Faced with the Berlin Wall, Issie Barratt’s instinct would once have been to plough through it headfirst. But 30 years of fighting the hidden inequalities which hold female jazz players back has gradually taught her to play the long game on their behalf, with such success that BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour included her in its 2018 Power List.
A veteran big band baritone saxophonist and jazz and classical composer, her artistic career has been overshadowed by her relentless idealism. Always pushing for the underdog, whether it’s jazz’s worth within wider music, or women’s worth within jazz, Barratt has chivvied and wrangled till change has come. When she founded the jazz faculty at Trinity College of Music (now Trinity Laban) in 1999, she was counselling students who felt hemmed in by the old guard to create their own scenes. Trinity graduates such as Moses Boyd and Nubya Garcia are now doing just that. The Arts Council now gives 16% of its music funding to jazz, a Cinderella genre till Barratt and others such as Denys Baptiste argued its case. The National Youth Jazz Collective is another Barratt initiative, among multiple bureaucratic roles as crucial to the music as any bandstand heroism. But it’s her experience of the jazz bands she grew up yearning to join which fuels Barratt’s fire.
“When the movie Whiplash came out, I saw the trailer and sobbed my socks off, and couldn’t bear to see the film,” she says. “I’ve experienced that screaming in high-pressure big bands. But the thing that made me cry wasn’t so much the screaming. It was the shot of the whole big band looking at the floor. Because they never stick up for you, in case they lose the gig. That’s rolled right through society. If any black person’s prejudiced against, someone will come up [to commiserate] after the event. That’s appeasement. You haven’t contributed to changing anything, you’re just making yourself feel better about your empathy. I want to change society. Let’s just do it, and not talk about it.”
Issie Barratt conducting at the recording sessions
We’re talking in the upstairs bar of a quiet, unfussy club which has its secretive entrance in a Covent Garden back alley, Barratt’s comfortable ‘second home’ since she started her career. Classical musicians from the neighbouring opera houses chat around us, as Barratt considers her latest vehicle for a new society, the all-female collective Interchange. Initially including Yazz Ahmed and Tori Freestone in barnstorming gigs at Cheltenham Jazz Festival and elsewhere, Mercury nominees Laura Jurd and Cassie Kinoshi, tenor player Chelsea Carmichael and trombonist Rosie Turton were among the names still on board when they recorded their debut album, Donna’s Secret, comprising rich and diverse long-form pieces by eight female jazz writers. Even Barratt was jolted by just how different making music with only women proved.
“The ensemble was primarily set up for selfish reasons,” she reflects. “After 30 years I was yearning for something that was missing. I wanted to work with women, and I knew I’d never be invited to. But at different stages of the project, I realised I’d been tailored to an all-male, much more professional environment. I’m used to turning up in a studio for a concentrated period, and hitting the ground running. I’m used to the parameters of pay [and studio expense]. A lot of the women were used to evolving their music over more, unpaid time, in lovely projects they’re independently running.”
We can speak out now and not get a backlash. They’re still not comfortable conversations to have
Though Barratt was delighted to use co-producer Olga Fitzroy, a veteran of top sessions such as rock band Coldplay, her role was ‘alien’ to many of the musicians. “Olga looked at the live room and said, ‘They’re not of this environment, are they?’ It caused a bit of distance for a while, but also challenged us – well, is that the only way to do things?”
Differences within Interchange’s brave new musical society proved almost fatal to their album. “The studio was booked for May 2018,” Barratt recalls, “then a couple of people said, ‘We don’t feel ready to do it. Because it’s got to be the best thing we’ve ever done, because it’s all female’. I said, ‘Yes I want it to be the best too, but it’s really difficult, because I’m on the road leading a really intense project at the moment’. I remember sitting on a hotel bed going, ‘Okay. I’ve got a choice. Do I honour the contract we’re on, or do I rescue the album for later?’”
Barratt’s track record and Angel Studios’ belief in the project led them to waive the cancelled session’s bill, and Donna’s Secret was finally completed in January 2019.
Once these intimate social nuances had been navigated, Interchange also proved novel in all the positive ways Barratt had pined for. “Female musicians are supportive when they’re with each other, like guys are,” she explains. “We could talk about things I’ve never heard guys in the UK talk about – like childcare, looking after elderly parents, and tailoring projects around those responsibilities, as men and women do in Scandinavia.”
Barratt built Interchange as a ‘pop-up ensemble’ mostly employing accordion rather than piano, with a chamber music feel: “I’m known for orchestration, I’ve got a really colourful ear. And I didn’t want to default to a mini-big band.” As many of the women composed their first pieces for large ensembles, themes emerged, from tending to ill parents to empathy for Calais refugees and Palmyra war victims. “I’m not sure that would have arisen so intensely being left to guys,” Barratt believes. Interchange was uniquely beneficial in other ways. “Being around other women,” she adds. “Seeing the audience reaction – the way they clapped and cheered. It took them an hour to go home after every gig. Because the audiences say there’s something really powerful about seeing a whole group of women.”
