Maggie Nicols

Improvising vocalist, educationalist

Telephone interview, 23 November 2002, written revisions 5 February 2003

Early days

I was born in Edinburgh, moved to London aged 11. Hmm, Scottishness in improvisation? Well, it’s true that improvisation is everywhere, so why not Scottish music. Actually, Ken Hyder drew my attention to some of the possibilities in Scottish music. He was influenced by John Coltrane’s statement that line jazz is folk music. It was a chance for us Scots to make those connections with our own folk music.

My mother is half Berber and half French. The Scottish, French and Berber are all a part of my culture and are in my singing in some ways.

I was a dancer too, and I danced at the Windmill Theatre in London at age 15 and then at 16 I sang in a strip club, Arthur Fox’s Revuebar in Manchester.

Jazz in London

In London, I fell in love with jazz. Actually [laughs] I had a huge crush on a trumpet player. It was Jimmy Deuchar. I’ve always been grateful for that crush! He was one of the finest trumpeters Scotland produced and he played with Tubby Hayes amongst many others. I liked the risk, the intensity and the imagination of the music I saw people playing.

My first introduction was through the white British musicians playing at Ronnie Scott’s—Tubby Hayes, Jimmy, Stan Tracey etc! There was an incredible aliveness in the London scene at the time, from 1963 on for me, it was perfect timing for me to be around in that period of important jazz history. I was 15 or 16, the music spoke to me creatively (I wouldn’t have put it like that at the time). I still feel that: improvisation reaches out, breaks down barriers, challenges frontiers. Music is about liberation, jazz is about liberation, that’s the word to focus on.

Not long after I saw many great black and white American musicians at Ronnie’s.

I remember early on seeing the Blue Notes at Ronnie’s original place, this was before the band had settled here permanently. To be honest there was some resistance from the London scene towards what they were doing, because the Blue Notes weren’t playing be-bop and there was some snobbery about their technique. I loved them, but I was very young then, and maybe rather held my enthusiasm back because of the criticisms some of the be-boppers were making.

It’s true that it was a male-dominated scene—because I didn’t see many other women there, and it was also a time of awakening sexuality for me, and to be honest I did idealise the men, and I was pretty young, but it was exciting with all these men around.

I was socialised, we all were: women sing, men played instruments. It didn’t even occur to me that I could do something different. I’d never seen, say, Kathy Stobart, so there were very few models for aspiring women in the scene. This is probably why I came to use my voice like an instrument. All that passion for instrumental music got poured into my voice.

I started singing jazz music with Dennis Rose on piano, who had been a real innovator in the British bebop scene. We played standards and ballads, in pubs. Later I worked with other great jazz musicians who were doing weddings and firm functions to make a living. I went away for a year as a dancer, came back, and found the Old Place [one of the two experimental venues in London at the time]. I saw Mike Westbrook’s band playing there, and I thought I can hear a voice in this, I want to do this. Someone told me that John Stevens, at the Little Theatre Club, worked with voices, so I went there, in 1968. I saw Norma Winstone singing, wow, what’s this! A week or two later, Trevor Watts invited me to play with him and John there. It was a life-changing experience and I sang for almost two years in John’s Spontaneous Music Ensemble.

In [Keith Tippett’s big band] Centipede, I worked with Dudu Pukwana, Mongesi Feza. The South African musicians brought new life to the British scene, and it was an explosion at the time. The interaction between Keith, Elton Dean, Nick Evans and Mark Charig (a new generation of white jazz musicians) and the predominantly black South African musicians created such an exciting new music. Funnily enough, Joe Harriott I knew less of. I did see him and Shake Keane a few times. But most of the Jamaican music that influenced me was ska and blue beat in the 1960s. It’s looking back on it that I realise the importance and really supreme musical originality of Harriott’s work.

