Jackie Bornstein: ‘I want people to join me in celebrating the music and stories of these great women of jazz

An enchanting vocalist and captivating storyteller, Jackie Bornstein has been unfolding her artistry through various thematic projects: From Paris to Brazil, Jazz and Social Justice, Jackie with Three Guitars – not to mention a powerful tribute to Billie Holiday. All these are now tied together with her latest project, Women in Jazz, in which she sheds light to the legacy of a long list of unsung heroes. Here is what she has to say about it.

What is the Women in Jazz project?

Women in Jazz is my latest project where I share music and stories of remarkable women who have given us some of the most moving songs in the jazz repertoire. Since the 1920s Jazz Age, women have faced difficulties gaining opportunities and recognition as jazz composers and lyricists. A number of women managed to break through and publish commercial hits, some of which became jazz standards. Their music is well known, their names are not. With Women in Jazz I hope to shed light on a selection of these female composers who overcame significant obstacles and contributed to shaping the sounds of jazz.

The seeds of the project were planted in 2015. At the time I was in discussions with a colleague of mine, Dr Siew Fang Law, about how I could combine my background in peace and conflict resolution and music. We discussed setting up a soiree using music as a tool to promote peace values. Two themes that immediately came up were Jazz and Social Justice and Women in Jazz. We started with Jazz and Social Justice as I already had a fair amount of background in this area. I was quite familiar with the way jazz artists had used their music to take a stand against injustices and had poured their troubles into their performances. It was one of the main reasons I was initially drawn to the genre. After performing the Jazz and Social Justice soiree, I went on to take that project to Bennetts Lane Jazz Club, Birds Basement, Uptown Jazz Cafe, the Jazzlab and the Boite. People were incredibly receptive to the format of providing in-depth context to the songs and artists included in the program. They enjoyed learning that many of their most treasured jazz tunes were actually tools for social change. I carried this format to Women in Jazz when I formulated the content for the show in 2017. I had been back performing for a few years and found I had the time to put in to the research required to prepare the show. I pitched the show in August 2017 to the Melbourne Recital Centre (MRC) and was lucky enough to have my submission accepted. We debuted Women in Jazz to a sellout audience in the MRC Salon in October 2018.

When you first presented it, how close was the outcome to what you originally had in mind?

The project is pretty close to what I originally had in mind. I have added a few of my own compositions, which I had not initially planned to do. I had been thinking of starting to introduce some of my own pieces into my performances since returning to performing in 2015. When I was finalizing the repertoire for Women in Jazz, I thought that this project would be the perfect place to start sharing some of my own compositions. The performance coming up at Kew Court House is a longer version of the MRC debut performance. So I have been able to include even more jazz classics by great female composers.

How did you choose the band for this project?

Women in Jazz is Jackie Bornstein (voice), Andrea Keller (piano), Craig Fermanis (guitar), Tamara Murphy (bass), Danny Fischer (drums).

I initially chose the same band members as those who performed regularly in my Jazz and Social Justice band because they are all fabulous musicians and I enjoy performing with them. That did include Angela Davis on saxophone, but unfortunately she was unavailable for the Melbourne Recital Centre debut performance. When I find that a player who I regularly work with is unavailable for a gig, I often say to myself: “which jazz musician would I most love to have the opportunity to work with?” In this case, I thought of Andrea Keller who I have greatly admired for many years for her incredible musicianship, stunning compositions and generosity in fostering new talent in the jazz scene.

What is your aspiration for Women in Jazz?

Primarily I want people to join me in celebrating the music and stories of these great women of jazz. I think it would be fantastic if the project inspired jazz teachers to include this hidden part of jazz history as an explicit part of jazz education. I hope I can help make these women more visible as role models to young people looking to become involved in the jazz scene; that they can see the enormous struggles that these women endured, and the achievements they made despite having to deal with ongoing impediments.

The issue of Women in Jazz has gained momentum recently, with a public discourse around it, particularly in light of the #metoo movement. What is your take on the role and position of women in jazz today?

