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BY GREG WEBSTER

Let’s face it, jazz music has long been a bit of a ‘boys club’. Sure, there have been some brilliantly talented female jazz vocalists over the years, but when it comes to jazz musicians, it’s been pretty much skewed towards the lads. Segue to the upcoming Sydney International Women’s Jazz Festival. Now in its fifth year, it is not just a spectacular line-up of some of the world’s best players, it’s also changing the gender balance for the better.

Ellen Kirkwood, who co-leads the Sydney Women’s Jazz Collective, is passionate about getting more women into jazz and improvised music. For her, the festival is a chance to showcase female talent and accordingly change people’s stereotypes of what a jazz musician is. “One of the things that this festival does is to show that you don’t have to be male to be a fantastic jazz musician. I think it’s especially important that young women and girls see jazz as a thing they can do,” said Kirkwood.

Kirkwood takes the stage at least twice during the festival with the Sydney Women’s Jazz Collective, a ten-piece powerhouse of some of Australia’s best up-and-coming jazz stars. Joining them on stage are Canadians Ingrid and Christine Jensen, who are well known in the North American jazz scene. As a trumpet player and on the lookout for role models, Kirkwood discovered Ingrid Jensen and was immediately enamoured: “She is a beautiful player with a very distinctive sound. I am really stoked that we are going to be playing with them.”

Tumbling through her short-list of festival ‘must-sees’, Kirkwood’s enthusiasm is infectious. “I really love Shannon Barnett – she’s a trombonist based in Germany – and is this amazing, energetic, fiery player. Gian Slater is an extraordinary vocalist and not your average jazz singer. She is like a vocal instrumentalist, an expert improviser with a very distinctive, pure voice. I definitely want to see Melissa Aldana and Tara Tiba – I want to see everything!”

Brimming with similar enthusiasm is the festival’s co-artistic director, Zoe Hauptmann, who resembles the proverbial kid in the lolly shop. “One of the great things about being an artistic director is that you can say ‘I’d like to see this and I’d like to see that’, so I can ring them up and give them a gig,” said Hauptmann. Her list of ‘must-see’ performances is equally imposing, with opening night an obvious highlight. “We have Melissa Aldana, who is New York based but originally from Chile. She is an amazing Sax player and the first woman ever to win the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition.”

Reflecting on the lack of presence of women in jazz music, both Hauptmann and Kirkwood suggest a variety of reasons. “I guess it was historically less socially acceptable for women to be associated with such a risqué style of music”, says Kirkwood. “It started with men and the cycle kept perpetuating.” She also points to the notion that certain instruments and styles were not seen as feminine. “When kids pick up instruments, a girl might not want to play the bass or trumpet because they are seen as a boys instrument. I think that has been quite damaging to music because society tells kids that they have to do ‘boys things’ or ‘girl’s things’.“

Hauptmann agrees, though she is less clear on the reasons for the gender disparity. Having recently joined a taskforce chaired by one time Go-Between, Lindy Morrison to look into gender equality in music, Hauptmann believes that the lack of research is a problem. “It is the thing we all want to know. We see it even in schools, that a lot of young women drop-off in music. That is why we target them in the young women in jazz workshops.”

Whilst the festival is doubtless a celebration of women in jazz, it also has a consciously international flavour. Whether it be award-winning French chanteuse Tricia Evy, or the distinctively Iranian tones of Tara Tiba, the Jensens from North America or the South American influences of Melissa Aldana, the festival is a melting pot of different styles and cultures. Always eclectic, jazz music has constantly blurred the boundaries of genre, endlessly fusing with various cultures and styles. For Hauptmann, these influences “just seep into your playing”. Which begs the question, “Is there an Australian sound to Jazz?” As a self-confessed jazz nerd, Hauptmann is certain she can hear the Australian accent. “It sounds like where we’re from – it sounds open. I can hear the sound of the bush and the sound of our cities and maybe even suburbia. It has an edge to it – a rambunctiousness. You can hear our lifestyle in the music.”

Like Hauptmann, Kirkwood is upbeat about the future. “Hopefully one day we won’t need to have specific festivals for women in jazz, because there will be equal representation across genders and it won’t be such a weird thing to see so many women around.”

SYDNEY INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S JAZZ FESTIVAL
Nov 2–13. Various events + venues inc. Foundry 616, Venue 505, Lord Wolseley Hotel, Ultimo, Wollongong Conservatorium, The Powerhouse Museum. Tickets & info: www.sima.org.au

FESTIVAL HIGHLIGHTS

Melissa Adlana Trio (CHILE/US): Nov 2, 8.30-11pm. Foundry616. $25-$45. 

Ingrid and Christine Jensen (CAN/US) with the Mike Nock Trio: Nov 3, 8.30-11pm. Foundry616. $25-$45. 

Sydney Women’s Jazz Collective (AUS) led by Ellen Kirkwood: Nov 4, 8.30-11pm. Foundry616. $20-$40. 

Shannon Barnett Quartet (GER/AUS): Nov 6, 8.30-11pm. Foundry616. $15-$30. 

Tara Tiba Sextet (IRAN/AUS): Nov 11, 8.30-11pm. Foundry616. $25-$40.

Gian Slater, Barney McAll & Simon Barker (AUS): Nov 12, 9-11pm. Foundry616. $20-$35.