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29 September 2008

SIMA Strikes Back

Young Women and Jazz

SIMA workshop participants onstage Image: SIMA workshop participants onstage  

It all started some years ago, when I was studying music in high school. For an assignment, my teacher required each student to find an Australian composer, interview them, study their works and report on what makes their compositions idiosyncratically Australian. It was then that my appreciation for jazz matured from my minimal experiences in a primary school band to what I am sure will be a lifelong obsession. My chosen composer was Sandy Evanscomposer, performer and, most importantly, a woman.

Several years later, studying music and aiming to make it my profession, I look to Sandy once more for inspiration, imagination and courage. All this is possible because of the SIMA Young Women's Jazz Improvisation Workshop, pioneered by her courageous desire to no longer be a female in a man's world.

Early on Saturday mornings, over eight weeks, 45 or so young women from around Sydney made their way to the city to participate in the Sydney Improvised Music Association's (SIMA) improvisation course for young women, run by Sandy Evans along with a star-studded group of Sydney's finest jazz musicians. The course was first run in 2002. The number of applicants has been growing every year: the largest enrolment was this year, with 45 young women involved. The course was developed to help encourage young women to become involved in tertiary jazz courses and the jazz scene, and is specifically aimed at girls in their senior years at high school – although any young woman is welcome.

Currently there is a huge gender imbalance in the jazz scene, and the SIMA young women's jazz workshop aims to create confidence, enthusiasm and opportunities to study and perform jazz. The workshop is led by Sandy Evans, a prominent member of both the local and international jazz scenes since she herself was a young woman.

'Sadly, women are still very under-represented in jazz – professionally and in tertiary courses. This course provides a supportive environment for aspiring female jazz musicians to explore their creativity and develop their skills in this exciting and challenging musical genre', explains Evans

Sandy Evans's expertise and knowledge about jazz and improvisation is immense, an accumulation of nearly three decades as a performer and composer. Through the workshop, she endeavours to help transfer some of her valuable experiences. The other four tutors of the course were the trombonist Alex Silver, a graduate of the workshop and recipient of the Jann Rutherford Memorial Award in 2005, Monique Lysiak, who has been performing and teaching piano for over 25 years, Kristin Berardi, an extremely talented vocalist and recent winner of the Montreux Jazz Festival's Shure International Vocal Competition, and Jess Green, guitarist and leader of The Green Septet. In addition to these skilled mentors, the guest list was not without merit, either: Paul Cutlan, Shannon Barnett, Fabian Hevia, Ali Foster, Toby Hall, Judy Bailey, Craig Scott, and Steve Elphick.

The workshop consisted of eight weekly meetings of three hours each, where lectures, performances, mentoring and tutoring were free and flowing. Each of the mentors were full of useful information and hints, from mixing various amplified instruments to how to cover your arse when you play an obviously wrong note in a solo (for those of you wondering, simply move a semitone away from the dissonant tone and usually it will all work out fine.)

The participants were divided into five groups, organised depending on the skill and age of the performers. The groups studied and rehearsed the pieces they were to play at the end-of-course performance held at The Basement (16 September). The pieces chosen were varied, to help the players experience a wide array of what jazz can offer, with improvisation as the focus. From jazz standards to contemporary Australian jazz, the repertoire was challenging and exciting for all. These pieces gave everyone an opportunity to practise improvisation in a number of guided fashions, by using appropriate scales and modes over a riff, by following chord changes and using related scales, and free improvisation.

The young women who participated in the course came from varying backgrounds and previous experience. High school girls who were looking at studying jazz in the future, older girls and university students who wanted to diversify or to just learn how to play jazz. The amount of previous knowledge was not important, however enthusiasm was a must. Each student took away something a little different, but all had a positive experience.

What was learnt as a result, was seen at The Basement. This truly unique performance opportunity provided a perfect backdrop for any young musician's first real gig. Playing to a crowd of 200-300 screaming fans in the packed-out performance room would be a boost to anyone's confidence: each group and every single girl found their moment to shine. The five groups performed almost flawlessly and when hiccups occurred, the laid-back audience laughed and the performance went on.

The highlight of the evening was the presentation of the Jann Rutherford Memorial Award, which was awarded to three high school students to receive mentorship towards becoming a better jazz musician.

As a female student studying music education and classical saxophone, I found the course to be invaluable. Whilst studying at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, I have found that a large crevasse exists between the classical and jazz areas of studies. There are a few courses available where classical musicians may be introduced to jazz in a reserved manner, and enrichment programs such as Awsum which are run due to successful grant applications, however, crossing over into the jazz faculty is difficult, if not impossible.

This is why the SIMA course is so valuable. It works on encouraging young women to apply and audition for tertiary jazz courses, to bridge the gap between the classical and jazz worlds. This diversification is important to any musician who wishes to derive a living from their art, let alone a prospective music teacher who may know nothing about jazz but is fully qualified to teach in any public or private school in New South Wales. I find this shortcoming to be disheartening in the least.

When talking to one of the 'jazz guys' from the Conservatorium, I mentioned that I was planning on participating in a jazz course for women. This brought on a reaction of hostility and scepticism. His reaction surprised me. This man could not understand why women might feel intimidated or marginalised by the male-dominated world of studying and performing jazz. The stereotype that only men play jazz is, to some extent, similar to the idea that only females should teach. In my education classes, the women outnumber the men somewhere in the range of 6:1. This massive gender imbalance points clearly to the need for making jazz and education more appealing and accessible subjects for both sexes.

The SIMA workshop aims at correcting the gender imbalance in tertiary jazz courses, and in the jazz scene in general, by providing female role models for young women to aspire to. With the workshop's enrolment growing significantly each year, the premise seems to be correct.

The SIMA Young Women's Jazz Improvisation Workshop was an invaluable experience and I highly recommend anyone to enrol as it will help you grow immensely as a musician, and as a woman. For me, I am sad that I did not have the courage to apply earlier, and now, after completing the course, I can see all the fun and playing opportunities that have been had, and will be had in the future.

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Jaki King is a second-year student at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, studying music education and classical saxophone. She conducts, performs and teaches saxophone in Sydney.


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