Fiona Burnett: ‘Morgana always challenged the stereotype of jazz’

There is a lot of discussion — and action — about women in music lately; female musicians are claiming their rightful place in the spotlight, challenging age-old stereotypes, and practices of discrimination that have been embedded in our culture, and normalised. For saxophonist Fiona Burnett, this is a sign of a welcome change. It is also some sort of vindication — because she has been fighting the same battle for 30 years, when she put together Morgana, a group of fierce female legends, making their mark in the Australian Jazz community. Now they are reunited, and invite us all to celebrate with them.

Lisa Young, Sonja Horbelt, and Fiona Burnett, performing at the Melbourne International Jazz Festival

Why did you decide to get the band back together?

Morgana reformed to celebrate our 30th year anniversary. I felt that this was a significant milestone and that this was an opportunity to celebrate the group. I wanted to revisit and go back to something that I felt was a meaningful contribution to improvised music and could be documented and brought to a new audience of listeners.

Andrea Keller, Lisa Young, and Fiona Burnett, performing at the Melbourne International Jazz Festival

How has your experience from the Melbourne International Jazz Festival been like?

The MIJF really embraced the idea of bringing the band back together; artistic director Michael Tortoni and his team were so supportive and really got behind the idea of Morgana playing again, although Michael was the only one old enough to remember us from the 1990s.

So performing for this festival at Chapel off Chapel as a double bill with young and emerging women musicians from Melbourne University was a great way to celebrate our 30 years since first playing.

We rehearsed a lot, and the material was all so familiar even after 20 years. It felt great to play with Morgana again, we picked up where we had left off.

What had changed during these 20 years?

A lot has changed, and some things have changed less than I would have anticipated in regards to gender diversity and jazz, or women’s participation in music generally.  Musically we have all continued to develop and evolve as musicians and improvisers. When Morgana was playing in the1990s the internet wasn’t such a potent force, we didn’t have a website or use social media, and most things were organised by phone — landline — so in that sense it was a completely different world to what it is now.

When it comes to women in music — and in jazz, in particular — did you anticipate that three decades later, we would still be in the same spot, more or less?

It’s a really interesting area, and without the small gains that women have been able to achieve through the fourth wave of feminism, I may not have reflected on my own experiences in the way that led me back to Morgana. I wrote a paper for the AJIRN conference in 2020 when we were all in lockdown titled Play Like a Girl (Burnett, 2020), and discussed experiences of women musicians as a minority within jazz.

I wrote for the first time about some of my own experiences of negative gender bias and recounted some of the comments that I had received over the years: “Why don’t you play a girl’s instrument like flute”, “You play good for a girl”, “You only got this gig because you are girls”, but I started the discussion by quoting a comment that had perplexed me because it was intended as the highest compliment but presented a confluence of cultural, racial and gender issues in jazz: “Darn girl, you play like a black man!”

When this paper was positively received by the (zoom) conference audience at AJIRN, it was a huge relief because it confirmed that what I had experienced wasn’t imagined in terms of the gender descrimination and other related issues around the perceptions of women musicians and jazz performance.

Sonja Horbelt, Fiona Burnett, and Annete Yates performing at the Melbourne International Jazz Festival

In general we are now able to talk about our experiences as women musicians more and there are certainly more female identifying musicians on the scene, but progress is slow. There have been the concerted efforts of many women musicians and other supporters stepping up and giving space for women musicians to develop their skills and musicianship.

I think we are all responsible for addressing the gender balance/imbalance and that has a lot to do with the way society perceives women in leadership roles and/ or women who are not conforming to a perceived stereotype.

Women musicians in this field are often compared to other women musicians, rather than being treated as a musician in their own right regardless of gender. This is not just jazz but in other areas of music performance and composition and in society generally. Female identifying musicians do not want to be perceived as being ‘good for a girl’ or alternatively, if they gain some recognition, to then be ‘better than another girl’, as historically there has been such limited space allocated for women musicians. Too often women jazz musicians are not  heard as being equal as a musician in general, regardless of the level of their playing.

