The history of women in jazz in Britain

Parsonage, Catherine and Dyson, Kathy (2007). The history of women in jazz in Britain. In: Adkins Chiti, Patricia ed. Women in Jazz/Donne in Jazz. Rome: Editore Columbo, pp. 129–140.


The history of jazz in Britain has been scrutinised in notable publications including Parsonage (2005) The Evolution of Jazz in Britain, 1880-1935 (Ashgate), McKay (2005) Circular Breathing: The Cultural Politics of Jazz in Britain (Duke University Press), Simons (2006) Black British Swing (Northway) and Moore (forthcoming 2007) Inside British Jazz (Ashgate). This body of literature provides a useful basis for specific consideration of the role of women in British jazz. This area is almost completely unresearched with a few notable exceptions which include Jen Wilson’s work (in her dissertation entitled Syncopated Ladies: British Jazzwomen 1880-1995 and their influence on Popular Culture) and George McKay’s chapter ‘From “Male Music” to Feminist Improvising’ in Circular Breathing. Therefore, this chapter will provide a necessarily selective overview of British women in jazz, and offer some limited exploration of the critical issues raised. It is hoped that this will provide a stimulus for more detailed research in the future.

Any consideration of this topic must necessarily foreground Ivy Benson, who played a fundamental role in encouraging and inspiring female jazz musicians in Britain through her various ‘all-girl’ bands between 1939 and 1982. The circumstances of World War Two meant that Benson’s group gained prominence through extensive touring for the Entertainments National Servicemen’s Association and as a result of being contracted to the British Broadcasting Company.

However, Benson’s band was by no means the first all-female band in Britain, and the roots of the concept can be traced back through early jazz to the Ladies Orchestras popular in the late Victorian period. Likewise, the inclusion of music in the traditional education of ‘accomplished’ young women provided them with technique which enabled them to perform in popular styles. There was significant female participation in the pre-jazz banjo craze of the late nineteenth century, and the British pianist Natalie Spencer performed with Will Marion Cook’s Southern Syncopated Orchestra who visited Britain in the 1920s. Winifred Atwell came to Britain to study at the Royal Academy of Music, but secured success playing ragtime and boogie woogie piano in clubs and on television. Marian McPartland left the Guildhall School of Music to perform in vaudeville, and subsequently has enjoyed a long and successful career in the USA.

Many Benson alumni instrumentalists ‘graduated’ and formed their own all-female groups, including Deirdre Cartwright (guitar; Jam Today and the Guest Stars), Chrissy Lee (drums; Beat Chicks), and Annie Whitehead (trombone). Later, these musicians formed big bands including the Sisterhood of Spit and Lydia D’Ustebyn’s Ladies Swing Orchestra. Together with Maggie Nichols’s Feminist Improvising Group, these all-female groups have provided opportunities for the explicit or implicit expression of feminist ideologies. Women have also worked successfully within the traditional male dominated jazz scene in Britain. Most notable in this regard is Kathy Stobart, whose extremely successful career has included performing with Humphrey Lyttleton in addition to bandleading and teaching. British female musicians have led mixed gender bands, including Barbara Thompson’s Paraphenelia and Gail Thompson’s Gail Force.

As in many countries, vocal performance has provided the most accessible route into jazz for women in Britain, and the country has produced and nurtured internationally known singers including Cleo Laine, Tina May, Claire Martin, Claire Teal and Norma Winstone. Female vocalists have often made important contributions to regional jazz scenes, including Beryl Bryden in East Anglia and Cambridge, and more recently Carole Clegg in the North East and Fionna Duncan in Glasgow.

Jazz education is well-established in Britain, and has contributed to the subsequent successful careers of musicians including Nikki Iles (Leeds College of Music) and Andrea Vicari (Guildhall School of Music and Drama). Female role models in jazz are becoming more frequent in educational institutions. Those in significant positions include Issie Barratt (composer and Jazz Fellow at Trinity Laban College), Kathy Dyson (guitarist and Senior Lecturer at Leeds College of Music), Paula Gardiner (bass player and Head of Jazz at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama), Louise Gibbs (vocalist and Senior Lecturer at Leeds College of Music) and Catherine Parsonage (musicologist and Head of the Centre for Jazz Studies UK at Leeds College of Music).

Women are also taking significant roles within the jazz industry. These include Janine Irons MBE, Managing Director and CEO of Dune Records and Christine Allen, Head of Basho Records. Ivy Benson alumni Shelia Tracy has been broadcasting on the BBC for several decades and Val Wilmer, who trained as a photographer, has contributed to all the major jazz publications and authored several books.

All of the aforementioned contributions must be considered against the backdrop of the changing position of women in British society in the twentieth century. To this end, the factors that both encouraged and prohibited the participation of women in jazz, not only as musicians but also in other roles within the music industry and within society more generally, will also be considered.

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