Sonja Horbelt: ‘the Melbourne Women’s International Jazz Festival aims to feature role models for female student musicians’

Sonja Horbelt | Photo: Fred Kroh

The 2016 Melbourne Women’s International Jazz Festival is under way; which means that it’s time for our annual interview with its driving force, Sonja Horbelt. A drummer, an educator and an overall force of nature , she guides us through this year’s program, challenges and plans for the future. How would you describe this year’s program?

Sonja Horbelt: The program is exciting this year – a diverse range of jazz that covers a broad range of all different styles with some fantastic debut artists.

AJN: What was the main challenge you had to face?

SH: Trying to present a challenging program that showcases new (to Melbourne or to the festival) projects and material that includes interstate and overseas artists with a ridiculously small budget!

AJN: If you were not involved in the festival, what would make you buy a ticket?

SH: The highlights as an audience member are some of the artists and collaborations you particularly can’t normally see, or are special events in Melbourne, like the Interstate/Internationals Hieronymus Trio from Sydney with Gian Slater, or Laila Biali from Canada, but also some great local collaborations, such as the Nat Bartsch/ Andrea Keller piano duet or Emma Gilmartin’s cd launch; Kristin Berardi’s Balloons have only played one gig together before in Brisbane!

AJN: How does the festival fit in with your own work as an artist?

SH: As an artist, I feel it’s always important to celebrate the music that our jazz and improvising community makes. It’s exciting to be able to give my colleagues the opportunity to extend their creative explorations, and I get totally inspired by the amazing music making skills of all the artists that play in our festival; I go home wanting to practise and write new works! The thing that makes it most worthwhile is watching artists and projects springboard from the festival on to bigger things (interstate festivals, overseas tours, cd recordings and so on) and reach new audiences. Also, listening to students recount festival experiences that made them want to pursue music!

AJN: The issue of women in jazz (and music in general), has come to the foreground and been widely discussed, lately (even Wangaratta was said to have a related theme, this year). What is your take on this?

SH: I think women encounter challenges in all environments (big business, sports and science areas, for example) and music is no different. We’re seeing more women artists in jazz, but perhaps not at the rate we’re expecting. I think one of the biggest challenges is to encourage young players to pursue music at a tertiary level and beyond.

In this respect I feel our role at the MWIJF is to particularly feature enough role models for more female student musicians or even emerging young artists to want to pursue music as a career (if only 10% of students auditioning for tertiary positions are female, then of course that percentage will be reflected in the number of intake, and again in those that continue beyond to the greater picture performing).

AJN: How has the Festival evolved through time?

SH: The festival over time has evolved from a small event comprising a couple of gigs to a much larger scale event. We’ve had years where we’ve managed to create a much larger program with events in different spaces and free outdoor performances, but this depends on budget year to year and this is unfortunately also becoming more and more competitive, especially given the funding cuts made to the Arts.

AJN: Where do you want it to go in the future?

SH: I’d love it to expand to take in a broader number of artists in all the areas we attempt to give voice to. Also, to be able to present one or more truly big name internationals; in fact, we’re looking at perhaps changing dates in the future to align more closely with the Sydney festival and share artists as means to achieve this.

AJN: What advice would you give to any young woman who wants to pursue a career in jazz?

SH: Be dedicated to practising your craft and chase every opportunity to expand your playing and performing possibilities. Talk to other female artists to get a sense of the challenges they may or may not have faced and how to overcome these. Also be prepared, when the chance comes along – be it having learnt the charts, or having a sound file or low res/ high res picture and bio ready to send at the drop of a hat (the latter is advice I would give to any young artist, not just women), or returning emails promptly; it could be the difference between you and the next person on the list! Above all, stay true to your artistic self.

AJN: Which song best describes your current state of mind?

SH: This is totally weird but in a year where I’m trying to empower myself to make change happen in many things, I’m feeling like the pop song ‘I Am’ by the artist QUI?

The 2016 Melbourne Women’s International Jazz Festival will take place from 4 to 11 December at Bennetts Lane Jazz Club.