Shannon Barnett: “The Wangaratta Jazz Festival shows what a lively bunch of people our community can be”

Every time that Shannon Barnett comes back to Australia is a cause for celebration and that is exactly what happens at her gigs: a joyous celebration of creativity and musical exploration, that has seen the brilliant trombonist traveling to New York and (after her stint there) to Cologne, to hold a position with one of the world’s most acclaimed jazz orchestras, the WDR Big Band. Before her upcoming performances at the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz, she shares her experience.


AustralianJazz.Net: What are you going to present at the Wangaratta Festival?
Shannon Barnett: Wangaratta will be a busy time for me! Firstly, I’m bringing my German quartet out here to play my compositions. They are wonderful musicians, who are also tolerant of my attempts to include humour and playfulness within modern jazz (whatever modern jazz is). The saxophone player Stefan Karl Schmid and I will also perform some of our arrangements of that music (and some pieces by Stefan) with the Monash University Big Band. Then finally, in a stylistically different situation, I will perform with Dixie Jack. We’ll play our favourite tunes from the New Orleans and swing repertoires. I’ll even have a bit of a sing, because I just love the lyrics and melodies of those old songs.

AJN: When you think of the Wangaratta Festival, what is the first thing that comes to mind? What has been your most cherished memory of it?
SB: I’ve been lucky enough to attend many Wangaratta Festivals and there have been plenty of performance highlights, like Barney McAll playing solo in the church or Han Bennink playing a solo on a broom during a duo performance with Paul Grabowsky. There have also been many ‘social highlights’, mainly thanks to the jam sessions at the Pinsent. It just shows what a lively bunch of people our community can be.
AJN: This year’s festival features more women in prominent roles (bandleaders, featured artists, etc), creating an ‘unofficial’ theme. How do you comment on that?
SB: The best thing about this ‘unofficial theme’ is that it did happen by accident. Whilst I support initiatives that focus on supporting female musicians, to be involved in an event where there just happen to be so many talented women musicians booked solely on their merit, well, that’s kind of a dream come true. I hope that we see more of it in the future.
AJN: You recently wrote about your experience as a jazz musician in a male-dominated community. How do you think that the issue of sexism should be addressed?
SB: That is a huge question that requires a multi-faceted response. I strongly believe that the problem begins in high school. From what I’ve experienced and heard (sorry, no statistics to back up this claim), it seems that there are actually quite a lot of girls playing in high school jazz programs, but by university they are gone. Whether it’s because of society or biology, girls and boys are very different from each other in the teenage years (sorry for my use of binary terms, but l imagine the heart of the problem is the same for queer and trans people too). I think a lot of girls feel pretty overwhelmed by boys at that age, not many of them want to stand out the front of a big band and blow a solo, for example. That’s why initiatives like YoWo music are really important. I’m thankful for the musical experiences I had as a teenager, but I would have killed to have had the chance to hang out with other girls my age who had an interest in jazz. That opportunity just didn’t exist.
Role models are of course also important. I grew up looking up to musicians like Andrea Keller and Sandy Evans, because I could see that they had their own bands, were writing their own music and were totally accepted and respected by the jazz community. I saw that it was possible to have a career in music.
Finally, sexism is an entrenched problem in our society. The way women are treated outside of the community musicians is still appalling, so that has a direct impact on our lives anyway. It’s going to take a long time to solve!
AJN: How has your experience in Germany been so far?
SB: When I first moved to Cologne, it was primarily to play with the WDR Big Band, my ‘day job’. I was a little bit ignorant, and therefore totally surprised to learn that the jazz and improvised music scene here is absolutely wonderful. The university seems to have created a vibrant community of incredible musicians and dedicated fans. They create a lot of interesting work and are very well-informed. They are also very organised, with a ton of musician-run record labels, concert series and a functioning musicians’ union.
I also gained the ability to passably speak another language, which was an adventure in and of itself! But really, I think it almost doesn’t matter where you move, just living somewhere different that challenges you, well, that’s when you really learn about yourself.
AJN: Having worked in the US, Europe and Australia, what is your take on the differences and similarities of the respective jazz scenes?
SB: Well, perhaps I can just mention the strong suits of each scene. New York is an exciting combination of people who are desperate to play but also have very strong individual voices and visions. That creates a kind of wild energy. But the lack of financial support means that you might also have to play at some rich people’s weddings in order to be able put food on the table. I played weddings with musicians from Taylor Swift’s band at one point.
In Cologne, the musicians are of an extremely high calibre, but somehow they don’t always believe it themselves, so they keep inviting American artists to play here. Sometimes those guests are amazing and we are lucky to hear them, but sometimes there are players who live here that I’d rather listen to. I think Australia used to suffer from this affliction for awhile, but it definitely seems to be subsiding.
I think the Australian scene has changed a lot since I left, so maybe I’m not qualified to talk about it. But from what I can see, it still has this kind of breadth to it that not a lot of other scenes have. Where else can you see a New Orleans brass band, a collaboration between jazz musicians and traditional Korean performers, umpteen big bands playing original music or Paul Williamson belting out some blues and soul classics in a Fitzroy pub. I miss that kind of variety.
AJN: What is the most important thing that you have discovered about yourself in that journey, so far?
SB: The most important thing I’ve learnt is that just because you have the ability to play a certain type of music, doesn’t mean you should always do it. I’m very grateful to have had a lot of varied performing experiences, but there are plenty that I never should have done. It’s distracted me immensely from pursuing my own craft in a deeper way. I admire musicians who really develop their own sound and approach and are somehow uncompromising. But we all have to eat I guess.
AJN: Do you have an ideal listener in mind when you make music?
SB: The best musical situations happen when it feels like there’s energy coming from both the performers and the audience. A lot of different factors affect that, and sometimes it can be a real challenge to bring the listeners along with you. It’s something that I’m always aware of. But hey, you can’t please everyone, so you may as well play what you want and just go for it.

