solely speak about how gender might have affected my life without also considering heritage, class, race, talent, personality and more as everyone can surely agree.
I can honestly say, I grew up without awareness of inequalities between male and female musicians on the instruments I was learning especially as I was almost exclusively taught by women so the thought didn’t cross my mind that I might be considered differently by some people because of my gender. Other “political” barriers I became aware of early on as I did a lot of competitions. I quickly realised that I did not do as well as I did on other occasions when certain jurors were judging me who openly disliked my current teacher at the time for example as she was notoriously famous for her temperament and passion.
Now I am in the jazz world, I don’t think I have less work than my male colleagues because of my gender. However, I might just be oblivious to any sort of prejudice concerning this. I do find that comparatively I seem to have less access to every day gigs and opportunities within the main jazz scene which I attribute to other things standing in my way. Such as my preferred style to play on the violin which is fairly far removed from the traditional swing violin that is often requested. Or the fact that I am foreign and therefore do not have the same network that some other people might have who grew up here, playing jazz since they were children. Fundamentally, all of these circles are small and it is hard to access them for many reasons.
Out of the lack of gigs I wanted to play in London, I was forced to start my own band and release my own music to share my essence and place myself within the scene which I therefore see as a blessing in disguise as it was a difficult move for me. I would have been gigging for others solely for quite a few years I believe which in hindsight would have been much harder to quit to focus on my own voice.
In future I think we are still going to see a difference between the careers of men and women but I feel very positively about people’s urgency to create no matter what the circumstances. I strongly believe you cannot avoid your musical output even if life seems to stand in your way and you are struggling to find your footing. But as more and more people are becoming aware of the discrepancies between our opportunities, the funding and support will only grow and therefore the output will increase immensely as well. How long it will take for people’s perceptions to change I’m not sure but I believe there won’t be any permanent turning back possible anymore. And of course the cake has to and will grow as the point is not to tip gender inequality to the other side.
LMS: Yazz, as a trumpet player, flugelhornist, composer and band leader of a myriad of ensembles worldwide, do you consciously reflect on the path you are forging for the women who will follow? What will your impressive body of work mean to future generations, especially those of mixed heritage?
Yazz Ahmed: Yes, I feel that it is my duty to inspire and pave the way for other emerging musicians and composers. In my own projects, I do my best to create gender balanced line-ups and encourage those that I see potential in.
Something we can all do is make a conscious decision to book female musicians – there are plenty of extraordinary players out there who rarely get a chance to shine, learn and contribute to the music scene. This also applies to festivals and venues who really need to up their game and promote equality.
LMS: Gillian, I have a similar question for you. Do you think there have been inroads made since you began working professionally in music regarding the gender imbalance in the music industry and, most significantly, jazz? By the nature of your work, you are effecting change. Do you do so consciously?
Gillian Margot: Some positive change has definitely occurred. I can look around and find jazz musicians who happen to not be men. The numbers of women in jazz are growing again and recognition of their excellency is gradually becoming more common. I think of the more recent inroads made by Roxy Coss, Terri-Lyne Carrington, and Helen Sung for starters. What’s crazy is the yo-yo effect. There have been hundreds of incredible women musicians in jazz since the inception of this music, many of who were globally celebrated, like Dorothy Donegan, Ginger Smock, Una Mae Carlisle, and Mamie Smith, but historically society and media have chosen to extinguish the legacies of these women, bringing only the careers of famous jazz men throughout history to the forefront.
For my part, I am always questioning how and if I am affecting any change. I compose music and write poetry — although I usually set the words to music. I like to think that I am contributing new music, a new perspective, which is something I think we should all be doing. Many jazz vocalists before me who composed great songs and lyrics (such as Abbey Lincoln, Betty Carter, Mark Murphy) are not really celebrated as composers today, but they were much more than singers. I like to perform compositions by women. I also love having the option to play music with women on stage.
It wasn’t like that when I started out. Now I am often checking out women jazz musicians and talking about their music, bringing them up in conversations I have with men colleagues, and suggesting or calling them myself for gigs. Two years ago, I performed a couple of trio shows with Helen Sung and Noriko Ueda and I loved it — we had so much fun. They are both incredible musicians who happen to also be wonderful people, and afterward I remember having a moment when I felt particularly pleased that the club was packed full to hear us and it wasn’t Women’s Month or some special event celebrating the fact that we are women. It was just a gig.
LMS: Those last two lines of Gillian’s hit home with me. We want to be able to have the same educational support and possibilities as our male counterparts and not have a few positions eked out for us with the emphasis that these are great women players. Terri-Lyne Carrington is doing phenomenal work to change the playing ground; her book New Standards: 101 Lead Sheets by Women Composers, published by Berklee Press, addresses the lack of female composers in the jazz musicians’ bible The Real Book. That book and her founding of The Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice offer a significant advancement in changing the dynamic in education.
LMS: Same question for you Johanna. Do you think there have been inroads made since you began working professionally in music regarding the gender imbalance in the music industry and, most significantly, jazz? By the nature of your work, you are effecting change. Do you do so consciously?
Johanna Burnheart: I don’t feel there have been inroads made since I began working professionally really as there are still so few female jazz violinists and indeed female jazz instrumentalists out there working full time. Since the pandemic ended I have been more and more aware of the imbalance and as work slowed down immensely I couldn’t help comparing the way it picked up again for different musicians. I want to believe that the industry is changing but I can’t say that I am conscious of effecting change at this moment. I hope you’re right and it’s just like when you’re growing as a child. One day you turn around to check your height measurements from last year to find you’ve grown 10 inches without noticing.
