Kate Westbrook

In December 2012 Kate Westbrook was approached by musician/composer Laura Cole who was contacting female artists to ask of their experiences working in the UK music industry. Her question and Kate's reply is reproduced here.

''As female musicians/composers/radio presenters, how do you feel your experiences as women in the UK music industry have contributed to or influenced - if at all - your music, creativity and career choices today?''

In 1974 I joined the Mike Westbrook Brass Band on tenor horn and piccolo. Since then I have become more of a librettist and vocalist than a brass player. We toured with that band to the end of the decade, through the 1980s and in to the early 1990s. We had success particularly in Europe (more than in the UK) and in Australia. I was also in the Mike Westbrook Orchestra and, together with Chris Biscoe, Mike and I formed the Westbrook Trio.

We did tours regularly in the Spring and in the Autumn and always did a few big summer jazz festivals. For us it was a great time for constant work, we were doing lots of gigs in the year. It always struck me at the big festivals how few women there were overall (I was often the only one) and how rare it was to come across a band run by a woman who wasn’t a vocalist, - exceptions of course, including Barbara Thompson, the Feminist Improvising Group, Carla Bley, Deidre Cartwright, Lindsay Cooper- But predominantly it was a male preserve.

During this period I did quite a few ‘high profile’ performances in the UK (the Proms, Edinburgh Festival, Barbican with the LSO…) . I really don’t want to claim the high moral ground, but my instinct was always to move on to the next creative challenge rather than consolidate any career benefit I had gained.

I formed my own band in the 1990s called Kate Westbrook and the Skirmishers. The group performed at the London Jazz Festival with ‘Revenge Suite’ and later with “Cuff Clout’ at the Chard Festival of Women in Music. Having got a small Arts Council grant for Cuff Clout , I commissioned 5 women and 3 men composers each to write a piece on my texts for the show. We made an album (with funds from a private trust) which got very good reviews. Richard Cook gave it 4 stars in the Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD and said ‘It's all stirring and moving stuff, and one looks forward to seeing it staged’. However it became increasingly difficult to get gigs. I do feel this is partly due to an anti woman bias in some promoters and on the part of some sectors of the jazz public. Also I realize I am of a generation where women on the whole did not head up countries, banks and bands, and my deeply ingrained sense of the old ways in society perhaps made me a poor fighter.

I have worked with the ‘contemporary music’ composer Michael Finnissy and there are more women in that world it seems to me. Having worked with European jazz composers the picture seems horribly much the same as here.

With the Westbrook Trio we are celebrating our 30th anniversary this year. I write texts for and perform in Mike’s current bands, and he and I have written several operas, music-theatre pieces, and many songs together over the years. I am fortunate to have a platform working closely with my husband.

I see former students of mine who have hoped to live a life playing music, losing heart and going in to other professions in order to live. This applies to both sexes, but I still feel it is harder for women. It is particularly difficult for anyone working at the experimental end of the spectrum,- are we really back to glamorous girls doing standards nicely? Certainly in jazz, the climate is such that almost everyone is having a struggle, just a few ‘names’ earn a lot and play as much as they choose to. 

Not long ago after a gig at the 606 Club in London, as I was coming out at the end of the evening I was stopped by a young woman. She asked me how she could get started as a singer with a band. My reply was ‘Marry a band leader’. Only half joking I’m sorry  to say. Of course there are the many hours and years of very hard work , but it gets us nowhere if we don’t have a platform.

I wish I could have been in a position to have done more for the many talented women I have come across in the jazz world. Currently I work with the accordionist Karen Street, with alto saxophonist Roz Harding, both brilliant musicians and both having a monumental struggle to get their music heard.

Mike and I tend to think that best of all is to be able to get to the next writing project, and to perform live one way or another. However difficult things have been, I have always written lyrics and worked at the music. While both Mike and I have done odd bits of teaching in the past , primarily we have earned a living by art, the priority has always been the art.

Kate Westbrook - December 2012

From Laura Cole's Blog