Improvised music and revolutionary politics

By the late 1960s, I kind of knew things were going on politically in the outside world, but I was immersed in the music. John’s music had a political dimension, but the politics were expressed or explored in the musical relationships between the players, so I wasn’t looking outside. Actually it was when I got married, my husband Harry turned me on to revolutionary politics, in the very early 1970s. He had questions and answers! He was totally committed. I joined the Workers’ Revolutionary Party (WRP) in 1971-72. This was based around class politics, and women’s liberation was treated with some suspicion by many members—all feminists were middle class, it was diversionary, single issue politics didn’t produce fundamental change, those sorts of things. Also round then our daughter, Aura, was born.

I brought John Stevens along to meet Gerry Healy, the General Secretary of the WRP. The party was putting on a performance about the Russian Revolution at Alexandra Palace and Gerry was keen that I should be free to follow through my improvisational musical ideas. I brought John along to talk about his unique approach. As John spoke about music and peace I became nervous about what Gerry might be thinking and then Gerry turned to me and said ‘Comrade, there’s nothing like internal peace for waging external war!’ John was a bit disturbed by that but I found that dialectic inspiring.

Around 1977, I left the WRP. I sort of ran away, well, avoided them till they got the message. I’m still connected to my former comrades—I’m writing a series of songs for their strong youth movement at the moment. I think if an ideology becomes too fixed I can’t breathe. You can’t just say that creative types can’t take the discipline of the party, there are musicians who have longstanding commitments to political beliefs. And I wouldn’t want to say there was an over-centralised hierarchy oppressing artists [who were members] either. The WRP for all its organisation and hierarchy I found to be much more open than the anarchist movement I had some involvement with later. You might think there would be strong links between anarchism and free improvisation, but some of them were culturally pretty conservative: if it wasn’t some sort of thrashy punk music they weren’t interested, didn’t want to listen. In organisational and personal terms as well, in spite of the ideology, they were rife with their own hierarchies, too—you just had to look harder to find them. I think it is the case that liberation movements can quickly turn into their opposite, and for me, to overcome that, we need to maintain our improvisatory approach, so the music has certainly to that extent informed my politics.

Q: In your involvement with the WRP was there ever any criticism of you working with ‘jazz’-related culture, that is, any leftist expression of anti-Americanism around jazz?

A: No, but I was too busy doing party work to have time for much else. However I actually developed incredibly as a musician through my experience as a party member especially learning about nature, society, contradiction and change, etc.

Feminist Improvising Group, and gender and sexuality in improvisation

Well yes, I absolutely agree: Derek Bailey’s book Improvisation is male centred, any women involved, not even on the margins, but as innovators to the scene, are just totally absent. They aren’t acknowledged in the book. You know, Irene Schweitzer, she was in there at the beginning, and me, I was a pioneer of the voice in improvised music.

I was running workshops at a community centre at Oval House, Kennington. In the canteen one day I found The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer, and there was one particular chapter, ‘Fear, loathing and disgust’, that spoke clearly to me about my experiences. I’d thought for years that I was the problem, it was in me, some of the casual sexual mistreatment experienced with some of the men on the jazz scene, but this book told me that there was a pattern of oppression, a socially built culture of patriarchy. And then I got another crush. I saw a lesbian at a performance at the Drill Hall in London, and fell in love with her. I became immersed in the lesbian movement. I identified as a lesbian for fifteen years and it was a crucial period in my life. I stopped worrying obsessively about male approval.

So, 1977. I’d never until then had an intense relationship with women in music, apart from Julie Tippetts, of course, but not across an entire band. I was at some festival and here it was all male musicians playing, and it just popped up, wouldn’t it be great if we had an all-woman band. Actually we called ourselves the Women’s Improvising Group, but when we got the leaflet back for the first gig we were doing, it said Feminist Improvising Group. So the original strong political statement of the band’s name never even came from us! But we just thought, ‘OK, they’ve called us feminist, we’ll work with that’. We got all these dykes to come along. That first gig was an absolutely incredible night for us, it really was, it was mind-blowing. I always wish it had been recorded. It was at a festival for a new campaign, Music for Socialism. The dykes we’d invited were all into disco and soul, but they sat there through all the other improvisers, until we came on. They laughed their heads off; it was performance, music, comedy, a really great mixture, so liberating and open, accessible, and with a focus on women’s experience, mundane daily things. At the end, there was a big discussion with the audience, a perfect musical-political combination. The second-generation improvisers like Steve Beresford, David Toop were there in the audience, and I really feel that FIG was tremendously influential on all of that scene that soon developed. And I’ve said it before, I know, and I’ll keep saying it—FIG is written out of the history: we’re all socialised, and music is just another history, and it’s passed down the male lineage, and we have been written out.

