As a young, female saxophonist I lost count of the number of times that I was told whenever I played that ‘you’re good for a girl’ or ‘you don’t sound like a girl’. Now, I’m sure these comments were only meant as a compliment but the truth was they niggled at me. What does a girl sound like and why can’t I just sound like me?
I’m Helena Summerfield, a Manchester based saxophonist, teacher and performer. I am passionate about getting girls into playing jazz and improvised music and like to think that those kinds of comments are becoming a thing of the past.
In 2018 I became the project manager for Jazz North’s ‘Jazz Camp for Girls’ inspired by an original project developed by Jazz Danmark and the Copenhagen Jazz Festival. ‘Jazz Camp for Piger’ was designed to address the gender imbalance in jazz and introduce young female musicians to rhythmical, improvised music in a positive, supportive environment. Their first camps took place in 2014 with nearly 50 girls attending and this has steadily grown to over 200 girls spread across 13 cities in Denmark. The tutor ratio on each camp is equally split between male and female and delivered by a combination of experienced music school teachers and professional musicians. After attending ‘Jazz Camp for Piger’, girls are invited to attend further mixed music camps. The girls are recruited first and then applications are opened to boys – the number of girls is matched so that the gender balance within the camp is always equal. I felt really inspired hearing about the project’s success in Denmark and looked forward to recreating something similar in the north of England.
We were awarded with a grant from the Ronnie Scott’s Charitable Foundation to develop and deliver a one-day jazz camp for girls. This took place on Sunday 10th February 2019 in four locations across the north: Huddersfield (Huddersfield University), Manchester (Trafford Music Service and BlueJam Arts joint camp) Lancaster (Lancashire Music Service) and Rotherham (Rotherham Music Service and Sheffield Music Hub joint camp) with more than 70 girls attending in total. Similar to the Danish camps these were led by a mixture of professional musicians and jazz educators including the creator of ‘In the Gap!’ Hannah Brady, J Frisco’s Lara Jones and Megan Roe, Jilly Jarman from BlueJam Arts and electronic musician Werkha (Tom Leah).
I decided that I wanted to create something that the girls could take home with them and refer to after the camp was over so I designed a course handbook packed with snap-shot interviews of female jazz musicians plus helpful practise tips. I wanted to celebrate female musicians working in jazz and introduce our young musicians to new inspirational role models. Luckily both camp staff and participants were delighted with the outcomes of this day. Feedback confirmed that the project had increased the girls’ interest, skills and confidence in improvisation and the camp was rated “Excellent” by 81% of participants and “Good” by 16% participants. I personally loved coordinating the camps and couldn’t wait to start thinking about the future, the five-year plan being to build up a UK Jazz Camp for Girls by adding new partner organisations each year.
At the end of 2019 we received funding from Ronnie Scott’s Charitable Foundation, Harold Hyam Wingate Foundation and The Golsoncott Foundation to deliver a two day (non-residential) Jazz North Jazz Camp for Girls in 2020. Developments from the first year included introducing a trainee music leader placement scheme and I revised the course handbook to include inspiring new releases* by female led ensembles, J Frisco and Nerija. *One such release was by Issie Barrett´s Interchange previously mentioned on these Sidetracks & Detours pages in Virtually A Real Festival.
Six camps were planned to take place in Manchester (Trafford Music Service), Gateshead (The Sage), Lancaster (Lancashire Music Service), Penrith (BlueJam Arts), Blackpool (Up Beat Rock Academy), and Doncaster (Doncaster Youth Jazz Association, Rotherham Music Service and Sheffield Music Hub joint camp) during February and March.
The first four camps went ahead with 54 attendees in total but unfortunately due to the Covid-19 pandemic the Doncaster and Blackpool camps had to be postponed. The Blackpool camp was replaced with an online camp lead by Lara Jones and Megan Roe and seven girls attended this. Luckily the online concept worked really well and I am keen to use this idea in the future alongside physical camps for girls living in remote locations. Plans to reschedule the Doncaster Camp are on hold until safe to do so. Although cancelling some camps felt like an anti-climax, feedback from the four camps that took place was extremely positive.
One participant from the Manchester event said ‘It was the best experience of my life. I had so much fun. I learnt new songs and made new friends. I would definitely do it again and would definitely recommend it.’
I hadn’t quite forgotten those well-meaning comments from my youth though, as after talking to other female jazzers over the years I had come to realise that I wasn’t alone in having received such comments. Being mistaken by some people for the singer, by others thinking you are carrying your boyfriend’s instrument and by many presuming, before hearing you play, that you’re not as good as your male counterparts, is part of a long list of depressing reactions girls on the jazz scene still often encounter. So, I decided to do something positive, by turning these silly comments on their head and composing a Jazz Camp for Girls anthem. I thought that the song could then be used to help raise awareness of the project and inspire the young camp participants.
‘She Wasn’t Bad For A Girl’ was recorded at Valley Wood Studio in Leeds and released on March 8th 2020 for International Women’s Day.
It features a fantastic line up of northern female jazz musicians with Kathy Dyson (guitar), Nicola Farnon (vocals and bass), Laura Cole (piano), Caroline Boaden (drums), Alex Clarke (tenor saxophone) and myself (alto saxophone) with Nokuthula Zondi delivering vocals. Recording it was a dream come true and I felt honoured to work with these amazing musicians – who just happen to be female!
The song is available on all major download platforms plus you can watch the official video featuring footage from the recording session plus Manchester and Gateshead jazz camps on YouTube here.
Due to Covid-19 the Jazz Camp for Girls project remains on hold but I am looking forward to picking up the project as soon as possible. I enjoy working with these enthusiastic, young musicians and seeing them engage with the music I love. I think the future of jazz is safe in the hands of these talented youngsters!