Jazzin' with the best of them

Heather Bambrick. (Photo by Marie Byers)

Heather Bambrick. (Photo by Marie Byers)

When Heather Bambrick sang, “Well Alright, Okay, You Win” in her community choir back home in Newfoundland, her director encouraged her to scat — a vocal freestyle without using actual words. She tried it — and was bitten by the jazz bug. 

“With jazz, I think it was the sense of groove and swing that was so strong and it spoke to me in a certain way,” Bambrick says.

The Juno-nominated musician, who released her latest album in November 2016, regularly performs with her band across Ontario, hosts a show on JAZZ.FM and is planning to tour next year. With a career spanning over 20 years, she says she always knew that the music industry was the business for her, although in her early gigs, she admits there were some jittery moments.

“It was terrifying. Well, no, I won’t say that. It was moderately terrifying,” she laughs.

It’s something that, of course, got better with time.

And what a wonderful career it has been.

With a decade between her previous and current album, Bambrick describes her latest album as “organic.” She says she had more creative control this time — one of the perks of being an independent artist and working in a supportive environment.

Bambrick refuses to fall into any sort of stereotype. First and foremost, she is a musician who is true to her art and confidently humble in her creativity. It is that authenticity in her craft and personality that has gotten her to where she is in her celebrated and respected career. 

“I really think of myself as one of the guys,” she says. “Maybe I’d be further along in my career if I played the game a little more — if I wore dresses and high heels. But I don’t feel like I’d be true to myself.”

But standing against the popularized image of what female singers ‘should’ look like didn’t come without its challenges. Bambrick agrees that there is a sexualized attitude towards women in the music industry. In her early career, Bambrick was fired for not wearing enough revealing clothing.

But she wasn’t going to be a ‘chick singer’ – that person who is viewed as a centrepiece and valued more for her looks than her talent. This phenomenon makes it harder for women to be considered seriously as musicians, she says.

Bambrick has plenty of advice for the next generation of female jazz singers, but the key, she says, is not to mould yourself after female stereotypes and to stay true to who you are.

“People will say you have to work twice as hard as a woman,” she says. “Sometimes that’s true, so be prepared to do that. But don’t let it get you down and fight against the fact that you have to do it, so someday you won’t have to.”

But even the newer generations of vocalists see the imbalance of the gender scale in the jazz industry.

Lydia Persaud was one of Bambrick’s students at Humber College. During her time in school, and even during her career since, she’s witnessed the way the industry favours men.

“Because it’s such a male-dominated scene, you can see obvious support being given to men,” Persaud says. “Sometimes women have to prove themselves on another level in terms of their musicianship.”

Persaud, who is a member of the folk group The O’Pears, remembers a time when they weren’t going to be hired for a festival because there were too many female groups. Another time, The O’Pears were objectified and sexualized in a Facebook post, with a thread of comments that talked about the individual appearances of the women. One poster even claimed to have had sexual relations with them.

Lydia Persaud. (Photo by Jen Squires)

Lydia Persaud. (Photo by Jen Squires)

While those are the negative effects of fast-spreading social media, it can also be used as an empowering tool for women in the music industry. Persaud says the Toronto Women in Music Facebook group is a platform where women can talk about these issues. But overall, there is one thing that Persaud says women can keep on doing in order to move forward.

“Keep on making good music,” she says. “I think that is what will trump a lot of issues. Keep making good art and take pride in that so as we move forward people realize female musicians are amazing.”

Rita di Ghent is one of those musicians. She invented Sprawl, a genre of music that involves mixing traditional jazz with urban music. Above all, she is a storyteller. And while the scene for women in jazz has its shortcomings, she says there is more than enough room for all talent.

“It’s common knowledge the jazz world is a man’s world,” she says. “Maybe it’s becoming less so. There’s never any lack of respect for talent in jazz. Jazz musicians are the first to acknowledge any talent because it’s an art form.”

Historically, the most successful women in jazz, di Ghent says, were the toughest. She cites Anita O’Day and Betty Carter, who made their own record labels. Di Ghent herself took her promotion kit and tried to book her own gigs in Toronto. After a while, enough was enough. She decided to take her career completely into her own hands. Making her own record label, Groove Productions, she produced albums and booked shows herself.

“When I was coming up, there seemed to be two types of women in jazz,” di Ghent says. “They were either very girly, didn’t seem to have any power and would dumb themselves down in order to get accepted. The other kind of woman was the ball-buster.”

But di Ghent wasn’t going to mould herself after either one of these types. She wanted to be her own person, her own entity. She would be a third type of woman.

“(That) was the one who embodied an authentic feminine power. I didn’t want to be one of the guys; I didn’t want to be a ball-buster,” di Ghent says. “It’s just finding that middle ground between being authoritative, but having well-deserved power and true feminine power.”

It’s just finding that middle ground between being authoritative, but having well-deserved power and true feminine power.
— Rita di Ghent

The state of the female jazz musicians today is still not up to par. Juliet Dunn, executive director of the TD Niagara Jazz Festival, says there is a lack of female musicians who traditionally take the role as the vocalist in jazz. She remembers Diana Krall, who also plays piano, telling her that she had trouble receiving the same respect as male musicians.

It will be Dunn’s fith year as the executive director of the TD Niagara Jazz Festival and her seventh running the Twilight Jazz Festival. Before that, she lived and sang in Paris for 13 years.

“As a woman of colour, 50 years ago I would have had a much different career,” she says. “I read about the past and think about Billie Holiday not being able to use the same washroom as other people and having to come through the back door.”

While the problem with racism and sexism still remains in the world, there is another side of the table that women have to get to. Dunn is talking about the under-representation of females in the business side of music — that is managers, booking agents and publicists in record labels. It’s the brazen trails left behind by those such as Diana Krall and Billie Holiday, who nonetheless endured the political climates that they were in, that musicians should pay attention to.

Dunn says there are changes that could be made in the music industry — part of that is artists educating themselves in order to represent and clearly define their needs when it comes to the business side of music.

“Those who have a better edge on the whole business side of things tend to be more successful. Nowadays, you can have two musicians that have the exact same level of talent,” she says, “but the one who is better at business is going to go further.”

What we’ve learned from these four women in the jazz scene is that there needs to continue to be gracefulness, persistence and redefinition of what it means to be a woman in the industry. As time goes on, there will be new challenges to conquer and old ones that will never be forgotten. But these women will keep jazzin’ with their wit, intuition and immense talent. It’s what they do best.