INTERVIEW: Photographer / Author Melody McLaren #IWD2016 / @womensday / #InternationalWomensDay

Melody McLaren Photo Credit: Matt Pannell

Melody McLaren is active as photographer of jazz gigs, and is the co-author of a book on jazz and entrepreneurship. Starting life in California, she remembers that she ran so far from her dreaded classical piano lessons that she ended up in London. Her journey into jazz has taken her via hula-hooping, photography, and an unexpected live performance that remains etched in her memory as “the most terrifying 45 minutes of my musical life”.  Matt Pannell (*) interviewed her:

Matt Pannell: Did you love music from day one?

Melody McLaren: My mother, an operatically-trained vocalist and pianist, had great plans for my musical future. The clue is in my name. She began teaching me piano by ear, aged three, but the fun stopped when I was seven, with the arrival of a‘proper’ teacher.

MP: Where did the tough lessons lead you?

MM: Away from music. By 1969, the year that I played solos with two orchestras, I had taken up hula-hooping. In an effort to get out of piano practice, I applied myself so seriously to it that I won the US championship. The piano teacher was not amused. My split with music, from age 15 until 48, was acrimonious.

MP: Where does jazz music come in?

MM: Aged 26, while I was doing my PhD, the manufacturer of hula-hoops invited me to travel to Europe to help with some competitions. In London I was safely out of reach of those piano lessons. I met my husband, Ian, who played bass in a jazz quartet.

MP: …and you fell in love with Jazz?

MM: No, I didn’t. I dutifully watched my husband’s band play, but I didn’t get it. After a dozen gigs, I said to them: “You start and finish the piece together, but what are you doing in between?” They must have been horrified, but they didn’t show it. In fact, my husband continued to nag me to play jazz piano. He would tell me: “Give it a go - it’s more social, and there aren’t so many notes.”

MP: There must have been a moment when you finally got it?

MM: I cracked after 20 years, in 2005. My husband’s a persistent man! He took me to a jazz workshop run by the Global Music Foundation. The leader, Stephen Keogh, sat me down and said: “You’ve always been focused and hard-working. Forget about that. This is about relaxing, listening, and having a conversation with music. Stop over-thinking it.” I finally got it. I started playing again…started hearing other people.

MP: Where did you go from there?

MM: I began playing in my husband’s band. At a later GMF event, I can remember Jason Rebello telling me to play with my eyes shut, to “let ideas go straight from the mind to the piano.” He encouraged my to “pull down the wall” between jazz and classical music. It made me realise how tightly-controlled my childhood piano training had been. Of course, you play classical music with feeling, but you’re still playing what’s on the page. That certainly wasn’t the case at a jazz festival where I filled in for a pianist at what I thought was a jam session. It turned out to be a performance. It was the most terrifying 45minutes of my musical life.

MP: How does jazz music matter to you today?

MM: Besides listening and playing, I’ve enjoyed photographing jazz gigs, and the nature of this music led me to co-author a book on collaboration in business. Last year, doctors were alarmed at my plans to attend the GMF summer jazz festival – and a gig at Pizza Express – during cancer treatment. Being able to play and go to gigs at that time was a huge thing. It helped my recovery. Really, it was my lifeline.

MP: It’s International Women’s Day. Why are there so few women in jazz music?

MM: Jazz grew up in ‘places where nice girls shouldn’t go.’ It tends to be played in basements, in clubs, in Soho – not in ‘respectable’ concert halls. But things are changing. I covered a National Youth Jazz Orchestra 50th Anniversary gig and there were loads of girls. Those kids were all having a great time. At the end of the day it’s about music.

(*) Matt Pannell recently ran the Jazz January blog (see feature), and based his research around the question: "Can jazz music work on normal people?"


  1. Great interview - well done Melody, thanks for being so clear. And thanks for the kind reference to the girls in the NYJO Academy bands - we want & need to do better, but nice to know that you approve of the progress we have made.

    1. We're looking forward to great things from all the NYJO musicians - boys and girls - Nigel.

  2. Great story well told! You go Mel!

  3. Melody McLaren is as talented at all art forms as she used to be at swivelling her hips it seems. Right on Mel: your talent may be humbling but your positivity is inspiring! Maureen