Women in Jazz: Aline Homzy and Emma Smith in Conversation About “Bitches Brew”

Toronto-based jazz violinist Aline Homzy is curating a concert on Saturday night (28 April) at the Canadian Music Centre.  Why, you may ask, is this noteworthy?  This performance, titled “The Smith Sessions Presents: Bitches Brew,” will feature four female-led groups during the course of the evening.  Apart from the fact that so many talented musicians are coming together for one night, this perhaps should be noteworthy for no other reason – except for the rarity of women in leadership roles in music generally and in jazz specifically.  By presenting this event, Aline and her colleagues are spotlighting this problem and making the point that excellence in jazz has no gender restrictions in the best way they know how – by making some superb music together.

The concert will feature four groups in 30-minute sets, led by Aline Homzy; Anh Phung, a multi-genre instrumentalist based in Toronto; Emma Smith, a bassist from Edinburgh (whose own Bitches Brew series in Scotland inspired this one); and Magdelys Savigne, a drummer/percussionist from Santiago de Cuba.

I was fortunate to spend some time in conversation about this event – and especially about their experiences as women in music and jazz – with Aline and Emma recently.

First, can you tell us a bit about the musicians who will be participating in the concert? How and why did you select them?

Aline:Let’s talk about Emma Smith – bass player and composer. She is the instigator of the Bitches Brew series in Edinburgh. When we met there last summer, Emma was organizing an edition of the series, which she invited me to participate in. I was so inspired by her approach, that we immediately talked about doing something in Toronto. I couldn’t wait for this to happen so here we are, a mere 7 months later. Not only is Emma a tremendous improviser and composer but she is also a fantastic classical bassist. At the concert, you’ll hear Emma’s compositions, which draw heavily on groove, aspects of folk music from a range of different places in the world and open improvisation.

Emma Smith
Emma Smith

I thought of Anh Phung whom I have been a fan of since we met in Montreal, ages ago. Anh is a flutist. She is an incredibly diverse musician and you can find her playing comfortably in just about any musical situation. Anh is so versatile and has remarkable control of her instrument. She’ll be presenting music with her duo partner, bassist Alan Mackie. Their group is called HaiRbraIN.

Anh Phung
Anh Phung

Magdelys Savigne is a percussionist originally from Santiago de Cuba. She has a lot of accolades including two Juno nominations and a Grammy nomination. I’m very much looking forward to what she is preparing for the concert with her group OKAN, which is fronted by her and Elizabeth Rodriguez, who is a violinist.

Magdelys Savigne
Magdelys Savigne

What I love most about these artists is their ability to push boundaries and make invaluable contributions to the advancement of music. Our experience, as female-identified jazz musicians in a male-dominated work environment, forces us to think about music in different, sometimes unconventional ways. I believe we are obliged to develop unfamiliar approaches in order to stand out and be heard – which is creatively looking at the positive outcome of a negative situation.

Aline Homzy
Aline Homzy

My band is called Aline’s étoile magique and will feature some of my favourite Toronto musicians: Chris Pruden on the piano, Dan Fortin on the bass and special guest Thom Gill on the guitar. I am amazed not only by their hard work but also by their participation in diverse musical communities. I feel lucky to have these people as colleagues; who are all informed human beings, who are thoughtful and caring in their actions. We will be presenting some venturesome new music I have written in the last couple of months.

Following up on Aline’s comment about female-identified jazz musicians being forced to think about music in “different, sometimes unconventional ways”: what are some of the approaches that you’ve used in order to stand out and be heard?

Emma: I have never tried to beat anyone at their own game, so actually if a scene is too macho and competitive I just wont go because it bores me to tears. Saxophonist Rachael Cohen (check her out, she’s amazing) made a great point a couple of years ago that while younger male musicians often get sucked into the highly competitive jazz by numbers game, which is extremely unwelcoming to young women, their female counterparts are often away composing their own music. These are huge generalisations of course, but she was finding that having been a composer for many years by the time she finished her studies she was in a great place to start her career, whereas many of her male colleagues were still trying to find an authentic voice.

Aline, when you contacted me about the event, you mentioned that one of your reasons for organizing it was your experience as a woman in the Canadian music scene, and specifically “the lack of opportunity to do the kind of work that I find most vital.” Can you talk about that?

