Sammy Stein, Author ‘Women In Jazz’, Talks to ​ Melissa Chemam

I was attracted to this book from the first email introducing it to us at Phacemag. I’d been wanting to publish more book articles, we get so swamped with music that books have been taking a back seat if they ever had a front seat!
This book ticked the books and music box’s, but who could I get to review and interview the author? I’ve been trying to give the Phacemag interviews more depth if you’ve noticed, the idea to ask Melissa Chemam to do this one was immediate. Who better qualified to talk to an author on a music book than the author of a music book. Although both authors are much more.
I was overjoyed when the plan came together and I hope you enjoy the following article/interview as much as I did. Best pp x


Sammy Stein is a writer and journalist who interviewed women in jazz to charts their journeys, celebrates their presence, hears their voices, wonders at their prowess and revels in their being in a new unique book. Women in Jazz lets us here from female agents, arrangers, composers, musicians, PR people, radio hosts, record label managers, singers, writers and more.
​After retelling the story of the most famous women in jazz in the past, Sammy moves on to explore the present jazz scene, and opens a door on an unknown world, through interviews and first-hand accounts. I spoke to Sammy Stein for Phacemag to get to know more.

Melissa Chemam

​When Sammy Spoke To Melissa

There are obviously a countless number of books about the history of jazz music. Writing about women in the genre seems like a great way to take a different look at this amazing history. What took you to write about music in the first place, about jazz specifically, and how did that precise idea come to you?

My two books have a section about the history of jazz simply to give context to the rest of the narrative. In my first book, All That’s Jazz (Tomahawk Press, 2017), the aim was to provide insights to the lives of jazz musicians and those supporting them like radio hosts, PR people, writers and so on.
Writing about jazz specifically has come about because I wrote a piece on the People Band in 2012, not expecting it to be published but London Jazz News took the chance and published it. The next thing I knew John Kelman called me from All About Jazz and it sort of went from there. Musicians liked the way I listened and wrote and I was helped and supported by incredible people including Peter Brotzmann, Mats Gustafsson, Davey Payne and Paul Jolly — all musicians with experience and who understood that my aim was to engage more people in the music.
I have interviewed lots of musicians for my columns and radio shows and I co-hosted a series called ‘Ladies of Jazz’ for Jazzbites — the US jazz station — and it got such a huge positive response. Several women then said to me why not write about more women. I thought about it and approached some female performers and was amazed at how they responded. The idea took flight and the book gradually came about.

You start the book by a statement on the misogynistic state of the jazz scene up until this day, did the women you interview really think it is worse than in any music genre, like rock and metal for instance?

I was surprised at this too and the answer is yes. Many of them of course play genres apart from jazz but it seems that jazz remains stubbornly misogynistic. But there are also changes glimmering tantalisingly on the horizon and getting closer.

Your first chapter starts with reminding us if how jazz was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, out of colonial violence and slavery. A music that came to influence the whole of 20th music. Was it important to you to write about the social aspect of music? And to go to New Orleans?

I think discussing the origins of jazz puts the music in context.
The trip to Louisiana came about because I spent a year in Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru and Chile and intended to return to the UK via America or Japan. One of the women I met, Carmela Rappazzo, who came over to play in the mini festival said “you are so close, why not return via New Orleans?” It seemed like too good a chance to miss and it was easy to re-route. NOLA proved so interesting and Carmela took me to 3 different gigs in one day so I learned a lot. Music was everywhere — I even came across an amazing singer who has played major venues across the world (Alicia Renee aka Blue Eyes), singing on a corner to a crowd of enthusiastic people. I asked her why and she simply said: “well, this is my home town.”

“Jazz is still a man’s world,” you wrote, and there are fewer women in jazz than in other genres. How would you characterise their impact then? Were they more socially aware than men? More courageous? More ambitious in terms of song writing?

I think men and women are probably equally ambitious, courageous and socially aware. It just depends on their circumstances, opportunities and encouragement.

Your book is divided in seven parts, with two main parts dedicated to women “of the past” in jazz history, the main influencers (from Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday to Aretha Franklin and Carla Bley), and “women in jazz today”. Was it easy to make this selection? Especially for the second part?

“Women of the past” was difficult to decide who to include and it was impossible to include all the women who made a difference. There are well-known women but also some lesser-known ones who made inroads too. The second part was harder, partly because I was an unknown writer to many of them so although I wanted to include women from many cultures most of them are from the UK and America, or at least based there, because I had the contact with them. With my next book, which is in depth interviews with 21 women, I have women from 92 years and down in age and a far wider cultural diversity. This is partly because since writing the first book I have become more widely known with the Jazz Times notations, reviews and other things and the radio shows and interviews have really helped.

Were you pushed to focus mainly on American and British musicians or was it difficult to include other regions of the world?

My contacts at the time were mainly from the US and UK although I do have women from Cuba and other countries in the book but I needed women to open up to me and so they needed to be women I had contact with at the time.

Who were the main interviewees in your research and how did you select them?

