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Issie Barratt: Every Solo Is A New Invitation


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Issie Barratt is one of the most significant jazz educators in Britain today. From 1999-2004, Barratt was head of Jazz at Trinity College of Music but her role as Artistic Director of the National Youth Jazz Collective has been of even greater importance in developing young jazz talent. Now in its, thirteenth year, NYJC goes from strength to strength with a faculty of over seventy tutors, including many of the finest musicians in the country. Crucial in our very male jazz scene are the major efforts that Barratt has made to foster young female talent. NYJC does not just preach diversity. It acts upon it. Last year, for reasons such as these, BBC Radio 4 ranked her at number 38 in their Women in Music Power List.

A highly regarded composer and improviser on the baritone saxophone, for ten years, Barratt toured the world, from Europe to North America and to India, performing her music with some of the finest big bands around. All too often, her own work as a composer-musician seems to have taken a back seat to her work as an educator. However, Barratt brings the same energy and creative intelligence to all aspects of her life as a musician. She is truly a force to be reckoned with. Number 38? And rising!

Listening to the young musicians involved in NYJC is always a joy. Their confidence and enthusiasm always impresses and whenever one spots a young Laura Jurd, Alexandra Ridout, Jas Kayser or Rosie Turton, one knows that the future of British jazz is in good hands. As Barratt explains, the Collective started in 2007.

"It was when I was Head of Jazz at Trinity," she tells me. "It was that time when all the conservatoires had just started their jazz courses. The organisation, Youth Music, wanted to ensure that the youngsters planning to do a degree in jazz were getting the same support in small group jazz improvisation as say a choral singer going through National Youth Choir or string player with the National Youth Orchestra."

Youth Music approached Jazz Services (now deceased}, who asked Barratt to head up a research project. That led to a number of proposals, including the idea of an annual summer school. "That was 2007 at Leeds College of Music," Barratt tells me. "Obviously, it was a pilot Summer School because we didn't know what the outcome would be. I did fourteen days of auditions all over Britain. From that, it was really clear that some parts of the country had got some activity going on with kids playing to quite a high standard. In other areas, though they were enthusiastic and had real potential, they clearly had no experience of jazz. Well, we are not truly national if we aren't helping those young people reach that level."

The next step came in 2010 with the establishment of a network of regional hubs, which has been hugely successful. NYJC now runs six workshops per year in those areas. However, Barratt was constantly being made aware of a big gap. The British jazz scene might now be more open in gender terms today than it was in the past but diverse, it ain't.

"I had toured the world with my music," Barratt says. "I'd run NYJC and the Trinity Jazz Faculty and worked with Graham Collier at the Royal Academy of Music but I was still shocked by how few female musicians were on the scene or coming through the colleges. That started to pre-occupy me and eventually we got some money from Youth Music to work with the Institute of Education and in 2013 we did a research project. So, our remit has gradually broadened as it has evolved."

One of the difficulties Barratt points out is the tendency amongst jazz professionals—predominantly male musicians, teachers, promoters and journalists—to cut short discussion by referring to those women players who came through in the nineties. People like pianist Nikki Iles, trombonist Annie Whitehead or more recently emerging stars such as Nubya Garcia. The inference is, "We're getting there. These things take time." Or even, "Problem? What problem?" Truth is it's been baby steps and, as far as gender is concerned, the British jazz scene remains very unsteady on its feet. Barratt's voice drops and, for a moment, she sounds weary as she gives a examples of the repetitive and repeated experiences of women musicians in British jazz.

"Take the jam sessions at Ronnie Scott's Club," she says. "I know award-winning, female musicians who have gone along and been ignored and then told, 'Sorry but we've been really busy here tonight.' The woman has seen guys who have come in after her be invited up on the stage to join guys who play in the rhythm sections that they've booked for their own gigs or records. Then when women approach a festival, they're told, 'We've already got a woman playing this festival. Come back next year.' Or if they approached venues, especially those run by volunteers, the response is frequently, 'I'd love to book you but I'd lose my audience.' That crops up a lot. Then, of course, you get the reaction from the audience, 'Oh, you're really great. You play just like a man.' In general, people do seem to still struggle with championing women and accepting they're great."

