Earanee Niedzwiecki on Women in Jazz podcast and her artists to watch

“It occurred to me that a podcast could be a great way to remedy the lack of women’s stories in jazz, and to give young female musicians an opportunity to hear about the work and stories of their peers and those who had come before. Thus, Women in Jazz was born. “

We caught up with Earanee Niedzwiecki, creator of the Women in Jazz podcast, about amplifying the voices of female and non-binary jazz musicians, her dance roots and the common stories that women* in jazz experience.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

A: In a nutshell: I’m a molecular biology graduate from Adelaide who has somehow ended up working as a jazz dance instructor, choreographer, DJ and podcaster based in Brussels, Belgium.

I grew up to the sounds of artists like Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong and fell in love with jazz, studying saxophone and jazz vocals in high school. At that age, my tastes diversified, and among many other styles of music, I started listening to bop artists like John Coltrane and Miles Davis. When I went on to university, my love for jazz transferred to dance, when I started Lindy Hop classes in 2010. For those who don’t know what Lindy Hop is, it’s a partnered social dance which developed in African American communities along with the emergence of swing music. The term ‘swing dance’ will give you an idea of Lindy Hop, though I don’t have a lot of love for the term because it’s extremely broad and doesn’t pay respect to the cultural roots of the dances I and many others actually do.

After many years of local dance teaching and travelling the world to learn more about Lindy Hop and other African American vernacular jazz dances, in 2017 I was offered a dance teaching residency Luxembourg for 3 months, which ended up kicking off my career as a full-time instructor and creative in the Lindy Hop and jazz dance world.

Why did you start the podcast?

A: The idea came to me at a gig in Amsterdam in 2018. The core musicians on the gig were all young men who invited a talented young female vocalist to sit in with them for a few songs, and I’ll never forget: right after she sang her first chorus, the horn players all stepped in front of her, and continued to stand in front of her for the rest of the set – even when she sang! In that moment it occurred to me just how much some female jazz musicians might have to love jazz to endure this kind of treatment while still trying to bring their best to the stage – especially given the relative lack of female role models recognised in jazz history.

At the time I was also listening to a lot of long-form interview podcasts and reading a book called “Some Liked It Hot: Jazz Women in Film and Television” by Kristin A. McGee. It occurred to me that a podcast could be a great way to remedy the lack of women’s stories in jazz, and to give young female musicians an opportunity to hear about the work and stories of their peers and those who had come before. Thus, Women in Jazz was born. The project actually has two main components: the podcast, which features artists from the present day, but also the #WomenofJazzHistory arm. The latter currently exists as a feature on the Women in Jazz Instagram in which I spotlight a great female jazz musician of the past, although there are plans in the long term to develop a bit more of a comprehensive catalogue.

How can the genre/sector be a better place for women/nonbinary artists? What needs to change?

A: This is a massive question to tackle and if someone is genuinely interested, there are a wealth of studies, articles, panel discussions, interviews and documentaries which can provide a more robust answer, but essentially: women and nonbinary artists are underrepresented in the jazz community. This is ultimately rooted in sexism and patriarchy, but specifically it is a product of the social culture that exists in jazz and the lack of female role models made available to new generations of musicians. I imagine specifically for non-binary folks, if jazz is a male dominated arena that is already quite unfriendly to women, why would non-binary folks expect to feel welcome?

Who/what orgs do you see making good progress for this change?

A: There are lots of great organisations out there doing the work to support women and girls in jazz, although it’s worth noting that a vast majority of the best work seems to be done by women for women. This is wonderful and of course necessary, but I don’t think we’ll see completely meaningful, lasting change until all jazz organisations are doing the necessary work – regardless of the gender of those in leadership.

Right now, even institutional changes tend to be driven by women. For example, Jazz at Lincoln Center only began giving noticeably more opportunities to women after trumpeter Ellen Seeling, who will feature in an upcoming interview, and a number of other activists lobbied Jazz and Lincoln Center Orchestra to update their discriminatory hiring practices.

In Australia, I know there are organisations like All In in Melbourne (which is a collective made to boost the profiles of diverse artists in improvised music) and SIMA in Sydney (which runs programs supporting female jazz musicians), but we need more of these kinds of initiatives (not just in Australia but internationally) and I think they need to be better built into university programs. I can’t speak to the jazz programs in Australian universities specifically, but internationally something like only 3% of jazz faculty are women. That really impacts the kind of content students are likely being taught, and the types of role models available to them.

How do you select your interviewees?

A: Of course, I’m driven to speak to artists whose work and experience interests me, but it also has a lot to do with who I have access to through my own networks. In the first few episodes I was interviewing friends or friends of friends, but as the podcast has grown, so has my network. My intention is also to showcase a variety of artists internationally – not just in any one location. Other Women in Jazz projects have a tendency to focus on the local music scene, and while I think that’s absolutely important and necessary, the intention of my project is more to remedy the lack of women’s stories being recorded and told in jazz internationally.