The research was the longest part because it involved several trips to archive collections, the British Library reading rooms, past papers and books. I ended up with several boxes crammed with notes and deciding what to include was tricky. The main interviewees were women who I felt were making change happen today and include Terri Lyne Carrington, Jane Ira Bloom, Jane Bunnett, Barb Jungr, Tina May, Camille Thurman, Georgia Mancio, Claire Martin, Ruby Turner and many more, but I also included women working on radio shows, PR and for record labels (the total was well over 30) because I felt this gave a more rounded picture.

Obviously, to survive in such a milieu, women in jazz would have needed some benefactors. Who were the notable men in the jazz world who strongly allowed a space for these women to develop their skills and talent?

There were many in the past including John Hammond, Chick Webb and Billy Eckstine and today there are also men who actively support women including the 33Jazz records label, John Russell (host of Mopomoso events) and many others. I think many musicians today will give another good musician space regardless of gender.

The press was notably responsible for the closing doors to women’s legacy, and you address the issue at the centre of the book, as well as the “Me Too” movement. Did you feel like you were fixing some past mistakes in that field?

Not really because I am not influential to that degree. When I wrote the book, there was no agenda. I simply wanted to give women a voice. The issues coming up in the book came from interviews and discussions we had. Mistakes of the past are there and can’t be fixed by someone like me but they are to be learned from.

How did the audiences respond to women in jazz music in comparison to the press, did you notice differences in different cities?

I do not have a huge number of cities to use as references personally but I have noticed different places react differently. In South America there were very few female musicians in jazz, but there were some in orchestras and in larger music ensembles like folk groups that I saw. London seems very supportive of female performers — or rather they choose for talent rather than gender which is as it should be, especially in the free jazz community. Women in the book speak of audiences being different in many places, largely as a reflection of culture. One leading female performer said that she leads the band but as soon as they get hungry, she is expected to provide sandwiches and drinks because that is her role too.

More than half of the book addresses practical issues and lists experiences from women in jazz today, which is completely unseen. Was it your plan from the beginning or did this come about while interviewing so many artists?

I wanted readers to get a better insight into what it was like to be a jazz musician and particularly a female performer. As I said before, I began with no agenda, it was simply a way of allowing women to speak to me, tell their stories and I liked how many of them gave real insights such as the ‘day in the life’ story which really sums up everything a musician has to do as well as perform for their art. One of the hardest decisions was how to put so much information I gained from all the women into an order. I did not want it to be a book of interviews. My publisher and I came up with the idea of a conversation. As explained in the early pages, it is all of us around an imagined table, discussing different issues. The women liked this way of formatting and it seems to have worked.
The practical issues came about organically because many of the women, like most musicians, are managing their PR, finances, arranging transport, accommodation and all the other issues that go with performing. It was great that many of them explained this side and that they wanted readers to get a clear idea of the additional, behind the scenes, work which goes on around performing.

​It feels much more like a book about now, really, more than a history book, addressing issues in the industry and not only song writing, almost like a sociological study, was this one of your goal?

It was definitely intended to be a book about now although the historical elements give context. It was not meant to be a sociological study, although many see it as such. It has been chosen by university tutors as a study aid for students and this was a surprise to me but also lovely because it means that those coming into the music word will have first-hand accounts to refer to.

With all the interviews you conducted for the second part of the book, and pages of words of encouragement, would you say you now have a guide for women helping them to navigate this men’s world?

Maybe the beginnings of one but really the book was designed to give readers an insight into the community which is jazz and I also wanted to point out the positive elements — which are many — of being a jazz musician or working in some way in the jazz industry. I like the fact that some of the women look forward to the day when gender will not be an issue, or anything else come to that. I don’t think it is possible to produce a guide for women because each one will have a different journey but I was privileged to have women with different characters come in on the book with me.

In the editing phase, did you have to change parts of the redaction?

Actually, the editing was done by my publisher (8th House) and the words are largely unchanged. This was a deliberate choice because I did not want a sterilised book, edited for a particular audience. I wanted the voice of each women, their character, to come across clearly, so I did not change much apart from the odd spelling mistake or language changes but even these were discussed so I could be sure the words I used were what the woman wanted to say and not become my words rather than theirs.

Anything you’d like to add?

I think a book like this is different and it has been a journey and learning curve for me as well as readers. The response has been incredible — far more, and more positive than I ever imagined but I never intended to be an advocate for women or set myself up as anything really; I am not knowledgeable enough for that by any means. I simply felt there were stories to be told. I have been honoured that the musicians have shared the book, one of them even made a YouTube video about it. The women seem to feel proud to be in it, which, for a writer, is amazing and humbling.
Writing the next book to follow this has been even more interesting because it is in-depth interviews with women from diverse backgrounds, ages, cultures. There are women who have been present for much of jazz’s history and some who are fairly new to it and their journeys are incredible. I would like to sincerely thank all the women who made the book possible because without them and their support it would never have come about and I would also like to thank the reviewers, radio shows and magazines who have given the book the thumbs up. It has been amazing and I am astounded at their generosity. I think many writers could have written the book but I am glad I was the one who did.

Many thanks, Sammy, all the very best.

Originally published at

Freelance journalist/writer, I’ve reported in 30 countries for the BBC, CBC, DW, magazines, on African-European relations, social change, arts, music & politics