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Inspiring women in jazz, with Nikki Iles

Nikki Iles is a prominent British jazz pianist and composer, and edits the “Nikki Iles Jazz Series” for OUP, alongside a busy freelance, composing, and teaching career. We were excited to be able to talk to her about her experiences as a performer and composer, and on inspiring women in the jazz scene today.

How did you come to be a jazz musician, and what music inspired you in these early years?

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

How did you come to be a composer?

Writing has always seemed the most natural extension of my music making as an improviser, almost improvisation with hindsight! In the early nineties I was teaching and playing in all sorts of musical situations and by this time had met the musicians that were kindred spirits. I didn’t work with any other women writers and at that time worked with only one other female player—a great drummer called Caroline Boaden.

Were you ever conscious of the gender imbalance in the fields of both jazz and composition when you chose to pursue this as a career?

It’s strange—it never crossed my mind or presented any barriers to me (that I know of!), which seems ridiculous with the awareness we now have regarding this real imbalance. I was lucky to have surrounded myself with musicians where music was the only thing that mattered, and I never felt marginalised. I think I would have been telling a very different story if I was working in a touring big band or involved in the gladiatorial cutting contests of some jam sessions or the kind of “school of hard knocks” that can exist on the band stand.

There weren’t many women players around when I started out, but the British singer, Norma Winstone, the composer Carla Bley, and pianists Joanne Brackeen and Geri Allen were all significant figures for me.  It’s interesting as I find myself moving into a new chapter—writing for Jazz Orchestra—that I’ve never seen a British woman tour, leading her own big band playing of all her own compositions and arrangements, which seems ridiculous in this day and age. It’s music I love, so as well as enjoying the infinite possibilities with 19 musicians, I also need to be visible in order to encourage other women to feel they can too! The American writer Maria Schneider has been a great source of inspiration, bringing the big band sound into the 21st century with her unique and evocative music.

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

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

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

Giving girls confidence early on is key. Girls (me too at this stage) are less likely to take risks or throw themselves into something without a clear outcome or preparation—all things which are key as an improviser. Providing a safe and fun environment to do all of this without recrimination is a great start. Apart from my work in the schools and colleges, during lockdown I have been delighted to be approached by several young women aged from 19 to 35 to mentor them in composition through this time. We could see a real wave of women composers coming through—I hope so!

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