Kate Westbrook

Vocalist

Telephone interview, with written amendments, 9, 16 January 2003

Women in jazz and related music

The consistent lack of women in the whole jazz scene, and the wider one of which we are part, has troubled me, of course. For instance, when I first joined the Brass Band and we did festivals around 1973-75, sometimes I was the only woman playing in the entire festival. There might be one American woman singer, but often not a woman instrumentalist. The situation is improving but even so there remains a pathetically small number of women, especially instrumentalists, and I think it is difficult for those that are there. The way I personally address it is not by being militant, but by working though my art, and sticking at it over the years. Other women approach the situation differently—good luck to my militant sisters. We played with Henry Cow (who were from outside the jazz scene) in 1976 for some concerts and tours. There were women in the band—Lindsay Cooper and Georgie Born, both terrific improvisers—and there was something liberating and powerful in that for me.

There has been some sort of postfeminist argument, and I’m paraphrasing so forgive me, along the lines of women can’t really do instrumental improvisation, their bodies don’t cope with it. I don’t subscribe to that at all.

Marching politics

We were involved in a lot of left-wing events with the Brass Band. The big Grunswick demonstration in the 1970s, we were on that. I remember Cornelius Cardew and Keith Rowe and others were all on the back of a wagon, handing out lyric sheets, singing tunes in support of the striking workers, singing perhaps rather banal tunes for such sophisticated avant garde musicians. The Brass Band was marching along, playing numbers by Jelly Roll Morton, an Elizabethan piece arranged by Paul Rutherford, ‘Hot jamboree’ (a Welfare State tune).

Europe, Englishness and America

I have made a point of singing in different languages. This developed from working with the Brass Band in Europe. In order to communicate more directly I wanted to use the language of the audience if I possibly could. The first Paul Eluard poem I performed in the original French was in I think 1976. This interest has developed over the years since then, and now I perform in French, Italian, German. When we performed our first Brecht/Weill in German in both East and West Germany, it was in true Westbrook style, which meant that we were irreverent not slaves to the original musical score. I think our German audiences found that pretty refreshing, our eccentric English take on this rather ‘sacred’ repertoire. This approach did generate controversy here in the UK at the time. I remember when a friend, at my request, translated the lyrics of Cole Porter’s ‘Love for sale’ and I sang them in German—it somehow became tremendously political for the audiences. This was a song that had been banned in the US originally. When it was performed in the theatre there, a black woman, rather than the intended white woman, had to sing it. Us doing it in German in the late 1970s—well, there was a lot of soul-searching going on in the country still, to do with their own past, and that song really touched a nerve. We really like putting our inflection on an American standardlike that. Last year [2002] playing in Portugal I did sing in Portuguese, which I find a difficult language, and there was some trepidation before going on stage. But I feel it’s important to put in the time and energy to be able to perform in that way.

In terms of our English identity and music, a lot of people see the William Blake programme as where we come from.

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