Sammy Stein Women in Jazz book cover

Kim Cypher photo by Ron Milsom

The upcoming book release of Women in Jazz: The Women, The Legends & Their Fight by author Sammy Stein is a musical melange of the struggles and triumphs of iconic jazz masters as well as the lesser-known women in this realm, and their forward-thinking approach to music as an art and a business.

Presented in a two-column format not unlike an encyclopedia, the book reads like skipping stones on a pond: one eye-opening narrative leads to a fascinating historical photo that leads to priceless quotes and offbeat reference sources, keeping the reader hungry for the next surprise Stein will veer off to. Issues like whether misogyny in jazz is still with us, equal gig opportunities/equal pay (Jane Ira Bloom refers to “the phone calls you don’t get”) and even things like “the physicality of lugging all the gear around and coping with the whole lifestyle of being on the road” as described by Kim Cypher are all refreshing perspectives on the challenges of being a female artist. Stein widens her net by including the impressions of record executives, radio hosts and others who have built their lives around jazz.

This whole-ball-of-wax (or vinyl) study of women in jazz hits all the major and minor keys with the shiny energy of a live bebop session. It’s an intelligent and highly enjoyable choice for jazz lovers of all stripes.

What prompted you to write this book?

I have been reviewing and interviewing jazz people for many years. Initially, I wrote one piece thinking “maybe it will get published” and it was. From there, I was asked to write for other columns and found I was given a pretty free rein by editors who seemed to like my work and how I approached the music.

I had one aim and that was to share the experience of jazz music – you know, that sense we all get at some point when we listen to good music and it just takes you somewhere else. I wanted people to engage with that. Then, I was asked to go on JazzBites Radio in the US and the next thing I was curating series for them, which allowed me to showcase artists and different music that I enjoyed and wanted to share. Pretty self-indulgent, you might think, but it also got people interested. The station then sponsored a small festival in London called the London Jazz Platform where I organized and curated 14 acts across a single day in London Fields’ Brewhouse venue. It proved successful for the musicians involved and many collaborations began between the artists who played with each other there.

There were musicians from New Orleans, Scandinavia and the UK – a mix of free and more straight-ahead jazz. More writing followed, including a book commissioned by Tomahawk Press called All That’s Jazz which covered the jazz scene and included musicians, PR people, radio hosts and stations, writers and more. Then I curated a series for the station called “Ladies In Jazz” which, according to the station’s owner, sent listening figures through the roof. That led me to think there was a lot of interest in women as musicians, but I also realized there were far fewer women in jazz than men, at all levels and in all roles. I spoke to a lot of contacts and they agreed so I approached the publishers with the idea of a book on women in jazz. I got three offers and went with 8th House Publishers and here we are.

Why did you choose these particular women to interview?

I chose women from different backgrounds and who had differing roles, from singers, instrumentalists, those in PR, photographers, record label people; basically women whom I had contact with but I also approached some who were known to me that I had never met or interviewed and a few who were suggested by other contacts.

I explained I wanted to share their experiences and engage with readers who were perhaps wondering why jazz featured relatively few women compared to men. These days in most walks of life there are no barriers to women in any career but in jazz there still felt a certain attitude and I wanted to find out if this was perceived or a reality. The only way to do that was to speak to as broad a spectrum as I could and find out.

I wanted women from different countries, ages and level of experience to see how things had changed, if at all. When I first outlined the ideas, I did not set out to highlight any issues, just to share experiences. But issues kept coming up and the book became the place where views could be aired and experiences shared. I wanted readers to feel part of it so the publisher and I came up with the idea that – suspending reality for a bit – we could have a huge gathering, all of us, past and present, around a table sharing our thoughts, listening to each other and questioning. The women I approached all found the idea intriguing and I was incredibly lucky to have the thoughtful and profound input from so many.

The exclusion and under-representation of women in jazz seems to be an underlying theme. Did you feel most women musicians agree this is a problem?

