Changing the standard for International Jazz Day

International Jazz Day will swing into Adelaide on Monday, April 30, with Mark Simeon Ferguson celebrating the legacy of female composers alongside a performance from Ross McHenry and others.

Hundreds of cities across the globe will celebrate International Jazz Day with special concert events this year, including Adelaide. Mark Simeon Ferguson, composer and Head of Jazz at the Elder Conservatorium is curating the event with Ross McHenry. While McHenry’s performance will be of his own works, Ferguson says he decided to highlight the contribution of women to the world of jazz.

“Ross is going to do his music and it’ll be fantastic,” says Ferguson “What I’ve decided to do is perform these songs that were written by women, but they’re songs you wouldn’t know are written by women.”

Ferguson will be joined by acoustic bassist Bonnie Aué,  jazz drummer Josh Baldwin and vocalist Anita Wardell.

“Anita Wardell is wonderful,” says Ferguson. “She was born in the UK, but raised here and she’s absolutely at the top of the tree in the jazz world today. If nothing else, it’s worth the ticket price just to see her as she is quite phenomenal.”

As a composer himself, Ferguson wants to focus on those who wrote the songs, rather than the performers.  “We’re not trying to look so much at the female performers, but more at the writers,” he says. “Because I’m a composer, I like to draw attention to the people who actually wrote the things.

“With a lot of these artists you start realising that there’s a good chance they wrote a lot of songs that we just don’t know they wrote, because it wasn’t always socially appropriate for them to be listed as the composer or some agent decided to leave them off, or they wrote under a pseudonym to get more exposure. Irene Higginbotham for example apparently wrote 50 jazz standards, and I know about three of them, so there are likely others out there that we don’t know about.”

Ross McHenry and Mark Simeon Ferguson will curate the concert

The likes of Billie Holiday, Dorothy Fields and Anne Ronnell will also make it into the Adelaide Festival Centre performance. Asked whether the world of jazz composition was easier for women to make their way in now as opposed to the eras these women came through, Ferguson is in two minds.

“A lot of the best writers out there are women right now,” he says. “Maria Schneider is probably the world’s greatest composer of big band music, and she came through in the 1970s. She’s a great example of someone who’s taken it to the top… But jazz is still dominated by men, no matter what we do. It’s dominated by men culturally here. There’s not nearly as many female instrumentalists. I mean you could list hundreds of great female jazz singers – we have stacks and stacks of them – and really great female jazz bass players.”

Of course, change starts locally, so Ferguson hopes that demonstrations like this will inspire more local women to study jazz into their tertiary years.

“Getting them on the front line has always been a challenge,” he says. “It’s not like they’re not playing the instruments, though. You go out to the schools and you see them playing in all-girl bands and everything, but at the university level they seem to be taking other career paths… I teach at the Elder Con and we have a lot of young female players, which is great, but we want more of them and we want them to know they have every opportunity that the guys have.”

International Jazz Day
Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre
Monday, April 30
adelaidefestivalcentre.com.au

Header image: bassist Bonnie Aué (photo: Mendel Au)

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