International Women’s Day @ mjf2024

To mark International Women’s Day this year, we sat down with two established and widely respected composer-musicians from the mjf2024 programme, Nikki Iles and Carole Nelson, to celebrate their biggest achievements in the sector and, most vitally, to discuss what it means to them, to be a woman in jazz today. The two also took a moment to share their wisdom obtained from a lengthy and varied career. 

As the UK’s first festival signatory to Keychange, mjf has a long history of gender balance and representation throughout its work: not just in each festival line-up, but in our talent programmes, teams, board, and in our approach to making the jazz sector a fairer place to work and enjoy music. We are proud to programme some of the best contemporary femaleidentifying stars spanning all ages across the jazz industry. View our full lineup here. 

Carole Nelson Trio  

Pianist, Carole Nelson “a rare and undervalued talent” (The Irish Times) will take to the stage at mjf to present her trio’s latest work, ‘The Last Song’. Commissioned by the BAN BAM scheme in Dublin (a development opportunity for female and gender-minority artists from across Ireland),. Nelson and her trio will present the story of the Hawiian Kauaʻi ʻōʻō bird, which became extinct in the 1980s.  

Throughout Nelson’s work, she strikes a balance between composed and improvised pieces. When asked about her background, upbringing and musical influences, Nelson noted I grew up in South London and learned piano as a child. I kept up classical music up to the ARCM Performers Diploma but was always more interested in playing by ear, improvising and being creative. In my early 20s I started playing in bands and doing gigs. Back in the late 70s it was a great time for emerging women musicians, and we formed all-female groups and supported each other.  I made a decision to be a musician and do whatever it took to keep body and soul together. So, as well as composing and songwriting, I played for children’s dance classes – my first free improvisations!” 

After a debut performance at the 2015 Dublin Piano Trio Festival, Nelson and her Trio recorded their first album ‘One Day in Winter’, inspired by the South Carlow landscape of Nelson’s home. Her proudest achievement, in jazz? Nelson naturally affirmed It is to have found my own voice as a pianist and composer with the Carole Nelson Trio. We have recorded three albums, with another on the way this year – all since I entered my sixties. In older age I finally found a confidence and ease in myself in performance. I’m also very proud of having a choral piece I wrote included in a publication of women choral composers from the Baroque to the present day. My aim now is to continue creating and performing as long as I can!” 

And, when asked, if she felt there had been a positive change in opportunity for and attitude towards women in the music industry, Nelson went on to divulge that “I do think there is change in the air for women… It hasn’t been easy for women to participate fully for a great number of reasons. I’ll single out the boy’s club atmosphere…I’ve been the only woman in so many bands over the years. There are so many initiatives now to support women and girls in music, far more scrutiny of festival programming, radio air play and any other musical territory where women have long been underrepresented. Initiatives like the Ban Bam award for women jazz composers is a huge support and I hope encouragement for aspiring female creatives.” 

Nikki Iles  

After her enchanting performance with Stan Sulzmann at St Ann’s Church last year, we’re delighted to welcome Nikki Iles back to mjf2024, where she will take the stage, with her 20+ piece orchestra at the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM). Gathering commissions from over the years, new orchestrations of her own small band tunes and new compositions, the depth and range of her exhilarating writing and arranging will illustrate Iles’ seasoned hand and distinctive voice. 

Much like Nelson, Iles too has always been drawn to the improvised world of jazz, noting that what excites her most about the genre is, The spontaneous nature of improvisation… composition in the moment. Being in the middle of a great feeling of a groove and generating that energy and feeling with others also excites me. I also love the danger of improvisation and the empathy and trust between musicians whilst speaking the same language, musically.” 

When asked of the change in attitudes towards females in the music industry, Iles, confirmed that she felt “Women still remain underrepresented in jazz performance and education and have struggled to get ahead .”  

Hopeful for the future, she went on to say: “This is not because of a lack of female talent. As long as there has been a jazz scene, there have been women trailblazers helping to set the standard for great jazz musicianship. Now, a new generation of jazz teachers are facilitating a space that creates more enthusiasm and encouragement between girls trying to pursue jazz and make it an equal opportunity art form – and they’re gaining ground. I think more opportunities have definitely opened up for women, now that organisations are more accountable and must book a broader profile of artists, which is a good thing. Girls need to see other girls/women succeed in order to envision themselves doing what they want to do.” 

Iles’ has cited her greatest jazz achievement as a dream come true” artist residency with the NDR Big Band in Hamburg that opened up “so many more avenues” for her to tour in Europe. She remarked that it was “A real rollercoaster for me, but so worth it when I finally got to the studio and the music came to life.” She now hopes to encourage the next generation of young female musicians,and left us with a final piece of advice for aspiring artists: If you stay consistently curious and open-minded about all kinds of music and keep your eyes and ears open for opportunities, you’ll grow as a musician your entire life. Practice hard and be great at your instrument. Music has no gender.” 

The Carole Nelson Trio will play the Band on the Wall Bar Stage on Sunday 26 May (free admission, no ticket required) and the Nikki Iles Jazz Orchestra will play the RNCM Theatre on Saturday 18 May, 8PM (£22). Tickets and further information about the full mjf lineup can be found here.