Aline: Being a woman instrumentalist in the Canadian music scene is a hard subject to talk about. Personally, I think it’s a double-edged sword because I wish and want women in music to feel comfortable to go out and play in any given situation. However, the reality is that we have to work twice as hard and spend twice the amount of energy to earn respect from our colleagues and audiences.

It’s not always obvious to most people, but it is insanely humbling and terrifying to lead your own group. I think as a woman, and our experiences vary a lot, I have found it intimidating to say, “Hey! Maybe I would like to try writing for a specific band and lead it.”

As a young musician, I had found myself in countless situations where male colleagues had mistaken my keenness to play and work on music for romantic interest. At times, this would escalate to some truly unwanted nauseating behaviour. It’s incredibly frustrating because you begin questioning your own work and abilities. You start declining opportunities to play music and you avoid certain spaces, which you once thought safe. You reject opportunities from people you don’t even know for, fear of not being taken seriously. At a certain point, it’s no longer worth the effort. All of this starts to affect you mentally and you dig yourself into a deep downward spiral of self-doubt. You see yourself as superfluous because of the way you look rather than valuing your work. This results in diminishing your self-worth and you forget that you are an accomplished musician.

Some women, including my past self, pride themselves as being “one of the guys”, which is a terrible mentality to have. It took me years after graduating to realize that the hard work I had put into my craft was valuable! I was able to make some difficult realizations because of supportive people in my life and especially because of concerned and encouraging male colleagues.

Creating and taking ownership of opportunities for ourselves is a sure way for us to present art in a meaningful way.

A number of the advocates that we know are working on issues of copyright, labor mobility, and equitable pay for their work (especially digital versions of their work).  Are these issues as critical for you as a jazz musician?  Are there issues missing from this list?

Aline: As an artist, it’s hard to define what workforce we belong to. We are musicians and we operate within a different structural framework. We do not get any benefits, steady paychecks, a pension or any form of monetary stability. That is, unless you have a separate day job that provides you with those things, but then your time and energy are divided and you still can’t completely focus on your job as an artist. When people realize this, they question your career choice.

People are often perplexed when they find out how little money we get paid for our work. We’ll get $50 here and there, working at a restaurant or a club. Or sometimes we’ll get “paid” in beer and make no money at all. These working conditions are deplorable and detrimental to keeping up our craft and being in a good state of mental health. It’s all connected. I am making every effort to make sure that all of the musicians playing at this concert get paid at least minimum “union rate” for their involvement. This is another reason why I decided to take on this project – because I want to create opportunities where musicians get paid fairly for creating art. I am also donating any extra funds to buy tickets for people-in-need who may not normally be able to attend such an event.

Using social media platforms and options like Spotify for visibility have their pros and cons. I think Spotify is a great tool for a teacher to use in a learning environment. But if we think we are going to be making a sustainable living off of Spotify plays, we are in big trouble. Same with YouTube which is essentially a popularity contest. There are numerous awards and prizes that you can win based on how many people vote for your song – it has nothing to do with the content. The only sustainable way to make money from recorded music is if you get played in a commercial, movie or video game. Radio is alright too but you need many, many plays over a long period of time.

There’s been some visibility of late in the pop scene around the lack of women on award nomination lists, festival lineups, and such. What are some specific challenges for women in jazz?

Aline: It’s quite devastating when you look at the numbers. However, I think they are getting better.

Women in jazz are disturbingly under-represented in festival line-ups and venues that book regular music series. Some forward-thinking musical directors are approaching this issue with the right attitude, which is very encouraging. I think there is still a ton of work to do to bring us equality. It’s also important to remember that this is not an issue that is going to change quickly. Yet I do think it’s imperative for jurors of any award or festival artistic director to be mindful of the younger generation and show these children that awesome women musicians are playing on the scene while getting rewarded for their work. Without diverse role models to look up to, how can the younger generation (representing any marginalized groups) be inspired to even begin thinking about a career in the arts.

As women instrumentalists in jazz, we are presented with another set of challenges related to our chosen instruments. It’s important to highlight that all four of us are instrumentalists.

Musicians and non-musicians alike have funny preconceived notions of what women are capable of doing. As soon as they see a female-sounding name on a program, their first thought is generally going to be, “ah, a singer”. I can guarantee you that both Emma and Magdelys are challenged for their instrument choices since the double bass and percussion are most often played by men. They probably have a lot to say about their experiences relating to this.

