Kathy Dyson and Deirdre Cartwright Interview With Jazz Guitar Life Part 1

About a year ago, All Things Emily (ATE) hipped me to two awesome women of Jazz Guitar: Kathy Dyson and Deirdre Cartwright. I then had watched some YouTube Videos and immediately liked their musical sensibilities and attitude. Fast forward to a couple of months ago when ATE mentioned if I would like to feature the pair in an interview for Jazz Guitar Life. Well, needless to say I jumped at the chance and now here they are. There’s so much detailed information in this interview with Kathy and Deirdre that Ill just let you get on with it. Its quite long but definitely well worth the read. Enjoy and please give All Things Emily thanks by visiting the site and checking out a wonderful tribute to the great Emily Remler!

This interview was conducted in May 2009 via email and answered with live recordings by Kathy and Deirdre together at Deirdre’s home in London, England.

There are probably many readers that will recognize Deirdre Cartwright’s name from her authorship of several music and guitar instruction books, the most recent being The Interactive Guitar Bible, and her long standing involvement with the BBC series, Rock School. Deirdre has also recorded five albums in association with her ever evolving self named group, including the latest, Tune Up, Turn On, Stretch Out.

Kathy Dyson’s name on the other hand is more mysterious unless you are hip to the jazz venues around West Yorkshire or become a student at Leeds College of Music.  But both these ladies are prominent U.K. jazz guitarists and composers as well as relentless educators and clinicians in Europe’s bustling jazz scene and there are many reasons why you should get to know them better. My own discovery of Deirdre and Kathy as musicians was serendipitously borne after stumbling upon their tribute performances to the late jazz guitar legend, Emily Remler and I’m very excited to be part of introducing them to a broader North American audience that may not be aware of their good works.

ATE: Welcome ladies, first let me extend my gratitude to JGL for giving me the opportunity to be a non-certified guest journalist for their interview forum and also  thanks to Deirdre and Kathy in agreeing to be my first victims.

Kathy, lets start with you and provide a little background for those not familiar with your history. You started as a folk guitarist who was brought up listening to many styles from rock to classical to British pop and blues but you were quoted as being instantly “smitten” once you heard Charlie Parker’s version of  There’s a Small Hotel, followed quickly by Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, from the jazz genius Charles Mingus, and as you said: “That was that”, you were devoted to jazz from that moment on. How many years have you been playing now?

Kathy: A long time now, (laughs) too long, about 30 years.

ATE: What keeps you energized with music?

Kathy: Well its just so much fun playing with people really, and obviously Ive got really interesting colleagues at Leeds College of Music who are always doing something interesting and students who are keen and always giving me stuff to listen to, and I go out and hear a lot of gigs. So between all that I get constantly inspired to try new stuff, to be involved with new things, to play with people. I just love playing most of all. I mean, I could happily sit and play all day.

ATE: I see you do a good deal of composing, which do you enjoy more, playing or composing?

Kathy: Well I like both obviously, I kind of see composition as improvising still, and I do it in the spirit of improvisation. So if I write something, take it to the band or whoever is going to play it and if they want to change it or add to it, that’s fine by me. So I don’t really see composition as all that much of a fixed process and I do enjoy actually working things out and composition. I just see it as all one thing really. So I don’t separate stuff. My idol is J.S. Bach who was a great improviser, great player, and a great composer and I think musicians should do all of those things – and its perfectly natural to do it. Its just a natural combination of stuff.

Deirdre: Are you most likely to get an idea for composition when you actually have your guitar in your hands or when you’re walking, whats the process for you?

Kathy: I tend to hear melodies and hear chords and I compose with the guitar in my hands. I got Finale (music software) about 7 years ago and that’s absolutely transformed the way I write. That’s a fantastic program and that’s really liberated me. Basically Ive still got the melody/harmony thing in my head. I don’t do atonal stuff. I stick with a fairly traditional format I guess.

ATE: How did you end up at Leeds College of Music?

Kathy: I just went for a job there and got it! I did a PhD and I fancied doing some research as well as some playing. I really love teaching, I really enjoy it, so I’m happy to do that. I find it very inspiring teaching people and Ive got really interesting students so that’s all good. I think its a 2-way process really, they teach me lots of stuff as well. So I’m happy to teach.