Barratt sees Interchange as a communal resource as much as a band, offering professionally vital experience as composers and session musicians. “Interchange could become a barometer, as the scene changes,” she considers. “We’re not fixed on being 100 per cent female, if it no longer needs to be. Is this band of use to our careers, or are we Jazz re:freshed for women starting out? I don’t know, I want it to show me.”
Though painfully slow, change for women in jazz is already real. Barratt knows that 10 years ago, Interchange wouldn’t have been possible. “I’m more at ease talking about these things now,” she says. “Getting acknowledged in the Power List was good for that, though the word ‘power’ sat in gatekeepers’ throats. When I went to the Parliamentary Jazz Awards, none of the guys could get the word out. Go on, say it! ‘P...power...’ And there’s a bigger pool of women to draw on than 10 years ago, and we can speak out now and not get a backlash. They’re still not comfortable conversations to have.”
Barratt’s campaigning is rooted in her Leicestershire upbringing. “I come from a very diverse background,” she considers. “My mum’s German and my father’s English – imagine growing up in the 1960s with that – and my mum’s family never married the same nationality for three generations, and then my father taught in an 80 per cent Bangladeshi school.” Barratt’s writing, more intrigued by Swiss folk melodies than bebop, reflects this diversity.
“People often say, why aren’t you more ambitious for your own career?” she continues. “Because that’s not what I want. There’s something about being part of a group, and mixing together. I want to be part of society. I’m a citizen. That’s my background, in chapel choirs, and everyone in our family has run or written for amateur orchestras. We’re like Benjamin Britten. It took me quite a while to say, ‘I’m a professional musician’, because I felt like I was leaving that. So maybe that’s contributed to my inclusivity. Anyone that gets excited by sound, let’s do it! And if there are barriers… well I can’t think of anything worse psychologically as a creative person than to see all of that fruit hanging around you, and to not have access to it. What kind of mental cruelty is that?”
Barratt’s uncle, Karl Jenkins, was a key player in early 1970s British jazz-rock, in Soft Machine, Nucleus and Graham Collier’s group, before a later career as a hugely successful, knighted classical composer. He and Collier were among early mentors who shielded Barrett from the difficulties of being a female musician as she began under their wing, while a female oboe teacher took her along to play in Midlands theatre pit orchestras. “If I didn’t have an aunt and uncle who are both weird successful musicians [Carol Barratt is a noted music educator and composer], I don’t think I’d be where I am now,” Barratt believes. Her parallel classical career lived up to this progressive start, making the jazz world’s biases an even bitterer pill.
If someone’s prejudiced against, someone will come up to commiserate after the event. That’s appeasement. You haven’t contributed to changing anything, you’re just making yourself feel better about your empathy
Barratt can recall “staggering presumptions” at every level of this otherwise radical music, from promoters refusing to book Interchange because they’ve “already had one woman this year”, to female musicians who vainly wait till 3am to be called up at Ronnie’s jams, or are passed over for solos by teachers, while ‘meritocracies’ are unconsciously loaded to reward fellow white men. “I want to remove barriers, and let the outcome prove itself,” she says. As Interchange’s women also found, the problem is finally a social one.
“I think the jazz scene is still struggling to adjust to the social shifts that are taking place,” Barratt believes. “It’s reaching out to a familiar structure that’s built on a male psyche and way of being. The way women carry themselves as musicians is not what male musicians are used to. Women sometimes cry, it’s human. But once they do, they’re never asked to play again.”
Male discomfort, and inadvertent discouragement, towards Barratt as a lone female player was a constant during her decades in big bands. Badinage and boozy bonding left her in the cold. “Before gigs, guys like to be anecdotal and jocular, it’s their way of dealing with pre-gig nerves,” she notes of one minor difference. “I feel cluttered and need more space. So I’ll go and sit in a church or look at a painting. But the thing we’re sharing is that deep, deep love of the music. That’s what’s keeping us all together.” Barratt is heartened that male musicians are beginning to question their own presumptions now.
The effort of this double-life as a musician-activist has left Barratt “depleted” at times. But she knows no other way. “I’m a citizen, and I’m very excited by sound,” she concludes, “and I don’t know why but those two things sit together. I’ve got synaesthesia as well. So I just feel life is very colourful, and being a citizen is too, and I can’t separate them.”
Donna’s Secret is out now on Fuzzy Moon Records