“Jazz has been central to protest since its beginnings” – Sammy Stein on the music that changed the world

“Jazz has been central to protest since its beginnings” – Sammy Stein on the music that changed the world

Sammy Stein’s new book ‘The wonder of Jazz: Music that changed the world’ is a deep dive into the history of jazz and its impact as a political, cultural and social force.  It begins in New Orleans in the 1870s, covering New York’s segregated, “cabaret card” days, the importance of jazz as a form of protest during the civil rights movement and the emergence and rise of hip hop which remains heavily influenced by jazz to this day.  

sammy stein, wonder of jazz

Stein has written extensively about this subject, and her passion and knowledge of the genre leap out of every chapter. She positions jazz as a social movement as much as a cultural one from its very early days, emphasising its power to affect change. A starting point is New Orleans under Spanish rule, when slaves could earn money from playing an instrument and therefore buy their freedom. All the leading performers of the 20th century (John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone) are featured, along with the backlash they experienced from authorities for performing songs about the treatment of Black people in America. There are lesser-known stories that Stein believes also show the music’s impact albeit in a way most people don’t realise, such as Benny Goodman’s Soviet Union concert attended by Nikita Khrushchev, that she proposes could have affected the outcome of the Cuban missile crisis months later. 

The book is filled with accounts from the musicians themselves, who give us insights into performing in the streaming era and through the Covid-19 pandemic. A chapter about women in jazz is clear about the fact that misogyny exists, but describes a positive shift in recent years. “Female musicians are being appreciated and encouraged,” Stein writes. “Finally, after decades, they are recognized as a valuable asset, not included for political correctness, but a genuine treasure that jazz has, thus far, missed out on… while their number remains relatively small, and the change is at a snail’s pace, they are changing the scene. Jazz has become richer, more diverse, and multilayered.” 

We spoke to Stein about why she wrote this book and the impact of jazz today.

NADJA: What made you decide to write this book?     

Sammy Stein: I have interviewed and reviewed many musicians and we talk – a lot. There were many subjects which came up regularly that I believed were not getting as much recognition as perhaps they should, like how musicians make money in a changing economic ecosystem, gender issues, bullying, attitudes to jazz music, and how people view jazz. 

It also became apparent that people found little in the way of literature which explained jazz, its history, its impact on many areas of our lives and how jazz has changed, so I decided to create the book. The aim is to get people who are interested in jazz to understand it, engage with it and find it a welcoming genre. I also aimed to dispel outdated conceptions about jazz in terms of how the media has presented it.    

My aim was to get the voices of the musicians out. I also included stories usually unheard of like bullying experiences, which people seem to brush under the carpet.

NADJA: It’s an incredibly detailed history, how long did it take you to write? 

SS: It took over a year. Basically head down, putting all the information together and then creating a working synopsis, honing this and deciding what to take out and keep in. I had a huge section on spiritual jazz but had to leave it out because it got so big. I also had to take out areas where change is rapidly ongoing like the streaming market, as companies were exchanging hands and diversifying their approaches as I wrote. 

NADJA: In terms of jazz being a form of protest, what do you think its role is in today’s society? 

SS: Music is the loudest form of protest, and I think jazz has been central to protest ever since its beginnings. I think that role will continue, especially with the younger musicians challenging established concepts, and changing how people see the music.

NADJA: You write about the lack of women in jazz. Who has the responsibility to make it more equitable – the record labels, the venues, or the media? 

SS: I think things are changing – a couple of years ago I counted up musicians in many jazz festivals and found less than a third were female. However since then, many festival organisers have told me they are working hard to change this and there is a genuine desire to make festivals and concerts more diverse, both in terms of more gender equality but also in terms of the cultures represented. 

The benefits have proved immense – more diversity on stage leads to a bigger audience. The long term effects are yet to be seen but if people see a broader representation of society on stage, they may think “that could be me”. 

NADJA: What about your own experience as a female writer specialising in jazz, have you experienced bias?     

SS: I have but in small ways. Some people think I am a man, because of how I spell ‘Sammy’ so I get all kinds of comments about female performers until they realise I am female, then they might be a little embarrassed. My take is that you can never assume and in any case, if people check my profiles, it is clear I am not a man. 

I have had male PR agents accuse me of only writing about women, but then again, some have said I only write about free jazz, neither of which are true so it is up to them to do their research. 

I do think, however, that some men in jazz still view women as easy targets. When I wrote my book ‘Women In Jazz’ it was clear that while many female musicians experience little misogyny, there are still some people in the industry who are chauvinists. I guess that may be true in any industry however. 

In jazz, things are definitely changing for the better. I have had some interesting situations where being female has become both a good thing and a bad thing. One time, a fight broke out and I found myself protected by a wall of men. Another time, a guy was being persistent in a club and suddenly a walking stick came down on his shoulder.  One of the musicians had seen my situation and told him, “if she doesn’t punch you I f***ing will.”  I have only ever been bullied in the jazz industry by women, which is probably surprising.    

NADJA: The book covers the impact of Covid on the jazz scene, have other big events impacted the industry, such as Brexit in the UK?

SS: Covid impacted hugely and I wrote a book about this, interviewing musicians from across the globe about the impact of the sudden loss of incomes and places to play in. I donated money from the book to venues because I figured that without venues to return to, musicians would be in even worse situations. The knock-on effects are still being felt but things are picking up. Regarding Brexit, I have seen many posts on the subject but I think it is still too early to gauge the long term impacts.

The wonder of jazz: Music that changed the world by Sammy Stein is out now.

Leila Hawkins


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