LMS: What are you all working on now? What are your future plans?
Gillian: I am currently doing a masters degree program at The Juilliard School in New York; I have just had a new course for jazz vocalists launched on opoenstudiojazz.com, and I am working on some string arrangements for a new album which I hope to release in 2024.
Yazz: Currently I am working on my next studio album, which I’m very excited about and I can’t wait to share this music! I also have a new project with electronic artist, Hector Plimmer, and vibraphonist, Ralph Wyld. We started working on some music together in late 2019 but Covid swept the world and we had to put the project on hold. We have some dates in London pencilled in for this year – more to be revealed soon!
Joanna: I am just finishing the mixing and going on to the mastering of my second album soon. It has been a much larger project than the previous album and I am very excited to share it with the world in the coming year.
I also have had some opportunities to compose and produce music for film and theatre in the past year especially which has led me to apply for a Masters in Composition for Screen at the Royal College of Music here in London. I will therefore be deepening my compositional knowledge with this specific focus for the next two years alongside pushing my own music further than before which is going to be a thrilling and expanding time for me.
LMS: Thank you Yazz, Gillian and Johanna for joining in on this conversation. I am an ardent fan of the visionary music you are all producing.
During this Women’s History Month, I am inspired and buoyed by Yazz, Gillian, and Johanna, as well as the many other women pushing the boundaries of jazz. I am further encouraged by the inroads being made, particularly in education, to acknowledge women’s historical and continuing impact on jazz and remain hopeful that they will continue unbounded so that we are honored not only as women who play but as great musicians with innumerable stories to tell.
We’ve put together a Spotify playlist with some of the women we admire and invite you to immerse yourselves in their stories and groove with them alongside us.
About Lisa Marie Simmons
Lisa is a multi-disciplinary storyteller. She is a singer/songwriter (Ropeadope Records), essayist (Huffington Post, The Boston Globe, Kweli Journal, Family Stories Project, Jazzfuel), and published poet currently based in Italy. Lisa was invited to perform at the Biennale in Venice in October 2022 for artist Simone Leigh’s Loophole of Retreat. Her poem “Last Supper” was shortlisted for a Creators of Justice Literary Award in November 2022. Her new album NoteSpeak 12, was released in February 2023 by Ropeadope garnering a 5-star review from Downbeat magazine. Instagram @lisa_mariesimmons
About Yazz Ahmed
Yazz Ahmed is a British-Bahraini Trumpet and Flugelhorn Player.
Through her music, British-Bahraini trumpet player, Yazz Ahmed, seeks to blur the lines between jazz and electronic sound design, bringing together the sounds of her mixed heritage in what has been described as ‘psychedelic Arabic jazz, intoxicating and compelling’. Her career is studded with high profile collaborations, which have seen her record and perform with the likes of Radiohead, Lee Scratch Perry, Transglobal Underground, Arturo O’Farrill, and Natacha Atlas, including a world tour with These New Puritans. In January 2020 Downbeat Magazine named Yazz as one of 25 artists set to shape the future of jazz over the next decade. Instagram @yazzahmedmusic
About Gillian Margot
Gillian Margot is a jazz vocalist with an exquisite voice, a disarmingly wide range and a style that is deeply rooted in the tradition of the great jazz vocalists, Gillian Margot possesses a gift of storytelling and stunning lyrical delivery. A native of Toronto, Canada, Margot studied under a generation of jazz legends including Oscar Peterson, Freddy Cole, Carol Welsman, and Norman Simmons. Equally at home in the musical worlds of jazz, R&B, chamber, and pop, she has been invited to perform in major venues worldwide with a long list of top-tier talent, including rock icon Sting, famed soprano Kathleen Battle, jazz stars Jeremy Pelt and Chris Botti, and GRAMMY® artists Robert Glasper and Geoffrey Keezer. Following her acclaimed debut Black Butterfly, Toronto native Gillian Margot builds on her unique and emotive interpretations of American Standards with Power Flower, a deeply soothing homage to her influences in the Jazz, Pop, and Funk of the 70s and 80s.
About Johanna Burnheart
Johanna Burnheart (/ˈjɒhʌnnʌ/ pron. yo-HUN-na) is a German violinist, singer, composer and producer. After studying classical violin, piano and voice during childhood, Johanna’s musical focus developed into jazz during her mid-teens. Rather than following the path expected of a classical violinist, she chose instead to pursue the music that was her passion. In 2013, she enrolled at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London as the first jazz violin undergraduate student of the school and graduated in 2017 with another year as a fellow to follow.
Since forming her own band end of 2018, Johanna released her debut album simply called “Burnheart” with Ropeadope Records on October 30th 2020. Besides the positive reviews in Jazzwise Magazine, MOJO and Backseatmafia among others, Johanna was chosen as one of 30 best new artists for 2021 by the Guardian. Most recently she released a remix EP called “Burnheart Remixed” with remixes from Acid Pauli, Beth Lydi, Nesa Azadikhah and Pilo Adami as an homage to her love for techno and how it influenced her debut record.
Johanna is currently producing her second studio album which was recorded with a new lineup end of 2022.
- National Women’s History Alliance
- International Journal of Music Education: Understanding the experiences of women in jazz: A suggested model. Erin L. Wehr 2016
- NPR: Terri Lyne Carrington addresses women’s omission from jazz canon with ‘New Standards’