December 18th 2012
Post #2: Kate Westbrook. I found Kate's words very moving; this is her response in its entirety. I felt humbled to receive such a thoughtful and comprehensive response from such a wonderful and respected musician, for whom I have great admiration and have listened to for many years.
My question was: 'As female musicians/composers/radio presenters, how do you feel your experiences as women in the UK music industry have contributed to or influenced -if at all- your music, creativity and career choices today?'
This is Kate's response:
In 1974 I joined the Mike Westbrook Brass Band on tenor horn and piccolo. Since then I have become more of a librettist and a vocalist than a brass player. We toured with that band to the end of the decade, through the 1980s and in to the early 1990s. We had success particularly in Europe (more than in the UK) and in Australia. I was also in the Mike Westbrook Orchestra and, together with Chris Biscoe, Mike and I formed The Westbrook Trio.
We did tours regularly in the Spring and in the Autumn and always did a few big Summer jazz festivals. For us it was a great time for constant work, we were doing lots of gigs in the year. It always struck me at the big festivals how few women there were overall (I was often the only one) and how rare it was to come across a band run by a woman who wasn’t a vocalist, - exceptions of course, including Barbara Thompson, the Feminist Improvising Group, Carla Bley, Deidre Cartwright, Lindsay Cooper- but predominantly it was a male preserve.
During this period I did quite a few ‘high profile’ performances in the UK (the Proms, Edinburgh Festival, the Barbican with the LSO…). I really don’t want to claim the high moral ground, but my instinct was always to move on to the next creative challenge rather than consolidate any career benefit I had gained.
I formed my own band in the 1990s called Kate Westbrook and the Skirmishers. The group performed at the London Jazz Festival with ‘Revenge Suite’ and later with “Cuff Clout’ at the Chard Festival of Women in Music. Having got a small Arts Council grant for Cuff Clout, I commissioned 5 women and 3 men composers each to write a piece on my texts for the show. We made an album (with funds from a private trust) which got very good reviews. Richard Cook gave it 4 stars in the Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD and said 'It's all stirring and moving stuff, and one looks forward to seeing it staged'. However it became increasingly difficult to get gigs. I do feel this is partly due to an anti woman bias in some promoters and on the part of some sectors of the jazz public. Also I realize I am of a generation where women on the whole did not head up countries, banks and bands, and my deeply ingrained sense of the old ways in society perhaps made me a poor fighter.
I have worked with the ‘contemporary music’ composer Michael Finnissy and there are more women in that world it seems to me. Having worked with European jazz composers the picture seems horribly much the same as here.
With the Westbrook Trio we are celebrating our 30th anniversary this year. I write texts for and perform in Mike’s current bands, and he and I have written several operas, music-theatre pieces, and many songs together over the years. I am fortunate to have a platform working closely with my husband.
I see former students of mine who have hoped to live a life playing music, losing heart and going in to other professions in order to live. This applies to both sexes, but I still feel it is harder for women. It is particularly difficult for anyone working at the experimental end of the spectrum- Are we really back to glamorous girls doing standards nicely? Certainly in jazz, the climate is such that almost everyone is having a struggle, just a few ‘names’ earn a lot and play as much as they choose to.
Not long ago after a gig at the 606 Club in London, as I was coming out at the end of the evening I was stopped by a young woman. She asked me how she could get started as a singer with a band. My reply was ‘Marry a band leader’. Only half joking I’m sorry to say. Of course there are the many hours and years of very hard work, but it gets us nowhere if we don’t have a platform.
I wish I could have been in a position to have done more for the many talented women I have come across in the jazz world. Currently I work with the accordionist Karen Street, with alto saxophonist Roz Harding, both brilliant musicians and both having a monumental struggle to get their music heard.
Mike and I tend to think that best of all is to be able to get to the next writing project, and to perform live one way or another. However difficult things have been, I have always written lyrics and worked at the music. While both Mike and I have done odd bits of teaching in the past, primarily we have earned a living by art, the priority has always been the art.
Kate Westbrook was born in Britain but spent much of her childhood in the USA and Canada. Educated at Dartington Hall School, in Devon. Kate went on to study Fine Art at Bath Academy of Art, Corsham, and at Reading University, before returning to live and work on the East and West coasts of America, and travelling in Mexico. The first solo show of her paintings was at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, California, in 1963. On returning to the UK she continued to exhibit her work and she taught at Leeds College of Art, at that time in the forefront of experimental theatre and performance art. Kate's musical career began in the mid '70s when she joined the Mike Westbrook Brass Band, and gave up teaching to concentrate on the dual career of painter and musician.