What experiences/stories do you think a lot of women in jazz have in common? Do you hear similar things in a lot of your interviews?

A: The completely universal experience I hear is that women are underestimated by a majority of their male peers. Time and time again (not just in my interviews, but in every resource I come across) female instrumentalists report having to prove themselves as extremely talented before they’re respected and invited to participate, while they observe that male musicians are often socially welcomed until they’ve proved themselves not up to the task.

Sexual harassment and assault are also talked about quite often, as are the comments women receive about their bodies or the way they’ve chosen to dress, although understandably women tend to be a lot less comfortable making these discussions public. It’s partly that these events can be quite traumatic and private, but I think there’s also often a fear of retribution. Women are afraid to have these conversations where their male peers can hear them, because they don’t want their abusers to catch wind of what they’ve said, nor do they wish to be judged as ‘too sensitive’ or ‘causing trouble’, in case it means they start losing work.

What do you think makes women in jazz (as in the artists) so important/exciting?

A: I’m not sure I can answer this question without being a little bit facetious: because they’re people? I think they’re important and exciting insofar as they’re voices we’re not hearing enough of that the culture specifically excludes. Roughly half the people in the world are female, yet that is not reflected in any jazz club or at any jazz festival I’ve ever been to – especially if we consider instrumentalists.

While some genres of music like classical have managed to make marked improvements over the years, jazz is still languishing behind: I think that’s much more about the culture, combined with the almost complete lack of female role models being shown to aspiring jazz musicians. In researching for #WomenofJazzHistory I’ve found out about countless legends – like trumpeter Jane Sager who was mentored by Roy Eldridge and a mentor to Chet Baker, and jazz/classical bassist Lucille Dixon who played with the likes of The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, Earl Hines, Buddy Tate, Sarah Vaughan and Frank Sinatra, and was the co-creator and manager of the United States’ first integrated symphony orchestra – whose stories have rarely been told, and whose music is almost impossible to find. The lack of these women’s stories in jazz narratives perpetuates the expectation amongst musicians and audiences (even subconscious) that jazz is a male domain which only female vocalists and perhaps a few truly unique instrumentalists can make valid artistic contributions to.

You’ve interviewed Audrey Powne recently – how did this come about?

A: I first fell in love with Audrey’s playing at a jazz dance event in Melbourne in 2016. I’d seen her sitting in on gigs before, but this was the first time I’d had a chance to hear her play for a full evening. Although the all-female ensemble created for the event wasn’t practised at playing together, I was struck by how characterful Audrey’s playing was for such a young musician. Since then I’ve been following her work – even when we ended up on different continents – and when I started Women in Jazz, she was one of the first people I thought of. An Instagram DM later and she was on board! It was great to get to talk to her – she’s a consummate professional with great taste and experience beyond her years, and was very open hearted in sharing her journey and opinions with me. The episode is definitely recommended listening for anyone familiar with the Melbourne jazz scene or jazz in Australia more broadly.

Who should we be watching in jazz? Who are you excited about?

A: Well, in my opinion Audrey is absolutely someone to keep an eye on. Speaking of Australian musicians, saxophonist Flora Carbo is also one to look out for. Flora and Audrey actually released a record in February 2021 called ‘Aura’, named after their 4-piece ensemble with Helen Svoboda on bass and Kyrie Anderson on drums.

It’s a difficult one to answer fully, because I’m personally biased toward swing, bop and neo-soul, which certainly doesn’t encompass the breadth of jazz out there today. I’m sure there are incredibly talented artists flying under my radar just because their style is not my preference. But looking more internationally, as a saxophone nut I’m absolutely in love with US artists Camille Thurman (who I was lucky enough to have on the podcast) and Lakecia Benjamin. There’s also an up-and-coming young saxophonist, pianist and bassist from London called Roella Oloro, who has a great groove and very distinct artistic voice – I can’t wait to see how her musical career develops. And a quick shoutout to pianist Thandi Ntuli from South Africa who makes beautiful music – I was put onto her by my Episode 5 guest, Tutu Puoane, who also grew up in South Africa.

How can people support the podcast?

A: At the moment, the best way to support the podcast is on Patreon. For those who don’t know the platform, it’s where fans of the project sign up as ‘patrons’, contributing a monthly donation of their choosing to the project. I hope to set up a more standardised format for one-off donations, so that could be available soon. Also: any resources for my #WomenofJazzHistory research are welcome! This project tends to focus on musicians who started their careers by the mid 1970s.

You can find more episodes of the Women in Jazz podcast here. Follow the podcast in Instagram here.

*inclusive of trans, intersex and gender-non-conforming people.

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