Our music was very intense, and the humour was passionate, manic even, and very socially critical, whereas, say, Steve’s use of humour was maybe more ironic, a bit detached, commenting on the music, so there were distinctions to be made. Within FIG too, there was a range of approaches in the band—even as basic as divisions between the musicians’ different class, race and educational backgrounds. But also a range of musical technique, and expectations of what we might do: we were a mix. The politics of FIG were in our social and physical relationships. We were comfortable with physical intimacy. What we had was a social virtuosity, a way of being different, and I think we developed a confidence in that. We would play at parodying men, totally improvised, and some couldn’t take it, felt threatened. The most notorious was Alex von Slippenbach.We did our set and the audience loved it, but he complained about ‘these women who can’t play their instruments, etc’. I mean Irene Schweizer, accused of lacking technique—please! But even attacking us in those terms, you could say that this was a man who felt threatened by our irreverent approach to technique and tradition.

Q: Do you think there’s something gendered in jazz and related forms in particular, a masculine imperative to solo, men feel they have important things to say, and the time to learn how to do it?

A: I wouldn’t want to stereotype women and men, though. Gender expectations are socialised, and if nothing else I’d say that you know, women can play phenomenal solos as well! Dialogue and interaction are always there in the music, or in the workshop, and I learned that from a man, John Stevens. I’ve been lucky in that, musically, I have been supported by some great men. Dennis Rose, John Stevens, and then Keith Tippett opened his heart and his music to me, filling in the gap between Dennis’s bebop and John’s free work. At the same time, in a music like ours of collective communication, women have a lot to offer because of their history of social interaction and group communication.

When I hear about the People Band, they were doing kind of what we were, in terms of the performance aspects of FIG. They challenged a lot of the same closed formal attitudes as we did and a lot earlier. In the sixties they were also part of the radical People Show who I knew from the Oval House, so we shared some similar influences.

I think that gay men have quite a hard time of it I jazz. Most male jazz musicians declare themselves to be strongly heterosexual (I find that a bit suspicious). I wonder if they fear the intimacy produced in their own music-making. Or maybe that’s just the way they get close… There’s an instrumental thing here too: men that do open up and use their voices, they are more open, more vulnerable. Actually less men than women come to my vocal workshops [laughs].

The Gathering

This is something important, an achievement. Every Monday night for twelve years we’ve been running what’s got called ‘the Gathering’, a kind of informal musical, social workshop drop-in, in a room above a London pub. There’s no fee, and no-one gets paid. It’s not a workshop and I never say it is but people always assume it is. Improvised music is at the heart of it. The Gathering isn’t fixed, it’s fluid depending on who shows up, and that changes over time. The fact that it has lasted so long shows its value, and that it’s needed, and that it is a long-term process, commitment. I’ve missed maybe ten nights in twelve years, which amazes me. It originates in my experience at a very frustrating London Musicians’ Collective meeting, where there was some tension, bit of bad feeling, people wanting to go in different directions. I just said ‘Wouldn’t it be good if we could meet in a different way, maybe a gathering’. Sinead Jones, violinist and vocalist, said what a lovely word, better than a meeting. Loz Speyer (trumpeter) said we could bring instruments and trumpeter Ian Smith went out and found a pub for us to play in. The first evening no one was quite sure if we were there to talk or play and it was that very uncertainty that I feel has made it such an unusual combination of social and musical interaction. From that very first session it was totally inspiring. It was LMC members to begin with but it gradually widened out, and it’s still going The Gathering has a political dimension, it’s creative, it’s community. It feels like home.

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