Kate has toured widely throughout Europe, and as far afield as Canada, Australia and the Far East. She has broadcast on radio and TV and has recorded more than 20 albums. Her vocal range embraces Contemporary Music, Opera, Music Hall, as well as Jazz and Popular Song. She has sung the role of Anna in The Seven Deadly Sins by Brecht and Weill with the London Symphony Orchestra, arias by Rossini with the Mike Westbrook Orchestra in Big Band Rossini at the BBC Proms, and songs by the Beatles with the Westbrook Band in Off Abbey Road. With fellow vocalist Phil Minton Kate has sung the poetry of William Blake ( Mike Westbrook’s settings) in many countries and on two albums Bright as Fire (1980) and Glad Day (1997) She multi-tracked most of the roles in the television opera Good Friday 1663 (with libretto by Helen Simpson), now released on Jazzprint. In the Contemporary Music field, Kate has performed Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together and premiered Phil Clark’s All The Rage. Kate was a featured soloist in the first performance of Michael Finnissy's The Transgressive Gospel in the 2009 Spitalfields Festival.
In her recording project Cuff Clout, (Voiceprint) a neoteric music-hall, performed by her group The Skirmishers, featuring vocalist John Winfield, Kate's lyrics are set by eight composers from the worlds of pop, rock, jazz and classical music. On her solo album Goodbye Peter Lorre (also Voiceprint) she is accompanied by pianists John Alley and Mike Westbrook and the vocal group Fine Trash. Other albums include Music For Other Occasions with Lindsay Cooper and the Duo album, Love Or Infatuation with Mike Westbrook, based on the Hollywood Songs of Frederich Hollaender.
On her album The Nijinska Chamber a celebration of the life and work of the dancer and choreographer Bronislava Nijinska , with music by Mike Westbrook, Kate is joined by accordionist Karen Street.
Kate sings in Italian, French and German. She was guest soloist in a series of performances in the Christus Pavillon at the Expo 2000, Hannover, in a work by composer Heribert Leuchter, KlangWeltReligion. In 2002 she collaborated with Heribert on a music-theatre piece, Reich durch Arm, commissioned by WDR, and premiered in Aachen. Kate makes a guest appearance on Leuchter's new Trio album Reset.
Kate Westbrook's work as a lyricist has encompassed everything from cabaret songs to opera. She wrote book and lyrics for the music theatre piece Platterback, performed by Westbrook & Company. and the Westbrook Trio's 20th anniversary album L'ascenseur / The Lift (both on Jazzprint). Also for the current Westbrook project ART WOLF, based on the life and work of the Alpine painter Caspar Wolf (1735 - 83) released on the Swiss label altrisuoni. She has co-written two works for voice and brass sextet, which she performs with the recently formed Mike Westbrook Village Band, Waxeywork Show (CD on jazzprint) and, the latest, English Soup, or the Battle of the Classic Trifle, shortly to be released on DVD.
Kate wrote texts for Chanson Irresponsable (Enja Records), one of many collaborations with Mike Westbrook, which include settings of European poetry, as do such concert works as The Cortege and London Bridge is Broken Down. She wrote the libretto for their opera Jago, and Turner in Uri, a celebration of the painter JMW Turner's travels in the Alps, commissioned by the 2003 Alpentoene Festival. The Westbrooks' one-woman opera CAPE GLOSS, Mathilda's Story, for soprano Marie Vassilliou, commissioned by NOC, was premiered in Plymouth in February 2007.
Kate is featured with fellow vocalist Phil Minton in Glad Day, The Choral Version of Mike Westbrook's settings of William Blake. She appears regularly in Duo with Mike Westbrook and in The Westbrook Trio with Mike and saxophonist Chris Biscoe. With the Mike Westbrook Band Kate is currently performing material from the latest Westbrook album Fine 'n Yellow and a brand new work for voice, percussion and saxophone quartet The Serpent Hit.
Kate continues to exhibit her paintings in Britain and abroad.
Kate’s latest release is The Westbrook Trio anniversary album which was launched at the London Jazz Festival, and in Paris a few weeks ago: www.westbrookjazz.co.uk/westbrooktrio/index.shtml