Introducing the Melba Women’s Big Band

Melba Big Band is a newly formed 16 piece band of women musicians in Melbourne, coordinated by pianist Cathy Connor and Drummer Naomi Tan. Musicians in the band are aged between 20 and 60 and are from a range of musical backgrounds including brass bands, jazz groups, concert bands and classical orchestras. Many are emerging jazz musicians currently studyingor recent graduates from VCA, Monash, Box Hill Industries and Melbourne Polytechnic. The more seasoned players bring a wealth of performing experience from different genres and backgrounds. In this post, the band’s co-leader shares her thoughts on the band’s aspiration and on other issues relating to the experience of women in jazz.

Having enjoyed playing in many all-girl bands in the ’70s and ’80s, I was keen to assist in getting Melba Big band off the ground. The enthusiasm and team work so far has been truly impressive and I have to say that they are quite a hilarious group of people!

We want the members to own the band and steer its course to a degree, and hope to provide a musical space where emerging players can try new things, consolidate skills, develop improvisation skills, participate in women-composer and arranger concerts, as well as connect socially and professionally. There is already an underlying sense that we may be providing some opportunities which may not be obviously available in the more traditional mostly male band.

We don’t really have a pressing feminist agenda or anything. To be honest, we are just flat out actively rehearsing the music, putting the gigs and promotion all together and dealing with the week-to-week practicalities of coordinating a 16 piece organisation, and haven’t had much time for any meaningful discussions!

All our musicians have played in mixed bands and have had both positive and negative experiences. The playing field in the jazz scene has traditionally been lopsided in terms of gender, with females being rare, exceptional or just in an obvious minority. For some women and girls this has created an extra hurdle, for some it has provided a positive challenge! Some women say they have felt left behind in predominantly male groups or just sense a lack of opportunity or a long-term lack of encouragement and lowering of confidence. Perhaps this relates to personal experiences (school, family, work, sport) and lived experiences in regards to gender.

I don’t really wish to bring sexism into the equation here; but just to say that that there has been a lot of high encouragement from my male jazz colleagues (my husband included!) for this project in the form of practical help and advice.

Early developing or outstanding young musicians tend to forge ahead in spite of hurdles, be they gender-related or otherwise. Often, they are (rightly) welcomed into the upper echelon of the jazz community and are given much support, praise and encouragement. Such fortunates can be mystified by the gender issues facing some of their contemporaries. Many guys will readily acknowledge the talents of an outstanding female player, but unfortunately some will combine that with a less than encouraging attitude to an emerging player. It’s a really big topic for discussion and I know that I don’t speak for all.

A musician’s development can be helped or hindered by so many different factors, and I think for many young women, the gender imbalance can be a real issue. Possibly some even feel that to play a non-traditional instrument is not an appropriate activity for a woman. I’d like to think that that’s a perception well and truly buried in the last century! However, It still surprises me that there really are so few women playing jazz in 2018 or continuing to play jazz after school or university.

An all women band certainly has a presence, something which can be a highly positive model and example to young players and the general community. I think that a big band is a huge commitment for all involved and feel that the Melba players are very aware of being involved in a very special team.

The Melbourne Women’s Big Band is making its debut at Dizzy’s, on Friday 11 May.