ATE:  That’s a sign of a great teacher, one that is open to a shared dialog with their students instead of treating it as a one way road. Its all about communication. But you don’t confine your efforts to Leeds only, as you head up several committees in the community and abroad, tell us a little about your other plans and projects with the various organizations you are part of (i.e. International Federation of Musicians Congress etc?)

Kathy: Yes, I’m on the executive committee of the Musicians Union so yes I am involved, I think you have to be really, as a jazz musician. You have to galvanize things, you have to get things cracking. You have to work to change things otherwise its going to stay the same. Also you have to work to get funds and help musicians to help themselves, I just think its all part of being the whole musician, really getting involved, and also politically I think its important.

Deirdre: And I have to add in here that I’m not involved in an organization like Musicians Union or The International Federation but yes I do take part in a couple of committees and Ive run Blow The Fuse jazz club for a long time and its the same kind of thing, you’ve got to generate your own work, invite other musicians to play with you, put on gigs and its quite a bit of self help.

ATE: I understand Leeds is one of the largest colleges for music studies in the U.K. And is best known for its leading role in jazz education. You must attract students from all over Europe and beyond, tell us a little about the programme there?

Kathy: Yes, its a great programme. Its very hands-on, there’s a lot of playing and there’s actually improvisation classes and there’s the usual things – history of jazz, cultural, analytical stuff. They get to play in lots of ensembles and they do a lot of informal and formal performing. They do, obviously – arranging, composition and harmony and all the rest of the stuff, but it attracts hands-on players and its very practical. When you come out of there, if you’ve worked on the stuff everybody’s been giving you and helping you to achieve, then you come out and you can manage in the music business. You can read, write, and arrange stuff. You can play in a wide variety of different kinds of bands – not just jazz. There’s other kinds of music played there. There’s a pop course and a classical course, so people can kind of do a wider range of music within that if they want to – its very good. Leeds was running a jazz course in the 60s it was one of the first in the U.K.

ATE: One series of research and analysis you are involved with is how improvisation, the quintessential component in jazz,  is learned.  Miles Davis said: “In improvisation, there are no mistakes”, but good improvisation does have a definite and sometimes complex framework.  How does one go about learning and practicing the art of improvisation when the whole idea of it is to express a spontaneous unpremeditated thought?

Kathy: Well of course its not unpremeditated, this is the point. You have to learn a whole lot of things before you can improvise and it would be the same if you were an actor improvising. You have to learn a whole load of things before you can actually improvise as an actor or a dancer or whatever. So you’ve got to practice the basic building blocks before you can actually improvise – were talking about melodic jazz improvisation here. Were not talking about free improvisation which may not have the same kind of build up of practice beforehand. So basically you’re talking about how to actually find your own voice in improvising, giving you enough harmonic, melodic and rhythmic elements within your playing and performing to actually create solos yourself that actually sound like yourself and speak of your own musical identity. So that’s what I focus on, and also very expressive qualities because there’s been an absence of that, and communal, collaborative approaches to improvisation. All those have been slightly neglected although they’re coming back a bit. So playing in certain ways that actually create and communicate expressive qualities as well as allowing the functional harmony and all the rest of it. But yes, I could take up hours of your time explaining what I do!

ATE: In an earlier interview you talk about improvisation as being a conversation of sorts, one that you don’t know what you re going to say until you actually say it and also one that you wont remember what you’ve said afterwards, but the idea of it is always in mind. Well said, that’s a great way to conceptualize the abstract properties of improv but how would you say it feels in the end to finally have enough understanding of musical language to actually improvise? Is it a eureka moment that surprises even yourself or does it feel more like a well orchestrated speech delivered on demand?

Kathy: Well it isnt either of those things really. Its something in-between that, because occasionally you can have practiced something and have a sense of where you think your improvisation is going and suddenly something comes out which is really interesting and then you take that idea a bit further

Deirdre: But you have to understand, when were improvising I come in and I can slightly distract you and change the course of your thought ..

