Interview: Liz Exell (Jazz Herstory)
Jazz Herstory is an exciting new online platform and events series from musician Liz Exell, which aims to highlight and celebrate the work of women in jazz. We first came across their profile on Instagram and were immediately interested to know more - the idea of “exploring and addressing gender EQ in jazz”, as stated in their bio, sounded on point.
With a podcast on the go, including an episode with musician and composer Cassie Kinoshi, and a series of gigs at East London’s new venue Poplar Union, featuring a sold-out Nérija show, Yazz Ahmed and Laura Jurd, it’s clear that there are some exciting things in the pipeline.
We caught up with Liz to find out more about her plans for the project, gender inequality in contemporary and historical jazz music, and what more can be done.
Jazz Herstory is wicked, big ups! Can you tell us a bit more about the project?
I set it up as part of the Help Musicians UK Jazz Promotion Fellowship, which I was lucky enough to get place on this year, to feature female led bands playing jazz, or jazz related music. I want to bring women from the background of the scene to a balanced foreground. There are and always have been incredible musicians, who are women, who are spoken about less than their male counterparts. I would like to draw attention to them and normalise the idea or female instrumentalists.
"I want to bring women from the background of the scene to a balanced foreground."
Highlighting gender inequality has never had such a visible impact as it is currently having across many aspects of society. Why and how is it an issue specifically in jazz?
All the icons of jazz, names we recognise, are men. My experience of being a female musician is that people do not expect me to be a musician or to be the leader of the band. I would like to normalise the idea that women do these things and show it is normal and acceptable for women to be musicians. There is no difference between men and women in terms of musical ability, perhaps just a case of women often not seeing themselves in certain roles, partly because of the way the story has been told, the way women have been, at times, excluded. I feel that can change very easily by highlighting the music made by women and the fact that they are very definitely there and there can be more of us.
It does seem that when people address ‘women in jazz’, the focus is usually on great singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan rather than some of the incredible instrumentalists.
It is often assumed that women are singers. I’ve often heard that women turn up at a gig, even with an instrument, and are asked which musician is their boyfriend. So many singers are women and so many of them are incredible. There have also been, and are today, countless wonderful female musicians. Let’s just listen to them.
"There is nothing about jazz which is inherently masculine. Challenging this idea simply means showing women have always been there"
Why is jazz traditionally thought of as such a male dominated space? In what ways do you think we should be challenging this narrative?
There is nothing about jazz which is inherently masculine. Challenging this idea simply means showing women have always been there, women are creating great music and noticing females have been left out of the story, correcting that and including them from now on.
How are you hoping to change perspectives of contemporary women in jazz, and more generally, music?
I hope people will be aware of how women have not received their due appreciation in jazz’s instrumental history and that moving forward, attitudes to musicians of either gender will be based on music.
The series with Poplar Union highlights some of the incredible talent in London, between Nérija, Yazz Ahmed and Laura Jurd. Have you got more shows lined up?
I have high hopes to keep the gig series going. There is an endless list of awesome bands led by women and evenly balanced groups too. There are so many ways I’d love these gigs to evolve so fingers crossed.
What else have you got planned with Jazz Herstory? (The first two podcasts are really interesting, by the way!)
We will be releasing videos of songs from the performances and interviews with bands from the gigs as well as featuring gigs they have on the Jazz Herstory website. We will be continuing to seek out jazz musicians from across the history of the music and feature them. I have made a few playlists of these which are available on the Facebook page and I will be making more playlists of great women as time goes on. Hopefully there will be a continuation of the gigs and I am hoping a balanced or female led theatre-ish production telling the story of jazz off the stage, involving audiences in what musicians get up to when they’re not on stage, and how this has shaped the music.
It’s great to see other similar initiatives launching - such as PRS’s Keychange and the Producer Girls workshop all striving to push for equality and opportunity across the industry. With the launch of these and Jazz Herstory over the past few years it really feels like more people are tuning in. What else can be done?
I think continuing to talk about it, continuing to present female led bands and feature them and their music and encouraging young players to get involved and to feel confident in their future playing music. I think more female teachers at conservatoires, more female students in conservatoires, more female promotors, female reviewers and journalists, female sound and light technicians, female venue managers, female musicians and singers across genres. Just allowing it to become normal and watching the change happen. I believe we have already come a really long way.
Melba Liston - Insomniac
I think this tune is awesome. The arrangement is eerie and unusual and Liston’s trombone playing is really cool.
Beryl Booker - Body and Soul
An amazing swinging piano player playing one of my favourite tunes. She was playing with an all black all female trio and quartet in the 50s and I think intersectionality is really important in this whole question of equality.
Vula Viel -Takiyen Korakora
This music, played by Bex Burch (on gyil) and her first band, is originally from Upper West Ghana. This music was the key to the door I wanted to go through musically when I first heard them two or so years ago and I LOVE this album. I’ve listened to it more than I’ve listened to anything else (except maybe Elvin Jones) and been to Ghana and studied gyil and I think this music is brilliant on all levels.