Women Behind the Music: Sue Edwards

Sue Edwards has had a long and varied career as a programmer, producer, project manager and now artist manager. From 1990 – 2005 she was producer of Freestage and Outdoor Music Events at the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre in London, in addition to programming at several other UK venues. She also originated and shaped ‘the Write Stuff’ – a week-long writing workshop for aspiring jazz critics, which takes place each year as part of the London Jazz Festival’s education programme. She has worked as a Project Manager for Jazz Services and ESIP Ltd. Sue has served a trustee to the Board of Jazz Services for several years, as well as sitting on various awards panels. Sue Edwards manages acclaimed piano trio, Phronesis.

You have had a long and varied career as a programmer, project manager and artist manager in jazz. What brought you to the genre?

My father was an avid jazz fan and as a young child I used to spend every Saturday listening with him to whichever new jazz records he’d brought back from Birmingham record library that week, so I can’t really remember a time when I didn’t hear and love jazz. The day he brought back Gil Evans’ ‘There Comes a Time’ there was no going back for me – it was the most exciting music I’d ever heard, and from then on I started to explore the music myself, seeking out all types of jazz. It was seeing Sue Evans playing percussion in Gil’s big band that prompted me to take up percussion and drums myself. My mum was horrified (and blamed my father for making me listen to ‘that horrible racket!’) – females in the 70’s in Midlands suburbia weren’t ‘supposed to be’ jazz drummers... I then joined the Walsall Youth Jazz Orchestra, an amazing youth jazz band run by a very inspirational music teacher - John Hughes. Many of my fellow band members from that time went on to have careers in jazz – such as the Arguelles brothers, Martin Shaw, Pete Cater, Duncan Mackay & Nick Purnell, and the band always prided itself (and still does), on having a very high percentage of female players.

Do you think female musicians are less aggressive than men in terms of self-promotion? What advice would you give to female musicians looking to increase their profile.

Self-promotion is an increasingly important part of any musician’s career – female or male, there’s no difference. There’s more and more competition for an ever-decreasing number of gigs and column inches, so you have to somehow get your music heard. However, as a programmer I was always very suspicious of musicians whose self-promotion angle was to tell me how amazing they were. ‘Aggressive’ anything doesn’t work in my book. The music needs to speak for itself. Every musician needs a decent website these days (and I don’t mean myspace) and as much internet/social media presence as possible, a good press kit and the ability to pick up the phone and follow-up on promotional material. But all the promotion in the world isn’t going to do any good unless you’ve got the music down and you’re constantly learning and developing and getting better as a musician. If that’s in hand and you can provide promoters, press and the public with user-friendly ways to access your work, then that’s the best way to increase your profile.

You recently returned from five years living in the US. Did you notice any differences in the scene for women over there?

Jazz remains a predominantly male scene, and I don’t have the statistics, but I doubt it’s any different anywhere in the world. I certainly didn’t notice any difference in the US. There is a historical bias towards men in jazz, which still impacts on the scene today, and there are still some very under-represented areas of the jazz industry – written journalism for instance. But there appear to be more women on the business side than there used to be and I would hope that’s encouraging more women to enter the industry in all its aspects. I think it’s hard to be a jazz musician anywhere but it’s probably harder to be a female jazz musician - not only are they greatly outnumbered by their male counterparts (and being in any minority brings its own challenges), but also the jazz musician’s hours and lifestyle are not particularly conducive to having and bringing up a family. I know many female musicians who have taken time out to have a family and then found it really difficult to get back into the scene at the same career level as their peers, or they’ve simply not wanted to. The same is true in other careers of course, it’s just that there are less women in jazz in the first place.

What advice would you offer to someone looking to forge a career behind the scenes in jazz?

Your love of the music and what it leads you to do are ultimately the things that will get you a career in the industry. If you’re going to gigs all the time, it won’t be long before you’ll meet and get to know the people who are likely to give you a job – it’s a very small world. There are also many opportunities these days for internships in all aspects of the jazz industry such as at Jazzwise Magazine and Dune and many venues. Otherwise volunteer your services – I started out volunteering for Jazz FM radio and London Jazz Action (an umbrella organization for improvised jazz in the 80’s) whilst I was working in venue administration, and it was through all those various experiences and the contacts I made that I managed to make jazz my career.