If you look at the Grammy awards for example, you’ll see that only one woman has ever won the “Best Jazz Instrumental Album” category (drummer Terri-Lyne Carrington won in 2014). If you look at the vocal categories, it’s a different story.

The Junos this year have nominated but one female-led and one female co-lead group in the instrumental jazz album of the year group category. Not one was nominated for the instrumental solo jazz album of the year. Can this be considered good?

Emma: I feel that singers have it different to instrumentalists. Not necessarily easier, but female singers are well documented in almost all musical genres throughout history, which I think speaks volumes. I have walked into venues with my double bass and been asked if I’m the singer more times than I can remember. I have been asked if I can ‘make it through a whole gig’ and I have seen looks of both anger and disappointment from drummers before I have even taken my instrument out of it’s case that this gig is going to suck because it’s a woman on the bass. I have had men forcibly take my bass off me because there’s no way I could put it in a cab myself and had to turn into a total harpy to get it back off them after watching them smash it against the door frame. I’ve had my bass taken off me because ‘I know you can carry it, I just can’t bring myself to watch you carry it down those steps in high heels.’ (How about taking high heels off the dress code? No..?) Then I have had great compliments from guys that think they’re doing me a favour by realising after hearing me that I’m an actual musician with something to say. ‘You play like a boy – you know, strong – not what you’d expect from a girl.’ ‘You’ve got a great taste in music. For a girl – most girls don’t know what good music is.)

How do I deal with it? I created Bitches Brew. (‘…did you know that’s an album by Miles Davis?’) Rather than take on the established music scene I decided to create a new one, separate to that, with a clean slate. It is a multi-genre event because there are incredible improvisers across all genres and also this is sadly a theme that runs through the entire music industry. Try asking female sound engineers how they have it.

Do you think the diversity of the music scene is any better or any worse in Canada than in other parts of the world (the UK, or the US, for example)?

Emma: This is my first time performing in Canada (except for session work) so I can’t comment on the scene here yet, but every one of the forty-seven women from across the UK that have performed at Bitches Brew in Scotland since June 2015 have encountered sexual discrimination in their professional lives. Add to that the fact that there are similar movements across the world, for example Dissonantes in Rio de Janeiro, which started in December 2015 as a response to the question “Where are the women in the experimental scene?” and the number of Women Make Music initiatives across the world (for example WomenInMusicAfrica, @wimf_Africa, or the UK’s PRSF Women Make Music fund) and the scale of the problem is pretty clear. That said, in some cultures women are banned from playing music altogether once they start menstruating so it really is relative.

When you all take the stage on 28 April, the audience will hear four different ensembles, all led by women. In addition to a terrific musical experience (obviously!), what else do you hope your audience takes away that night?

Aline: I hope that the audience will realize that any hard-working musician, regardless of the way they identify themselves, can make a meaningful artistic statement. I hope they discover new artists and music and seek them out in the Toronto music scene. Most of all though, I hope they experience something: music is so powerful in the sense that you have no control, as a listener, over how you feel from moment to moment. Some music may make you feel uncomfortable, it may make you laugh and then all of a sudden you feel like crying… And then it’s a dance party! It’s just so unpredictable. As a composer, you can’t dictate how someone will react to your music. I know the audience is going to feel many different emotions throughout the evening.

For those readers of our blog who may not yet be familiar with Canada’s jazz scene, are there female jazz musicians (besides the ones appearing with you next month) that you could highlight as artists they should definitely check out?

Aline: There are so many amazing women to listen to! One of the most inspiring teachers I had in college was Shannon Gunn.

In Toronto: Tara Davidson, Colleen Allen, Marilyn Lerner, Nancy Walker, Tania Gill, Rebecca Hennessy, Lina Allemano, Christine Duncan, Heather Saumer and Allison Au (to name a few). From the younger generation: Chelsea McBride, Virginia Frigault-Macdonald and Mingjia Chen.

Please! The best way to support these creative musicians is by going out to see them play! And when you do go out and see them play, talk to them and buy their music.

~ L

“The Smith Sessions Presents: Bitches Brew” takes place Saturday, 28 April, at Chalmers Performance Space, Canadian Music Centre, Toronto.  For information and tickets, go here.

Visit Aline Homzy on Facebook.

Visit Emma Smith’s website.

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