Kathy: Yes, yes, and its a bit like speech in a way, although I don’t like analogies of music and language, I don’t think it works actually, I think its a lazy thing because its easy to explain it that way – I know what I want to say to you, and I have that sense of what I want to say to you, but once Ive said it and can hear myself saying it, then I’m responding to it. If I don’t think its clear or I don’t think it says what I want it to say, then Ill say it again. I think its the same process in music.

But you’ve got to have the background, the framework, you cant do it from nothing. You have to have all that there. On the other hand you re not rehearsing something that you’ve already played because it does come out fresh. You are generating creative things. The language analogy is a lazy one because there’s no meaning in music as such. Obviously if you’ve got words and sentences you can build meaning that we both can understand but musical meaning in that way doesn’t exist. You’re communicating something but its not like that. Its an energy or a feeling or something else. Before being able to play together, Deirdre and I didn’t need to know each others backgrounds because playing music together is about a deep sense of communication, a deep level of communication that’s beyond words in a way. Its actually soul-to-soul, unverbal.

ATE: Eloquently said, it is a more profound conveyance of an idea than words can express. You also teach courses in music psychology. Does this tie in to how you approach the understanding and teaching of improvisation?

Kathy: All music teaching of any depth requires music and ordinary psychology, but I focus specifically on helping students to understand their individual psychological make-up in order to find out what helps or hinders them as jazz performers, and also how to learn both as an individual and within a group.   We explore what other jazz artists did and do to keep themselves motivated, how they practice and really develop ideas and also a sense of musical identity; what they think is going on whilst they are improvising and whether conscious verbalizing of the process is any use or not.

Paul Berliners book Thinking In Jazz, 1994 University of Chicago, is a good way into the subject- its actually an ethnomusicological text but has a lot of psychological elements within it, and is an interesting starting point.

ATE:  That’s a great book by the way, Emily is one of the many artists he interviewed for that extensive project.

Kathy: Aside from that, I recommend Jeff Pressings Improvisation, Methods and Models, a chapter in Generative Processes in Music, edited by John Sloboda, Oxford University Press 1988. It inspired me to start the PhD and is an attempt to create a big picture of what happens in improvisation from A1,  neuro and psychological perspectives. The sheer scope of it is quite breathtaking and it just gets you thinking about all manner of things. You have to understand how peoples minds are working in order to get them to actually expand as improvisers – that’s what you have to do.

ATE: Okay, lets talk about Kathy Dyson the musician. I know you perform regularly with your husband, saxophonist John Dyson and with various groups associated with your college and of late with fellow jazz guitarist Deirdre Cartwright for the Emily Remembered tours, but other than the few performances posted on YouTube from last years show, its impossible to find your recordings here in North America.  Where can the curious and the admiring get their Kathy Dyson fix?

Kathy: You have to come over to England, you have to go to the gigs. Its a unique moment. We have got a recording that John (Dyson) and I did several years ago, a duo recording that’s out there. But I think live musics the thing. The unique event is the thing to come to if anybody wants to see me they’ll have to come over here, unless we get invited to America of course. I think live music is really key. Hearing jazz live is the only thing to do. It sounds great, its in the moment, I just think its the best thing.

ATE: Well I have to agree, there is nothing comparable to a great jazz performance in a live setting, which offers an indelible emotional experience that no studio recording could ever capture. For the gear heads among us what guitars are you using most? The one in your promo looks like a very traditional (and very large) hollow-body but I don’t recognize it, whats the name?

Kathy: The one that’s on the picture is a Gibson ES-175, a 1954 blonde one. A fab instrument, really beautiful, lovely sound. Very quiet obviously because its got the single coil pick-up on it. Ive had it for 25 years. It was actually bought from a teacher of mine who was a collector so that was nice. I also play a Martin 00-17 acoustic which Ive recorded on at different times that is very lovely and I just recently bought a Taylor T5 which I really like and play with a little AER amp which has kind of got an acoustic sound, very acoustic, very clean, I just really liked it. I kind of like the sort of electrified acoustic sound but not amplified.

ATE: What kind of sound do you like to elicit from your amps?