It goes without saying that women can play, but our society needs to allow more space  for women to develop and play. As a female musician one can be overlooked for opportunities because you are not even considered as being eligible, this may not be intentional but an unconscious bias. If you have had a child this might even get worse, and the phone just stops ringing. The perceptions that persist around women’s capacities in music and in particular improvised music and jazz are outdated, which is why initiatives that support women musicians at all stages of their lives and careers are so important.

Morgana in the 1990s: Lisa Young, Fiona Burnett, Sue Johnson, Sonja Horbelt, and Annette Yates

In the 1990s Morgana was hard to ignore because there were five of us. We were and continue to be unapologetic about taking up some space on the bandstand and being heard.

  From the start Morgana always challenged the stereotype of jazz, and for any of the negative comments, perceptions and the difficult environments we were confronted with, there was always an overwhelming feeling of joy that came with the music.

I believe that the high energy of the group and this feeling of joy is what audiences have always connected with; it’s a combination of our personalities, which are all very contrasting, a celebration of the individual, but most importantly of the collective. Also playing with other women is something that we are all very passionate about, because gender shouldn’t be a barrier to musicianship and it also shouldn’t be a barrier to opportunities. Like many areas of endeavour for women, one can be judged differently and in this case as women improvising musicians, we might be heard differently. If there was one thing I would like to shift it would be to being heard as equal regardless of gender.

What is the Morgana story?

I formed this group when I was a first year student at VCA in 1992. As a female soprano saxophone specialist my gig opportunities seemed limited. I would sit in on a lot of gigs and after one night I was asked if I wanted a residency at a small bar in Brunswick St, Fitzroy. 

So I put together this group, but it just happened to be all women, and called it Morgana, the name seemed fitting. It was a positive force in my life and gave me a lot of purpose. I felt very driven, but was learning everything about bandleading on the fly, without any mentorship, just jumping in and getting on with it.

I did this in conjunction with our drummer/composer Sonja Horbelt who was involved in a lot of the organisational work. We went on to play for 10 years at all sorts of different gigs, concerts, and festivals, we released two CDs and toured nationally. We would receive encores and standing ovations and the audience would respond in this kind of amazed way. We worked really hard to get the band overseas and had significant interest, had lots of support locally and lots of interest internationally, but found it really tough to get to that next level, there just wasn’t the funding support for us at the time. Gender diversity wasn’t on the agenda and we just couldn’t get that next step off the ground. So after about 10 years, I put more energy into other projects. 

Morgana’s current line up: Andrea Keller, Lisa Young, Sonja Horbelt, Fiona Burnett, and Annette Yates, at the Chapel off Chapel, at the end of their performance at the Melbourne International Jazz Festival

How would you describe the dynamics among you?

Morgana is a group of very strong women; our personalities are all very contrasting and complementary, with an overwhelming feeling of mutual respect and support. We sound very like ourselves and have all worked on this connection between the individual and the personal syntax or voice in improvised music, but equally as a collective that brings those elements together. 

How did you develop your sound?

The sound of Morgana is, in many ways I think, reflective of the high energy of the group. The individual sound of each musician is very distinctive and highly personalised, but then the compositions by the members significantly contribute to this overall sound. The music embraces a broad range of genres, umbrellaed under the style of jazz but also has other significant influences which are diverse bringing in different style and cultural elements. 

If you could invite any artist you want — no restrictions, whatsoever — to join Morgana on stage, who would that be?

In other contexts, there are lots of people I would love to meet and play with, some are from centuries past, others more recent, J.S. Bach or John Coltrane maybe, and especially some of the pioneering women musicians. I am fascinated by music from different eras and social and cultural contexts and what formed the foundations of modern jazz harmony, contemporary jazz saxophone playing just for a start, but essentially any of, or all of this leads me to wanting to help facilitate expression more freely through composition and improvised music. To answer the question, there are lots of amazing musicians we could play with, but to be honest, because the collective of Morgana is what it is, I don’t hear any additional musicians as adding to the sound of the  group. It’s not what I am imagining or hearing when I think of Morgana.

What would you say to a total stranger to make them come to the Jazz Lab tonight?

I have always found Morgana as a collective of five musicians to be a bit larger than life, something that is dynamic, fast moving, highly energised and passionate. I hope that Morgana is able to demonstrate to the listener that music defies gender and that music brings us together in a joyful and positive celebration of life and I hope that the audience is able to share in this experience.