Serena Basra shows there’s more to jazz than Miles Davis.
‘Isn’t jazz wonderful?’ I muse. ‘Yes!’ you cry out, banging your embellished saxophone phone case on the table. How else could you respond? It is a music that hits you right in the centre of your body; full of creativity, collaboration and vitality, and punctuated by the human experience.
As you may have guessed by now, I have long harboured a love for jazz. I was introduced to the jazz scene from an early age when the central female figure in my life, my wonderful mother, sung and shared her appreciation for Big Band with me. It seemed so fresh and exciting – music which thrived on balancing collaboration and individuality: everyone was given a moment to shine. I lounged in the genre, dipping my toes in the sweet, sultry sounds of Nina Simone (the seemingly endless ‘Sinnerman’ blew my young mind), and indulging in the languishing rolls of ‘At Last’ by Etta James. This was a genre of music which, from my early experiences, placed both women and men at the forefront and, unlike the Chart Hits which defined my teen years, was not dominated by an overbearingly white narrative.
GCSE music was my next established foray into the genre, as I was introduced to another of the great musical loves of my life: the virtuoso Miles Davis. In a syllabus eclipsed by male musicians (oh, Edexcel), I had been hopeful that the jazz segment would feature a female artist. While in my eyes, and undoubtedly others’, Miles sits among the greats, it would have been refreshing to be presented with someone like Mary Lou Williams, the multidisciplinary composer, vocalist, arranger and pianist, who was already a working musician at the age of eight. She is a mesmerising figure. Duke Ellington described her as ‘like soul on soul’, and as she herself explained, ‘I’m the only living musician that has played all the eras. Other musicians lived through the eras and they never changed their styles.’
The arrangement of the syllabus was only one of several moments which piqued my interest in the representation of women in the genre. Fast-forward many years to January 2017, when I stumbled upon an article by Kelsey Klotz titled The Absent Women of Jazz. While some of her other writings focus on issues such as the interplay between cool jazz and narratives of white privilege (I strongly recommend seeking out her works), this piece is an illuminating analysis on portrayals of the jazz industry. As Klotz points out, by watching films such as Damien Chazelle’s ‘Whiplash’ and ‘La La Land’, you’d be forgiven for assuming jazz is a male-dominated profession. Despite women being clearly cemented in the tradition, representations in popular culture often fail women. They omit women from the narrative, focus solely on the exceptional anomaly, or fail to recognise women as instrumentalists and posit them solely as backing vocalists. Such narratives fail to represent the multifaceted nature of their various skills and the central role they played in creating the genre.
There ought to be greater representation of the women who shaped, and are continuing to influence, this beautiful genre: the multidisciplinary Alice Coltrane, who was a jazz pianist, organist, harpist, singer and composer; the trombonist and arranger Melba Liston, who was the first female trombonist to play in the male-dominated big bands from the 1940s to the 1960s; or the singer Norah Jones, who was named Billboard’s Top Jazz Artist of 2000-2009. Women have been an important part of jazz from the beginning, and their influence in composition has often advanced and shaped the genre.
There are many women in the jazz scene who are worthy of your attention, despite the mainstream narrative which perpetuates the false understanding that there are fewer talented female jazz musicians. Female musicians, unlike men, are less likely to be subject to lavish marketing campaigns by record companies, and for this reason their achievements are less well known. Fight against this, and angle your spotlight towards them. Bask in your ‘Lady Soul’.
Now go pop that song on. Vi Redd performs a heartbreakingly talented cover.
Illustration by Isabel Mitchelson