Kathy: From my amps I like the straight forward jazz guitar sound. People say to me: “Oh jazz guitarists, they all play with the same sound”, and we do in a way and I don’t quite understand why but I just like that very sweet, very resonant, not much reverb, just a nice expressive sound.

Deirdre: And certainly the longer you play the more you develop your sound, its like developing your voice on the guitar.  I remember being a teenager and couldn’t play unless I had my fuzz tone on, (laughter) it all sounded so much better when I put my Color sound Tone Bender on and got distortion and the longer Ive been playing, the LESS I like affects.  Which I think is very interesting.

Kathy: Yea well its the same with the students now, they like the big sound, the loud sound, its just how you are at different times in your life.   Ive always had the kind of Jim Hall, lovely resonant kind of tone in my head.

ATE: Do you use any effects or just leave it all straight forward?

Kathy: Occasionally Ive used a chorus. Ive used various effects but generally not. I’m actually trying to always focus on the music, the actual notes coming out. I know people who can do all these effects as they play but I’m not very good at it, so I kind of leave it.

ATE: Well, here you are on your second and longer tour of Emily Remembered – tribute performances for the late American jazz guitarist Emily Remler that were very well received on the circuit last year. First, how did you and Deirdre meet and how did the idea honoring Emily’s music crystallize?

Kathy: Its a funny thing really, I was doing a research project for a paper about British women jazz musicians and I thought Id come and interview Deirdre, who I hadn’t met for ages – years and years. I used to know her a long time ago and I talked to her for a lot of years. So I came down to London and started talking to her about jazz guitar and playing, and about her life and her thoughts, about these things, and whilst we were there Deirdre came up with the idea of celebrating the music of Emily Remler and playing as a little duo. We thought it would be really very nice to do that and thought it was a great idea – we took it from there. So it was good for me to meet up with her because we hadn’t met or spoken like that for a lot of years.

Deirdre: Also it was a saxophone player who actually brought along to a gig a tune arranged by Emily Remler – Sweet Georgie Fame. I thought it was a great arrangement and I hadn’t listened to her in a long time and I remember putting on a couple of Emily’s albums again and thinking: “God, its really good and were all forgetting about her now”, that sort of feeling.

Kathy: There was this whole thing about women artists being invisible, largely. I mean not entirely but largely out of the public view really. Then we remembered that Emily was in the public view for a while and then sadly was not anymore and that sense of remembering and honoring people who’d done really well – to keep the memories of people is a good thing.

ATE: And its wholly appropriate that two women guitarists are involved in recognizing and promoting Emily’s music, yet its also quite rare that it is a woman behind the jazz guitar as an instrument, which somehow makes your homage more special. I know you are both activists on this issue of women in jazz and there are lots of opinions about why so few female musicians choose a guitar particularly in jazz studies, but with your perspective and experience as educators, where do you think the most critical breakdown of awareness and missed opportunities begin?

Kathy: Ive no idea, really we don’t know. I think it needs a big bit of dedicated long research by some of you. There’s something very deep about it

Deirdre: In the olden days, traditionally women were musicians, women were lute players.

Kathy: Yes, there’s a lovely picture I really like of a woman guitar player in yellow. They weren’t playing for money obviously, they were playing as an accomplishment, but still there were players.

Deirdre: And in Venice courtesans were part of the accomplishments again – its all women who were musicians.

Kathy: Ive just read this book called The Female Brain, I think it may be the way that women are wired that they don’t choose to play jazz or don’t necessarily choose to play it first of all. That’s why there aren’t many of us. I teach at Leeds and there are hardly any women auditioning, never mind getting into the college. It doesn’t seem to be a thing young women want to do. It may be the lack of role models, it may be the fact that they don’t like the music very much or they don’t see a way into it or maybe they don’t see themselves playing it. It could be any combination but I think it needs a deep research project about it. Lots of us have been involved in trying to get girls to play over the years. Lots of my colleagues have been actually positively discriminating to get girls in the college and it hasn’t made an iota of difference to the scene or to the number of women playing. I think it has to change. Its one of those intransigent, difficult, complex things and I think it needs a really thorough look at it from a research point of view.