Baby steps when giant leaps are required. There is also a very male tendency, when such problems are pointed out, to rush to solutions, mainly structural and organisational, or equally often to draft a mission statement. Problem solved? As Barratt argues, "We need to ask what is already happening that makes this such an imbalanced scene before you start to put in place initiatives. Some of the initiatives have been quite naive. They don't really understand the dynamic of why we are the way we are."

If you want young women to come forward and take their place in the music, you have to create an environment that is welcoming, which means getting rid of the "locker room mentality," as Barratt describes it, that many women find alienating. This even manifests itself among the eight to eighteen age group serviced by NYJC.

"I think the boys find it very difficult when a girl plays a solo to give her the same encouragement that they would their male friends," she points out, "and often the girls are on their own. It's very important, particularly when you are young and just finding your way, that we support each other and that when you play you get the recognition. So, some of the girls misread the situation, get quite disappointed and think they're not very good. I've seen girls leave from beginner and intermediate groups and, when I was at Trinity, girls would often transfer after the first or second year to another department. It was always because they were the only girl in that cohort and they were expected to be part of that very male gladiatorial, locker-room kind of culture."

And as she adds, "What we have noticed is there's still the same amount of ambition among the girls, love of the music and desire to be part of it all but we need to realise that the actual has quite an alpha male psyche to it as well. Each cohort needs the same amount of support. I think it's up to us as educators to intervene because the kids are left to themselves a lot. So, we really discourage that sort of gladiatorial way of behaving, but without losing the ambition, so that we encourage everybody. I have a mantra. It says, 'Every new solo is a new invitation."

So, how would she describe the differences between the NYJC and NYJO, the National Youth Jazz Orchestra?

"Well, firstly, we focus on small group improvisation and also include composition in what we are doing," Barratt tells me. "Also, I think our remit of musics is wider. We are just about to partner up with the Folk Society and the equivalent of NYJC in the Indian music world."

NYJC's teaching model emphasises ear training. As Barratt says, "Everything is by ear, so we don't ever sit down and read charts. We encourage the young musicians to be the arrangers and composers as well. We work really closely with them to help them develop their skills."

Barratt has also made huge efforts to move away from over-reliance on the kinds of jazz tutor books developed by David Baker and Jamey Aebersold to build up a bank of online resources that is skill and age appropriate and which reflects British, as well as world jazz. And, of course, that requires building up a repertoire that reflects the contributions of women jazz composers such as Carla Bley, Nikki Iles, Barbara Dennerlein, Annie Whitehead, Laura Jurd and others.

And more recently, Summer Schools—still the highpoint for so many young musicians in the musical calendar—have developed thematically. "This year's theme is Black British and international women artists," Barratt says, "while the following year we will be collaborating with UK Folk Society and the one after, we want to use Third Stream and collaborate with youth orchestras. But that has a lot of politics involved in that because there is already a pre-existing structure for the youth orchestras and we need to get the message out to everybody so nobody feels excluded."

This thematic approach is crucial in the diverse, multi-cultural world of twenty-first century Britain, where musical cultures coincide and connect in various ways. Such themes inform both the collective's work in the regions, as well as its Summer School, as Barratt explains,

"Last year's theme was about collaborating with our Indian colleagues. Two of them came to work with us at our Summer School and I worked with them on theirs, so I am able to translate from Western musical terminology into Indian and vice versa."

This is serious, challenging stuff but it is delivered with care and concern to support young players to develop their own individual creative potential. The words "student focused" get bandied about a lot in education generally but, in NYJC's case, they mean it and they do it. With a pool of some seventy tutors it is unfair to single out a handful but the names of pianists Nikki Iles and Liam Noble, saxophonist Mark Lockheart, vibraphonist and percussionist Orphy Robinson and vocalists Norma Winstone and Cleveland Watkiss and NYJC alumna Laura Jurd will give a clear indication of the calibre of musicians who teach with NYJC.

