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BAN BAM: Talking Music

Ian Patterson By

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Only by showing that anything can be done by either a man or a woman can you really change the perception —Rosella Bottone, musician, sound engineer, founder of Girls Rock Dublin
Regular goers to jazz/improvised music gigs and festivals might have clocked the fact that those on stage tend to be predominantly male—a mirror, more often than not, of the make-up of the audience. Women instrumentalists are the exception rather than the norm. Though what exactly, we should perhaps ask ourselves when it comes to music and gender, is normal?

This, and many other questions related to the gender imbalance in jazz/improvised music, are put under the microscope at BAN BAM, a vibrant one-day festival of talks and music [for music review see separate article] by Improvised Music Company—the people who brought you the award-winning festival 12 Points and Down with Jazz.

BAN BAM signals an important new initiative from IMC, as the festival's Creative Producer and IMC Marketing Manager Aoife Concannon explains: "I'd become aware of the gender imbalance on stage in the last few years and we at IMC decided to take a bit of action. The first thing was to talk to the female jazz musicians in our local scene to get a feel for their perspective about their experiences, why they think there are so few girls and women pursuing careers in this sort of music and what they think could help them in their careers."

BAN BAM is a play on 'bean'—the Irish for 'woman.' It's certainly catchier than the usual 'Woman in Jazz' titles that often accompany similar events. "We want it to be a fun event, not something that sounded weighty, academic and restricting," says Concannon. Going forward the name is also more user-friendly. "If we want to do collaborations with other genres, whether it's rock, pop or whatever, then BAN Bam could still be used."

From the outset, the IMC team of Concannon, Kenneth Killeen and board member Riona Sally Hartman concurred that just putting on music for BAN BAM was not enough. "We decided that a big part of this festival would have to be conversations. Conversations on the issues around gender imbalance in jazz and improvised music is what it's all about."

There's plenty of that in the two panel discussion that get BAN BAM underway in The Complex, a multiple-studio cum performance/exhibition space run by an artists' collective, a stone's throw from the River Liffey, in the heart of Dublin.

What's Wrong With This Picture?

To set the scene, the first panel discussion is preceded by a slide presentation from Issie Barratt (jazz musician, composer, conductor and educator) that provides snapshots of her thirty-year career to date. In all the ensembles she has been involved in, whether performing, writing or conducting, there is a striking common denominator: "The only woman I've actually seen in any of that, in any capacity, was me," she states. As Head of Jazz at Trinity Laban and the National Youth Jazz Collective, Barratt also observed that the majority of students were also male. "It starts to make you think. What's going on here then?"

A multi-faceted artist, Barratt has also worked extensively in the domain of classical music, where a different picture emerges: "I notice that when I write for contemporary classical ensembles that the gender balance is much more fifty-fifty and I started to think why is that?"

Barratt's research in the UK turned up some stark figures, namely that women make up only 5% of jazz instrumentalists and that less than 5% of bands programmed at UK jazz festivals are led by a woman. She found a similar picture in education, where women make up a tiny percentage of professors in the UK's conservatoires and music colleges. Women instrumentalists are also poorly represented in the jazz media and, when all the above facts are taken together it's not a total surprise that women are heavily outnumbered by men on the shortlists for jazz awards.

A disproportionate number of women, Barret observes, lead their own ensembles: "They say it's often because they are not asked to be in other people's projects. Rhythm section players in particular say it's really difficult to get the same opportunities to be a side person as a woman."

Clearly perceptions surrounding females and music in general---and what Barratt refers to as unconscious bias in the industry—need to be better understood. There's plenty of food for thought in Barratt's presentation (a longer interview with Barratt pursuing these issues will appear presently at All About Jazz), which the opening panel wastes no time getting its teeth into.

Chicks Dig It!

The first panel, moderated by singer-songwriter Riona Sally Hartman brought together Barret, Rosella Bottone (musician, sound-engineer and founder of Girls Rock Dublin) and Matthew Berrill (musician, Galway Jazz Festival Artistic Director and educator). The themes of the discussion included education, role models and positive examples of practises within the industry.

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