Jazz. Arguably the greatest artistic accomplishment to come from The United States in the 20th Century. Within the space of 150 years we see the basis of jazz rhythm being played in Congo Square in New Orleans, to Scott Joplin’s first ragtime compositions in the late 19th century, Charlie Parker’s transcendent bebop phrasing, Miles Davis’ introduction of modal harmony and the ultimate test of the limits of jazz harmony found in later works by John Coltrane. The formation of jazz in The United States was a perfect storm waiting to happen. As radio became more prominent, listeners far and wide could tune in and listen to their favourite compositions. This, paired with the music’s constant and driving progression through different styles, meant there was never a reason for the listener to became bored or disinterested with the genre.
You may have noticed that so far I have only mentioned male jazz musicians. So where are all the female jazz musicians? Vocalists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington come to mind, but I want to focus on the instrumentalists. When are talking about jazz, we usually to look to The United States, but we are now fortunate enough to have an abundance of female jazz instrumentalists leading the genre to new destinations right on our doorsteps in London…
London’s current jazz scene is more vibrant and more diversely represented than it has ever been. Africa and America have provided us with the tools to create this music, but it is now London’s turn to show the world its own jazz language; and British women in jazz are not going to let this opportunity pass them by. Within London you need not look any further than Nérija, the all-female jazz collective tearing apart the London jazz scene from the inside out. Featuring trumpeter Sheila Maurice-Grey, trombonist Rosie Turnton, saxophonists Cassie Kinoshi and Nubya Garcia, guitarist Shirley Tetteh, bassist Inga Eichler and drummer Izzy Exell, this jazz supergroup has a vast array of influences that pull their sound into a coherent unit. These influences range from Guyanese, Trinidadian, and Western African music to Hindustani classical vocals techniques applied to jazz instrumentation. Not only are these leaders of the modern jazz world questioning what jazz stands for as a genre by pushing and pulling it in every which direction, but they are also questioning what it means to be a British musician, just as African-American musicians questioned this when trying to establish their heritage and musical traditions within a society that almost completely denied them of the opportunity to do so. We are so fortunate that we get to hear the music of this phenomenal all-female group that truly encapsulates a “World” aesthetic, as I really struggled to place where this music came from upon first listening – I was very pleased to learn it came from the city we all study in. I must also mention the extraordinary talent of saxophonist Camilla George whose work with award winning groups The Jazz Warriors and Jazz Jamaica have earned her critical acclaim and led to success within her career as a bandleader. George digs deep into her African heritage in her album “The People Could Fly”, with even the title taking from an African childhood story. The quality of the London jazz scene has even led to interest from iconic American jazz label Blue Note, leading to the album “Blue Note Re:Imagined” which has given London artists the opportunity to present versions of standard jazz repertoire in their own style. Blue Note Records has been responsible for finding and publishing some of the greatest jazz artists of the past century and are now looking across the pond for the next generation of talent.
All of these musicians and many more deserve their place among the greatest in jazz of recent years, and I predict a certain few to later be seen as the best of the current generation. They are opening borders between genres in modern music with every day that passes as they help us celebrate and decolonize our musical language while we begin to accept and reconcile with Britain’s past of colonialism. I would like to end this piece by posing this to you; We have so much great jazz and other forms of music to appreciate, from the past and the present. We have hundreds of classic recordings of the American stars that lay foundations for the repertoire and have influenced generations of great jazz musicians from all areas of the globe. When we have all of this at our fingertips we can forget to listen to and explore the music and musicians from our locale. I myself am definitely guilty of this in my early years of jazz listening and playing. I was so obsessed with the classic recordings of the jazz greats that I forgot to listen to new artists and therefore missed out on so much great music. So, I invite you to get immersed in the local London jazz scene. The works being performed by these phenomenal female musicians, as well as many others, have changed the way I play this music and in years to come will hopefully make everybody, musician or not, reassess what we consider to be named as standard jazz repertoire and who gets to be hailed as one of the greats of the genre. I expect to see some of the names mentioned above on that list.
Just as jazz has never stood still for too long, I look forward to seeing what becomes of this talented generation of British female artists in the future. They are the warriors of today… and tomorrow?
Warriors of Today… And Tomorrow? Playlist available on Spotify for essential listening related to this article.