A couple of weekends ago, I was listening to amazing all-women jazz band the Original Pinettes play at Jazz Fest 2015 in New Orleans. The Pinettes call themselves “the world’s only female brass band” and they’re certainly one of the very few that aren’t made up mainly of male musicians.
The relationship of women and jazz culture is a complex one. There’s a long history of unrecognised achievement, troubled performers, and abused women tropes, from “St. James Infirmary Blues” onwards. But, as part of its fundamentally politically radical and progressive nature, jazz has also been productive and freeing in some ways for women.
Jazz was born in New Orleans, but these things are true across jazz worldwide – and that includes London’s own rich jazz culture. One of its greatest stars of latter years was singer Amy Winehouse and it was good to hear that, in their Jazz Fest 2015 set, the Pinettes played a cover of “Valerie”, a song originally recorded by British indie band The Zutons but made famous through Winehouse’s cover of it.
Even before I heard the Pinette’s set, I’d always associated Amy Winehouse with New Orleans. I happened to be in New Orleans for the days after her sad too-early death, and remembering watching a documentary about her life in my room in the reputedly haunted, but lovely, Hotel Provincial.
Amy Winehouse didn’t, to my knowledge, have extensive connections in New Orleans, and didn’t spend much time here. But after her death, the Amy Winehouse Foundation, a charity set up in her memory to help disadvantaged you people, donated $10,000 to the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. And her work is embedded in a musical tradition whose deepest roots go back to this city.
So this London girl was both a child of the magnificent musical tradition New Orleans gave to the world, and an example of the tragic experiences that women within it have too often suffered. Let’s hope the Pinettes continue going from strength to strength.