I think society as a whole is getting better at equality. There are huge numbers of young people coming into jazz and I know some of them are completely flummoxed at the lack of females. Older musicians differ in their opinions. Some are confused as to why the issues are being raised – there is a holding on to the old views of women as decorative items, while others see women as an enrichment. Others see no issues at all and this can be said of the women too.

Some have had awful experiences while others have had just a few small things occur, which they almost dismiss as “normal for jazz,” while others feel they have been unfairly treated. Many, I would say, feel there is progress but it is slow. I think musicians are at the forefront of change, while progress in other areas perhaps is still slow. Some of it stems from the origins of jazz music. It was male-dominated from the start with cutting sessions being quite brutal at times and I think there is a sort of hang-over from that era.

Do female musicians, when in school, experience differences even in the access to or quality of their early training (private lessons, opportunities to join a music ensemble in school, etc.)?

I think this is an area where change is happening. There are more female students in jazz courses, there are more women going into areas like photography, PR and so on, so this will have a knock-on effect. It is the young people who will change things in the long term and they are also more likely to call people out when they make a mistake, either deliberately or inadvertently.

What was the most striking example of an uplifting story where a female artist prevailed in spite of a difficult professional situation?

That’s difficult as each woman in the book has a different journey to share, but it is interesting speaking to women from different cultures where the culture itself places women at a different level. There is, for example, the story of one woman who, even though she was leader of the band and composed the music, when it came to coffee and sandwiches, bore the responsibility to provide them. And there are numerous times when women hear comments like “you play well for a woman.”

Nearly every woman in the book was stopped in their tracks by the attitude and stupidity which still happens, like one who called a venue to arrange a gig and was told there was no chance of one. Her husband called the same venue an hour later and was given a gig.

Were there any women included in this book who played instruments that have been considered non-traditional?

When you consider the range of women in the book, there are percussionists, bass players and tenor sax players, and many of them started as singers or pianists before switching to their choice of instrument. Not so long ago, women were simply not encouraged to take up a tenor or baritone sax.

What world-view do all these women have in common?

The overwhelming passion of these women is music and their continual progression within the art, not just jazz music but music as a medium, a way of communicating and sharing. I think this is something which unites them.

In writing this book, were there any surprises along the way?

Yes. I never set out for the book to be political or to concentrate on particular issues and they came up naturally. I wasn’t going to silence someone with a viewpoint. My job was to weave the stories into a conversation.

However, I suppose a bit of a surprise was speaking to men about the book. Some of them were surprised anyone was tackling this huge area while many were really pleased and told me it was a good thing to do. Many men are supportive of women in music and jazz music in particular. They told me women bring a lot to the table and people should be recognized for their talents -wherever they may lie – rather than their gender. I was surprised at some things which still happen like festivals where organizer will tell a woman “oh, we have enough female performers on the bill now.”

Your favorite part of this project?

Definitely putting it altogether. I ended up with a huge volume of information and the problem was how to link it and set it out. Once the idea of the book being a sort of massive conversation with everyone – including the reader – involved, it was easier because I could add reactions from different women on various aspects and get the flow. It was a huge challenge but also a learning curve for me.

Also, the great news that a further book has already been commissioned – this time, in-depth interviews with 15 to 20 women. I was completely bowled over by the fact that these wonderful and talented individuals would give me their time and give such thought to their responses. I enjoyed their stories, their humor and their positivity.

Other comments?

I think there is an incredible positive feel about music at the moment and jazz in particular. I covered a gig for the BBC a while back and was amazed at the young people coming to see a free-form jazz band. Only last week at a Peter Brotmann gig at café Oto, there were over 200 people and the mix was all ages, and I noticed quite a few women there too.

There are many people who find the continuing gender issues a complex and strange thing and many record labels and events are very supportive of women as well as men. I hope one day there won’t be any ‘things’ – whether that is gender or about race, culture or anything else. It should be just about the music, the sharing and the engagement of both musicians and listeners.

Cover image courtesy of the author and 8th House Publishing. Photo of Kim Cypher with Pee Wee Ellis & Chris Cobbson (c) Ron Milsom.
(c) Debbie Burke 2019

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