AJN: You’ve been proficient in many different forms and subgenres of jazz; how did you get into it, in the first place?
SB: My first trombone teacher, Mr. Bryn Hills, kind of ignited a spark in me. He played me Miles Davis and also a bunch of a Afro-Cuban music. Instead of a high school stage band, we had an ‘Art Ensemble’. He had us come up with riffs and put them together over different grooves. Then we would all take solos. I thought that’s what every high school band did.
I was always interested in improvising and didn’t find it at all scary, so the the VCA course and the Melbourne contemporary jazz and improvised music scene at the time (ca. 2000) was a good fit for me. The faculty of the VCA course especially encouraged us to create our own music. My classmates included Gian Slater, Ross Irwin, Harry James Angus and Ed Fairlie. If that’s not a good start I don’t know what is.
The Hoodangers were also an early influence for me. Actually I remember sneaking into the Punters Club when we were about 17 to hear them (thanks Christine, sorry Mum and Dad). The trombonist and singer Ben Gillespie was a huge inspiration for me, as was Chris Tanner. Then I found out that their music came from the New Orleans tradition, so I started checking that stuff out. I started playing (and still play) with Chris Tanner; he taught me a lot of that repertoire, along with Steve Grant. I used to sub for the marvellous Don Stewart (much respect). Chris and Steve would just tell me the key of the tune and I’d have to figure the rest out on stage.
When I moved to New York and also when I first visited Denmark, I found the New Orleans scenes there too, and noticed that a lot of the horn players sang. I always loved singing but only ever did it in private because I was scared that people would take my trombone playing less seriously if I sang. That sounds really weird now. Also, some of my best friends were and are accomplished singers. I didn’t think I was on their level. But then I realised that I don’t have to be. I’m not trying to do anything new, I’m just singing some of my favourite songs because they sound nice.
AJN: Which song best describes your current state of mind?
SB: Weary blues!

The Wangaratta Festival of Blues takes place on the weekend of 28-30 October. Get your tickets here.