Telephone interview 5 April 2004, amended by DC
Ivy Benson, and big band legacies
I recorded one album as part of Ivy Benson’s band, as a teenager, in 1976. I met her one day in a music shop in Chiswick. I was in there trying out guitars and she saw me and asked if I played bass. ‘No, but my sister does’. My sister, Bernice Cartwright, went on to play bass guitar with her for ten years. She left school and joined Ivy straight away, thrown in at the deep end like many teenage musicians with Ivy.
What Ivy did was something special. I do think about that. In classical music, there may be prejudice and discrimination against, for instance, women, but at the same time you know where you can go—there are grades, exams, orchestras, structures or lines that you can follow to get some sort of career or recognition. For young women wanting to start out in jazz that simply was not the case—except for Ivy. And she was so important for that, there was a sort of presence there, and there was an identifiable route for progression. Because she offered a professional band, with high standards—it was an opportunity, for training, for getting taken seriously. We’ve talked about this and I’m fairly confident Annie [Whitehead] feels the same, too. She was with Ivy, and left the band the year before Bernice joined, 1974, I think.
Lydia D’Ustebyn’s Swing Orchestra was in a way a tribute. Lydia was a fictional character of course, but she was vaguely based on Ivy Benson—a strict, feared and also admired bandleader. We would have running jokes at gigs, apologising to the audience for the late appearance of Lydia, she’s missed her train or something. Not that Ivy was ever late for a gig, but the whole thing, a 12- or 14-piece all-woman dance band, was modelled a bit on Ivy, and our memories of working with her.
The Sisterhood of Spit big band was 22-24 strong, so there was certainly an element of scale, of impact with that. Ruthie Smith came up with the name, I think—a nod to the Brotherhood of Breath big band that had long been active, obviously, but there was also a reference to punk in it: it was 1981 or so, and there was a sense we picked up from punk of ‘Yes, we can get up and just do it’. The punk thing was more in terms of its ideals than any musical aesthetic. The Sisterhood came out of the women’s movement directly: the Dutch saxophonist Angèle Veltmeijer, who was also in the Feminist Improvising Group, was running a saxophone class at the Women’s Arts Alliance, I had run a guitar class there for a short while. The sax class came together with some friends and other musicians to form the big band.
It probably is significant that some of the musicians involved in these large all-women ensembles had been with Ivy; she gave us a template, and we carried something on. For her, I mean!
But in a way there was another trigger too, that was clear from my experience playing with the very political, very popular all-women jazz and rock band Jam Today [in the mid 1970s]. All the feminist politics that had been coming over from America and changing the ways women in Britain thought led to campaign groups, conferences and organisations up and down the country. Even the Trades Union Congress would put on a women’s caucus event. And lots of those conferences had entertainment in the evenings and organisers started booking all-woman bands. To put a women-only band on the stage during these years was itself a political act—in a positive way at things like women-only benefits, which were happening for the first time, in a more charged way at some of the punky gigs when some men would be shouting abuse at us for just being women playing guitars and drums and things.
Guest Stars, repertoire, organisation
We didn’t have anything to follow, there was no female tradition as such, so yes, we had to create our own genre, and at the beginning it could be difficult. But it’s probably fairer to say that our repertoire came about because of the influences we all brought to it. It was around the start of the world music scene, and we were interested in postbop jazz—Mingus and Monk; soul vocals and harmonies; and African sounds were fresh to us. To our mild surprise people quite quickly began to dance at our gigs.
We organised ourselves differently to most jazz bands, a bit more like a young rock or pop outfit. So there were regularly rehearsals, up to three a week, and we played together all the time. The group was like a support network, too. Even when someone wrote a new piece for the band individually, we’d all arrange it collectively, during rehearsals. Though there were lots of leadership issues in that band, there were no individual leaders. Some reactions to us were curious: people were even very surprised that women could get on, and not argue. That sort of expression constantly surprised us; we’d never anticipated that we couldn’t all work together.
We were sometimes criticised for forming a band along gender lines. But it wasn’t like that. It was originally the Guest Stars because it would be a trio with changing featured artists—guest stars, lots of whom were men. It happened that more of the guests stars began to be women, and I think that’s because women were more available—because we had less work! When we folded the band in 1987-88, we did have a feeling that the Guest Stars had done its job: it had allowed us women the opportunity to get valuable new experience in music-making. We all then went off to work with other musicians, male and female. I suppose we felt that there were by then lots of women musicians, so there wasn’t the same need for a separate project. Getting together again in 2004 to reform, we’ve noticed that actually not that much in the jazz world has changed. The lifestyle of hanging around, the ad hoc nature of things, the lack of rehearsal and band continuity, the word of mouth way you get gigs—women still really lose out in that kind of situation.
Lots of women in jazz don’t want to talk about politics—they want to get on and play, they know most of the musicians are men, they don’t want to get a reputation for being moaners or anything, and they do want to get gigs. Politics though are thrust upon women in jazz all the time. No one asks a male musician why he only plays with other men, for instance, and is that part of some social comment.