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‘You play pretty good… for a woman.’

Feature

Amy Sibley-Allen, Jazz Consultant to Kings Place, reflects on the untold story of women in jazz

Women have played an integral part in more than a century of jazz, often with little recognition.

Who were the trailblazers who paved the way for the extraordinary flowering of women in jazz today? Who are the artists passionately writing the future? In Venus Unwrapped we uncover and celebrate some of these women, with the hope that our audience will delve further into the unsung history of women in jazz.

According to tradition, the acceptable role for female jazz artists has been as vocalist – think Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. It’s been a long road for them to be taken seriously as instrumentalists, composers, arrangers and bandleaders. There was a growing number of female pianists on the scene from the 1920s onwards, and Mary Lou Williams gained notoriety as one of the most prolific pianist-composers of that period, heavily influencing the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. (The National Youth Jazz Orchestra will pay tribute to Williams in Laura Jurd’s new arrangement of her Zodiac Suite.)

With the outbreak of World War Two, and men drafted off to fight, the door was open for women to play instruments previously viewed as ‘masculine’, such as brass and drums. All-women big bands, like the one in Some Like It Hot, proliferated. Melba Liston was one of the first women trombonists to play in big bands during that time, while arrangers and conductors gained valuable experience. But with the end of the war, women were encouraged to return to their usual domestic roles.

‘With men drafted in World War Two, the door was open for women to play instruments such as brass and drums.’

By the 60s and 70s many women had come to the forefront of the free-jazz movement, including composer and pianist Carla Bley, avant-garde jazz singer, poet and composer Jeanne Lee, and Alice Coltrane, who developed her own spiritual music following the death of husband John. Inspiring women such as jazz drummer and producer Terri Lyne Carrington were torch-bearers for the next generation. Today, artists such as Jamie Branch and Matana Roberts continue to push the boundaries. This rich legacy is continually being built upon and Venus showcases just a fraction of it. Join us as trumpet player and bandleader Laura Jurd curates a special project. Pay homage to the voice and writing of Norma Winstone with the London Vocal Project and Nikki Isles’ Printmakers. Explore the radical, poetic art of Jeanne Lee. Sample the future with Jazz Re:freshed’s showcase of young talent. Hear Nikki Yeoh and Zoe Rahman double the joy in a two-piano extravaganza or discover the legacy of Detroit’s jazz harpists Dorothy Ashby and Alice Coltrane with Alina Bzhezhinska. Look out, too, for news of Venus Unwrapped events in a very special EFG London Jazz Festival in autumn 2019.

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