Inspiring women in jazz, with Nikki Iles

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Nikki Iles is a distinguished British jazz pianist and composer, and publishes the “Nikki Iles Jazz Series” for OUP, alongside a busy career as a freelance writer, composer and teacher. We were delighted to be able to tell her about her experiences as a performer and composer, and about the inspiring women of today’s jazz scene.

How did you become a jazz musician, and what music inspired you during those early years?

As a teenager, I took clarinet and piano lessons at the Royal Academy of Music on Saturdays. I’ve always been particularly fond of chamber groups and small group music making, so in some ways it’s no surprise that I found myself in the world of jazz! My father was a semi-professional jazz drummer and I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by the music of Oscar Peterson, Nat Cole, Frank Sinatra, Ella and George Shearing while growing up. I loved the deep swing feel of Oscar Peterson Night Train album, Frank Sinatra’s effortless phrasing on the Sinatra basie album and the first musician I really felt a deep affinity with — Bill Evans on the recording Living at Village Vanguard.

How did you become a composer?

Writing has always seemed the most natural extension of my musical creation as an improviser, almost improvisation in hindsight! In the early 90s I was teaching and playing in all kinds of musical situations and by that time I had met musicians who were soul mates. I didn’t work with other female writers and at the time I only worked with one other player, a great drummer named Caroline Boaden.

Have you ever been aware of the gender imbalance in jazz and composition when choosing to pursue your career?

It’s strange, it has never crossed my mind or presented any barriers (to my knowledge!), Which seems ridiculous with the awareness we have now of this real imbalance. I had the chance to surround myself with musicians where music was the only thing that mattered, and I never felt marginalized. I think I would have told a very different story if I had worked in a big band on tour or if I had participated in the gladiatorial cup contests of some jam sessions or the kind of “school of hard knocks” that may exist on the group’s stand.

There weren’t many female players when I started out, but British singer Norma Winstone, songwriter Carla Bley, and pianists Joanne Brackeen and Geri Allen were all important figures to me. It’s interesting as I find myself entering a new chapter – writing for Jazz Orchestra – that I’ve never seen a British woman on tour, leading her own big band playing all of her own compositions and arrangements. , which seems ridiculous these days. . It’s music that I love, so besides enjoying the endless possibilities with 19 musicians, I also need to be visible in order to encourage other women to feel that they can too! American writer Maria Schneider was a great inspiration, bringing the sound of the big band into the 21st century with its unique and evocative music.

Can you tell us a bit about your concert with the Royal Academy of Music Big Band, “Celebrating Women in Jazz”?

My goal was to put on a concert of great writers with individual voices, who happen to be women. The music ranged from 1946 to a piece that I finished a week before the concert! Mary lou williams Scorpio was written for the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Duke thought it was too modern, and it still sounds today! Williams was way ahead of her time, but sadly in a big minority as a composer and arranger of black big bands. Carla Bley was a self-taught composer and her sonic universe is indefinable. Christine Jenson (sister of trumpeter Ingrid Jenson) is a more contemporary writer and writes with more world music influences.

Based on your experience as an educator, how do you think we can continue to encourage young women and girls to become jazz musicians and composers?

It is essential to give girls confidence from the start. Girls (me too at this point) are less likely to take risks or embark on something without a clear outcome or preparation – all of which are essential as an improviser. Providing a safe and fun environment to do all of this without complaint is a good start. Outside of my work in schools and colleges, during confinement I was delighted to be approached by several young women aged 19 to 35 to accompany them in composition during this period. We have seen a real wave of female composers arrive, I hope!


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