The role of women in jazz is the same as men. To be great musicians, performers, educators, composers, administrators, etc who promote an inclusive professional space through leading by example.

The position of women in jazz in Melbourne has improved dramatically over the past few decades. When I studied many years ago at the Victorian College of the Arts, I believe there were only two female instrumentalists: bassist Tamara Murphy who is a part of my project Women in Jazz, and a saxophonist who left the course early due to illness. Today there are far greater numbers of female instrumentalists, along with female vocalists, participating in tertiary jazz studies and this has transferred to the professional scene. We are starting to see female instrumentalists, composers and bandleaders performing more regularly. Men are starting to join the conversation around sexual harassment of women in the jazz scene, reflecting on how they can change their own behavior to be more supportive of woman and advocating for equality in the profession. So it’s improved but we still have a long way to go before women feel that their gender is not an issue. For example, when it comes to being hired for gigs women still feel their gender is an issue and women are still dealing with sexist behaviours and sexual harassment in educational and professional settings.

Something that I think could help enormously is if the key jazz educational institutions explicitly take a stand for the inclusion of women in every aspect of the jazz profession and against sexist behavior and sexual harassment. It’s not enough to have a good heart and to say that if something, e.g. sexual harassment, is brought to your attention you will do the right thing. If it isn’t happening already, I would suggest making this stand a part of the everyday language that is spoken in the educational setting. Find opportunities to explicitly highlight how much you value women as jazz instrumentalists, singers, composers, educators and leaders. Provide training to your staff that explicitly states that you expect them to value and promote the respect and inclusion of women in all facets of the jazz profession. Provide staff training that details the sexism and sexual harassment that women in the jazz scene have had to face and make sure staffand students are aware it will not be tolerated and that any allegations will be seriously investigated. Perhaps include a Women in Jazz subject, where these issues are discussed and the history of women in jazz is highlighted.

How has your own trajectory, as a woman in jazz, been?

I have faced a number of problems related to my gender, particularly when I was in my twenties. For example, I would find that often band members would no longer be interested in working with me once they realized I was not interested in them sexually. I also felt that some staff members and students treated me as less capable and less intelligent than male students when I was studying jazz, despite achieving High Distinctions across all my subjects. This was an absolute shock to me because I had already studied psychology at the tertiary level and never experienced any sort of discrimination in that educational setting. It made studying jazz very unpleasant and actually led me to leave the music scene for many years to pursue studies and a career in peace and conflict resolution.

What kind of advice would you give to a young woman who wants to enter the jazz scene today?

Find people to work and create with who are supportive. Trust your instincts. If you sense someone is undermining you on stage, in rehearsals etc find someone else to work with. When you are finding it a struggle as a woman in the jazz scene, try talking to other women about it. Look to history, to the female composers and performers who continued to pursue their dreams and rose to the top of their field despite the many difficulties they faced.

What is the main thing that you have discovered about yourself, through your journey in music?

My journey in music is inseparable from my life journey. From early in my childhood, music has been a powerful means of respite from my own difficulties, a creative and emotional release, a beautiful way to connect with others. Since I have taken up music as a profession I suppose the main thing I have discovered is that I still have a lot to learn, a lot to do and a lot to give. That really applies to most aspects of my life.

Which tune best describes your current state of mind?

It’s been an unusually hectic few weeks for me so I’ve chosen a tune that describes where I’m going to endeavor to shift my state of mind: ‘Lullaby of the Leaves’. It’s a composition by the wonderful Bernice Petkere who also composed ‘Close Your Eyes‘ which I perform in Women in Jazz. I particularly love the recording by Grant Green.

The tune reflects being wrapped up by nature and sung to sleep by the lullaby of the leaves.

Jackie Bornstein presents Women in Jazz at the Kew Court House on Saturday 16 March.

Jackie With Three Guitars are playing at the Melbourne Recital Centre on Friday 5 April.