Writing about jazz
Writing about Jazz
If you are passionate about something, you should be involved. I play several instruments badly, sing fairly, and like jazz strongly. So what to do and how to be involved? Write? Maybe. I write this piece for the Jazz Journalist Association when they asked me to introduce myself when I became International Editor but, with a little adaptation, I wanted to explain about jazz journalism and why I write, so, here is a bit about why I write and what jazz means to me.
Writing has been part of my life for many years. I have also done academic proofing for Cambridge University Press (for which I was paid in books) and had pieces published in Essentials, Bella, Environment Times, Record Collector, The Irish Times, London Life, and more. Over the years, I came to specialise in jazz music, as it is the music that inspires me. I got into jazz when I joined a jazz club in Hampstead, London where I flat shared after leaving university. I played oboe and clarinet and even though I had not been able to bring either to London with me I thought I would just sit and listen. The club was run by David Cross (King Crimson) and he was having no one just sit there. He decided, as my background was singing (I had taken parts in Gluck's Orpheus and Eurydice, Gilbert and Sullivan's The Sorcerer, won festival classes and so on, and had also been in a couple of bands, made an album, etc, nothing amazing but a bit).
So, knowing this because he had forensically asked my music background when I turned up, David decided I would sing. I found jazz singing really enjoyable and using the voice like an instrument, I found any embarrassment vanished. David's method in a free playing session was to point at people as we jammed and expect them to play for about 8 bars. When it was my turn, he kept pointing for what seemed like ages, and eventually when he moved on something had happened. The reaction from the 30 or so musicians there was wonderful and uplifting. I was rubbish but they were incredibly patient and encouraging. I loved hearing the others play and 8 of us even formed a break-out group so we could play more jazz and experiment (my clarinet joined us at this point). Years went by and I learned more and went to gigs, and concerts and enjoyed the music but I never really thought I would write about jazz or be able to if I tried.
However, when I found music I liked but hardly anyone had heard of I wondered if I could try writing. I wanted to share the feelings jazz music gave and tentatively bring the attention to musicians I felt people should have heard of. My first published jazz piece was for London Jazz News and was about the People Band - a free-form combo I had liked for a while. I got a call from John Kelman, at the time, editor of All About Jazz. To this day, I still believe he thought I was another writer but he offered me a platform for my work plus my own column which I called Scumbles where I could write anything I wanted to so long as it related to jazz. I did not stay with All About Jazz for very long because of the editing requirements, (which, frankly, I was not up to at the time), but their initial confidence in me gave me a real boost. From there I found myself writing for Jazz In Europe, Kind Of Jazz, Something Else Reviews, and Free Jazz Collective. Now I just write for the latter three and have just become the jazz correspondent for Platinum Mind.
I have written articles, profiles, and interviews about well-known and lesser-known musicians. Both musicians and their agents approached me and I had to turn down many reviews. During this time, I also connected with Anthea Redmond of Jazz Bites Radio. She interviewed me and then offered me shows of my own. I hosted a series called Ladies In Jazz, Jazz Unhinged, and the Jazz Treasure Trove (which is still running). The Ladies in Jazz series was repeated twice as it was so popular and inspired other series on other stations. I decided to write a book. Many musicians gave me material and I also spoke with record labels, PR companies, agents, and radio hosts and I was also talking with publishers In 2017 my first book 'All That's Jazz' was published with Tomahawk Press.
I had no idea how well a jazz book written by me as an unknown writer would do but All That's Jazz received wonderful reviews and I decided maybe another book was possible. I wanted to write about women in jazz and 8th House agreed it was a great subject and important so we worked on 'Women In Jazz, The Women, The Legends and Their Fight' which was published in 2018. The reaction was amazing. In the book, women discuss their journeys, the status of women in jazz, misogyny, and many other things. The book won a Jazz Times Distaff award, was placed on their Gearhead List, Won Phace Mag’s Book of The Year award was nominated for Jazzwise and the Jazz Journalists Association Book of The Year. I was amazed at the interest and positivity that the book generated. It is not surprising though when it came out just at the time when there was a surge in support for women in jazz from many quarters. This was followed by another book with 8th House, this time concentrating on the musical journeys and careers of 21 female musicians including Jane Bunnett, Georgia Mancio, Mimi Fox, Camille Thurman, Sheila Jordan, and many others. I was then approached by Debbie Burke – an American editor. She wanted to collaborate on a book. I was flattered when she said working with me would really be useful for her. At the time I had been asked to write a paper on gender issues in jazz but had decided against it but I had the germ of an idea for a wider looking book on gender in UK jazz. Debbie liked the idea so we produced 'Gender Disparity in the UK ' in 2020. Again, the reaction was amazing and the book was placed on academic study lists for students, cited in research papers, used by a Parliamentary Committee, and well-received. Last year, when the pandemic was impacting so many musicians I decided to try to give them a voice. I interviewed 18 top-notch musicians and 'Pause, Play, Repeat' was published in 2021. The book is about how musicians coped during lockdowns, the loss of income, and the knock-on effects. It features musicians including Tony Kofi, Ivo Perelman, Tara Minton, Collette Cooper, and Ray Gelato, all with tales to tell.
One of the best things about writing is how suddenly your opinion seems to matter. I have often heard a musician and wondered why more people have not heard their music for example - but now, I have, for want of a better word, the power to help and it feels amazing. I have played a small but hopefully significant part in giving many musicians and writers exposure on platforms with good reputations and encouraging their journalistic skills as well as gaining them attention. I reviewed Kim Cypher's debut album and interviewed her for two of my books. With encouragement, she got a piece published on JJA News and is enjoying great success - not just as a result of this of course; she is a very talented musician, but since the piece was published, she has written for other publications. I invited Fiona Ross to play at a mini-festival in 2017, reviewed one of her early albums, and recommended she have a go at writing some articles for Jazz In Europe, the online magazine whilst I was away in Ecuador for a year. This resulted in her becoming Senior Editor there and she has since run her own series focussing on women in jazz. I reviewed Marco Marconi and Graham J and interviewed each of them. They met each other after an introduction and played a sell-out gig in London. They now have more projects in the pipeline as a duo. I also reviewed and interviewed Wendy Kirkland and recommended her to Pianist Magazine as a contributor. So, the value of articles is clear and they can make a real difference and contribute in small but important ways to the success of others. The idea of now being able to encourage other journalists is appealing.
Over time, my contact list has grown and I am grateful that I have a network of contacts in many countries. Musicians have been able to express their views and it has been a privilege to offer them a platform to do this. They include Matty Bannond, Luciano Rossetti, and Bob Salmeiri.
For anyone wanting to break into jazz journalism, I would say go for it. Always do the research on the review subject, whether that is the band, individual members or the solo artist. Check you have permissions to use pictures and quotes too. If you can, find a mentor - someone already in journalism willing to help you - most of us have people under our wing who are keen to write but are learning the skills and it is wonderful when they get their first piece out there.
The sense of being part of a community of people who want to share jazz music is special. I can throw out a question on social media and get responses from many people in jazz music. I am passionate about jazz and writing – now I can do both. I have a book out in June 2022 ‘The Wonder of Jazz’ with input from over 100 jazz people. I called it ‘The Wonder of Jazz’ because, for me, jazz is a wonder and a joy.