ATE: And the bigger question, what can be done about it short of changing the fabric of society?

Deirdre: We’ve already mentioned before that women used to play instruments, so its not that women cant play. Women aren’t attracted to play in certain situations. Women certainly have the facility and the ability to practice and develop their playing.

Kathy: There are certain social things. In the classical field in England, there were hardly any women orchestral players and then there was a change of heart and people decided to audition women classical players behind a screen, in fact they decided to audition all players behind a screen. From that point on equal numbers of women were taken into orchestras – which I find fascinating. So that was all completely social, cultural perceptions. And now there are some orchestras where there are more women players than men. And there are also other orchestras where they’ve hardly any women. They’ve still got that male bastion. But that is entirely cultural. To a degree all of these things are cultural aren’t they? I just think that there isn’t a critical mass of women playing. I think that might be it. There’s also when you begin playing, you’re not a very good player obviously, because you’ve only just begun playing and people think you’re not a very good player because you’re a woman. Whereas if they saw a bloke at that stage they would think: “Oh, hes not a good player because hes a beginner”.  That’s a critical stage – you’re thinking: “perhaps I’m not very good yet”. You’re only not very good because you’re a beginner – not because you’re a woman. Anybody at that stage wouldn’t be very good particularly. I think at that point that kind of hits in, that whole notion of: “perhaps its because I cant do it” or whatever. And I think a lot of women maybe put off at that point, I’m not sure.

Deirdre: Why weren’t we put off Kathy? Are we a little bit strange?!! (much laughter)

Kathy: I had very good supporters – Ive always had a lot of help. My husbands been really good about supporting what I do, also a lot of other people have. When I went to Leeds College of Music I couldn’t play very well at all and I had a guitar teacher who took me on, on a chance really, because I wasn’t very good.

Deirdre: So it can be just meeting one person who’s in a position of authority or a position of experience and knowledge that can make a big difference.

Kathy: I know a lot of people out there who are teaching and I know a lot of them are really good in that respect and would do the same for other people. I recently taught at a summer school for youngsters and this was from age 14 to 17, 18 and it was the same – there were a handful of girls – a trumpet player, a saxophone player, hardly any piano players, no guitarists. You get the occasional girl drummer who is always incredibly good. Girl saxophone players are usually really good but you hardly ever get, I have not seen another girl guitar player, for years!

Deirdre: I agree. I used to teach 2 or 3 in the 80s and its all disappeared. Maybe also because the guitar more than other instruments in jazz is very, very, associated with rock and blues and pop. So you’ve got all these different ways into it.

Kathy: Yes there is but you hardly ever get any women rock guitar players and not singers. You can get singer/songwriters that play really well but you don’t get heavy rock girl players very rare again. So I think it needs a really good serious look at. I’m trying to persuade various people to do that. So it needs some funding and long research.

ATE: I think we would all agree with Emily’s contention that the best way to deal with doubters is to just play well and let the music speak for itself.

Kathy: Charlie Parker was in this position because when he started he was also awful and everybody slammed him and said he was not good and all the rest of it – and he said: “Virtuosity is the best revenge”. Having said that I still think you’re a bit invisible. I was in a situation the other week where I think this pertained, where people didn’t expect you to play well to start with, so when you did it was a huge shock and they were like over the top, whereas they wouldn’t have been if you’d have been a bloke. I think its all still there under the surface. Maybe it’ll change, hopefully it will. If they don’t know you  – the first impression is to think – well you cant do anything. Whereas the first impression of a bloke is hes bound to be great.

ATE: Yea, Emily stated the same sentiments, she said she could actually feel the tension from certain audiences, like they were listening for weaknesses when she began playing and it was almost as if they held their breath, thinking, is she going to make it though? , like they were watching a circus act that might fail at any moment.

Deirdre: And that’s the critical mass, that’s where if its just you and me in this country as visible guitarists well always be getting that in some way. We need loads of women just playing. If it was equal and it was normal it wouldn’t be an issue at all. Like it isn’t now in the classical world and hasn’t been for some years.

Please continue on to part 2

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