  1. A Jazz Musician9 March 2011 at 09:59

    I disagree strongly with two points. 1. She says jazz musicians shouldn't be aggressive, yet she says there are less gigs than ever (which is completely incorrect BTW) Jazz musicians MUST have an an element of confidence and aggression when they hustle for gigs, especially if they don't have agents/managers, which 99% don't. Jazz musicians know more about their own music than anyone else in the world, so they therefore should be the best person to tell a promoter about themselves. Anyway, managers and agents are completely cut throat and aggressive. I see no reason a musicians shouldn't be on the business front either, but for some reason, agents/promoters/writers, etc find this threatening as if musicians shouldn't be allowed to be good at business just as they are at music. Sure, they don't need to be rude, arrogant, or non-professional, but they need to be aggressive and they need to have perseverance. Promoters/agents/jazz industry people, and the like usually have other careers outside jazz, or did at one point, and they 'dabble' in jazz on the weekends or a yearly festival (some do it full time), or like Mrs. Allen had a hugely successful career in something else and then now the thought of losing a little money here or there on jazz doesn't affect them, but jazz musicians do this 24 hours a day year around. Things for jazz musicians are very HARD financially, even if they get gigs 5 nights a week, and no agent/promoter could ever know what it's like unless they are a full time jazz musician. So yes, an element of aggression in their career is not a bad thing at all due to the hard nature of their lives. Nowadays, Jazz musicians must be complete musicians and totally amazing business managers of their own career, and venues/promoters/industry people need to get with that, because there are only a small handful of agents out there who are anywhere near worth their weight in salt, and one thing that IS increasing is the number of jazz musicians becoming business savvy, so these skills are essential. Jazz musicians need to take control of their career, be aggressive in order to make a good living, and be confident, because THEY are the artists, and THEY are what ALL of this is about. The jazz musician is the top of the food chain in the world of jazz and they need to remember that. How many times I see pathetic jazz musicians groveling at the feet of promoters/agents/writers at jazz social functions, in hope for some help. It should be these people groveling to the jazz musician, for they are the reason all of these people have something to do. Jazz musicians provide them with the music! That is the sacred skill they only have.

    2. She says there is an ever decreasing number of gigs. This is so far from true. This gets thrown around all the time, and the notion that this is true is nauseating. There are more jazz gigs in the world today than have ever been around before. Almost every big city in the UK has a jazz gig of some sort. Look at the dozens of festivals across the UK alone a year. Look at the dare I say thousands of jazz festivals around the world. Look at ALL the jazz friendly venues in London alone, Look at how busy THIS SITE is, which mainly just promotes jazz in London! It's so cliche to say there are no gigs... it's completely untrue. They are everywhere. Getting them is the hard thing, and that's why jazz musicians do need to be aggressive.

  2. you sound very angry - (reffering to above comment) - sure there are problems with the way it works, as there is with anything - but don't put yourself in such a lofty position to judge all these people with one broad stroke. a lot of people do this because they love the music, you are not the only one out there.

  3. I agree with Anonymous. It all depends what is meant by 'aggressive', generally the word has a negative connotation. It is, however, right that musicians are 'assertive' in chasing gigs.

  4. You do sound rather angry. Yes, it is about the music in the end. As Sue strongly points out.

    However, you could be the best musician in the world - but there's little point if you won't get heard.

    Every time a promoter programmes you, they're taking a risk - they stake their reputation and the reputation of their venue that you will produce quality music and they are also taking a financial risk, be it of their funders or out of their own pocket. They are justified in being wary of overly confident musicians or agents as they have probably been burnt in the past. There is a fine line between confidence and arrogance. Persistence is necessary when approaching venues and promoters, as they are very busy people and there will be dozens of people vying for their attention to get a gig at their venue or jazz night - promoters who put gigs on only monthly, are especially flooded with requests from musicians. However again, there is a fine line between persistence and aggressive pursuit. Going back to the risk factor - programmers are more likely to put on gigs by musicians and/or agents that they trust. To build that trust you need to develop a positive relationship with a promoter. Which is exactly what these 'pathetic' musicians as you refer to them, are doing when they speak to programmers/promoters and agents at functions. I don't call that 'pathetic', I call that smart.

    Agents and managers do their jobs because they love the music. Believe me, the financial rewards are generally pitiful so they're not doing it for the money. Most agents work bloody hard for very little financial reward. Yes musicians can approach venues themselves and follow up their requests and be persuasive. Nothing stops a musician from doing that.
    In fact, I would encourage them to do so. But hustling does take a lot of time. Time some musicians prefer to spend writing, practising and actually gigging. So if they choose to have someone in their corner, chasing gigs for them and are willing to pay them a tiny percentage to do that, why is that a bad thing? A good agent/manager will always be working in the best interests of the musicians they represent as those interests reflect their own. And they will only take on musicians they believe in - thus returning to the fact that in the end, it always boils down to the music.

  5. i agree with a jazz musician and tony, it depends on how you mean 'aggressive' I think jazz musician is meaning aggressive as 'go getting' persistent, ambitious, i don't take it as negative... aggressive doesn't always mean negative. the dictionary simply defines it as: aggressive: having or showing determination and energetic pursuit of your ends; "an aggressive businessman"; "an aggressive basketball player"; so i totally agree with a jazz musician, we need to be aggressive to get gigs cause it's hard to get them. and i also don't think jazz musician sounds angry, but realistic (perhaps its promoters and managers who don't like a jazz musician being so blunt so they think its anger cause they don't see it from our point of view???), and I certainly can sympathize with his/her points about it all.

  6. i am the person that put up the comment about 'jazz musician' being angry. I am also a jazz musician, and find it as hard as everyone else. I lose lots of money on everything I do, but I try to find a positive way around things, rather than blaming everyone else (especially a lot of people who make most things possible) - do you research before you get head-strong and start accusing every person involved in the business side of the jazz scene. its rude!