Moreover, teaching in small groups of no more than nine students to each tutor allows for much greater flexibility than is possible in the large scale universe of regional and national youth big bands. As Barratt says, "We can actually be resourceful and really support them and integrate their personal interests. So, they can come with ideas and that can be part of our musical journey. That's harder to facilitate in a big band situation."

All the talk so far has been about NYJC and jazz education but Barratt's work as a composer deserves equal attention. To date, though her compositions and arrangements have been performed by dozens of big bands across the globe, she has released just two CDs both on Fuzzy Moon Records, the label she established in 2008, for the release of her epic Astral Pleasures. Featuring some of the cream of the British jazz crop, it's a totally absorbing collection that draws on all of Barratt's musical influences from jazz such as George Russell and Mike Gibbs but also on her love of contemporary classical music and their potential for combination in third stream music.

Her next, and to date, last release was the Meinrad Iten Suite (2011). A series of portraits inspired by Swiss artist Meinrad Iten, the album could not have been more different from the grandeur of its predecessor. Written and performed by a quartet of Barratt herself, Mick Foster on clarinets, Rowland Sutherland on flutes and pianist Mark Donlon, the suite is beautifully constructed, a wintery set of miniatures that linger long in the memory. Which finally brings us to yet another major Barratt project—the all-female dectet, Interchange. Astonishingly, in all her years touring the world, Barratt had never performed with a big band that had included a female musician. Nor has her work ever been programmed with that of another female composer. Barratt says she had begun to wonder if this was the way it would always be.

"I could see that there was a lot of small group activity going on with women," she tells me, "and I really wanted to work with other women." She approached the Arts Council and found sympathetic ears. She continues, "To cut a long story short, they asked me to set up an ensemble that championed women composers and improvisers. And the PRS Foundation came on board to help fund commissioning of women composers and, with a lot of consultation, I selected ten women to be part of that but that pool of players has already grown to thirty-five and rising"

That was in 2017 and with a string of highly successful festival and other dates behind the band, the first Interchange CD, Donna's Secret has just been released with compositions by eight of its members. Not that it has been easy. Barratt was careful to approach promoters she knew would be supportive and the band's success has encouraged other more conservative festival organisers to come on board.

And as she points out, "It just confirmed what we had already guessed. If you have a diverse programme you are going to get a diverse audience. So, it's great that they've reported that back. I've got lots of quotes from promoters and reviewers and that's really given other promoters more confidence." With several of the players in Interchange also working as NYJC tutors, Barratt has even found a way of extending the work of the Collective as part of the band's remit. "So, when we are going around the country doing concerts," she says, "we do open-workshops and we've started to work with young women composers."

I ask what differences she finds working in this all-female context.

"I think we are enjoying working together," she says, "and the conversations that we have and the way we manage the band is very different from how we would if it were a ten-piece male band. I know nothing about the child care or looking after elderly relatives arrangements for any of the men I work with but I know exactly what I need to do for a rehearsal with Interchange because of their childcare and care for the elderly responsibilities. And I think the subject matter of the compositions is very different to anything a pool of my male colleagues might have written if given the same brief of 'write up to 10 minutes' for this line up. They're very autobiographical and from a female perspective. We all enjoy the opportunity to talk about life in general and some of the shared challenges we face, especially as on occasions some of the band's pool of players feel they can't talk so openly with male colleagues because they're frightened they may lose the gig."

And Barratt adds, "Though there's a much more sophisticated and nuanced conversation going on now and society is empowering women more anyway, there's still a long way to go."

Having heard the new album, Donna's Secret, I was blown away by it, the quality of the compositions matched by the superbly crafted arrangements and top-flite playing. There's something as well about the vibe—a sense of warmth, of openness, of possibilities—that I really enjoyed. I told Barratt I would not review the record but have had to recant. Donna's Secret needs to be told.

Issie Barratt's energy, enthusiasm and political skills have been put to good use in British jazz these last two decades. Her own music may have recently taken a bit of a back seat to her work as an educator but I am hoping that Interchange will change that. At times, when I look at Barratt's achievements, I ask myself, "Does this woman ever take time off?" But that feels a bit like asking God, if she enjoyed her day-off after creating the universe. "What bloody day off?"

Photo credit: Sarah Hickson

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