INTERVIEW/PROFILE : Shannon Barnett, trombonist with the WDR Big Band ( #IWD2017)

Shannon Barnett.
Photo credit and © Roger Mitchell

In January 2014, Australian-born trombonist SHANNON BARNETT became a full member of the WDR Big Band, based  in Cologne. Interview by Sebastian: 

LJN: Your three cities, if we have the story right, are Melbourne, New York and now Cologne?

Shannon Barnett: Yes, I studied and played in Melbourne, before moving to New York to do my Masters and try my luck playing there. Then I was offered the chance to audition for a job with the WDR Big Band in Cologne, which turned out to be successful, so now I'm based there.

LJN: Are there differences in attitude to women in music between the three cities?

SB: There are slight differences because of the idiosyncracies of each society, but the main themes are the same. I could talk about this topic for days, but one important thing is that there is a big difference between not having a problem working with women versus actively helping raise the percentage of female musicians and supporting them. I was also really surprised to learn that some of my peers really have zero idea of what women put up with whilst trying to pursue careers as professional musicians. It's important for the 'insert affected minority' to share their stories so that the 'privileged majority' can understand the challenges. That's how I see it at the moment.

On the lighter end of the scale, just the other day in the train a man said he was surprised that women could play the trombone because their arms were usually shorter...

LJN: What drew you towards music and the trombone in the first place?

SB: Despite coming from a family that is not particularly musical, I took an interest in it pretty early on. I loved messing about on an old organ that my parents had. Then when I was about 12, we had the opportunity to learn an instrument at my school in a small country town. I was terrified when they demonstrated the trombone, because it was so loud and big. I wanted to play clarinet and sit quietly with the other clarinet players. But they kind of forced the trombone upon me, and actually within the first few days I remember falling in love with it. I taught myself a crappy version of The Muppet Show theme, and the rest is history. Well, my first teacher also had a big impact on me. Our school stage band was called the Art Ensemble (at that stage I was not aware of the reference) and we made up all our own songs and improvised on them, even though we could only play a few notes each. It was a great foundation to have, joyous music-making, instead of my later experiences having to do exams or fit into some kind of mould. I'm still doing both of those things, I guess.

LJN: Is there a player with a "signature sound" that you admire? Someone you idolized or enjoyed transcribing?

SB: There are plenty, but an important one for me was Nils Wogram. I first heard him when I was studying in Melbourne and was blown away not only by his technique, but also his creativity; I hadn't heard anything like it before. Albert Mangelsdorff was another revelation for me. I also checked out a lot of older style players like Jack Teagarden and Trummy Young.

LJN: As a musician you like the range from early jazz to modern? Is that something you would always want to maintain?

SB: Yes I hang around at the extreme ends of jazz history I guess! I love early jazz because of its energy, the polyphony in the horns, the story-telling in a lot of the old songs. I love singing in that style too. I think sometimes the New Orleans/early jazz styles get a bad rap, because there are so many repertory bands just playing sad, tired, exactly-transcribed-from-the-record versions of the songs. There is a possibility to breathe life into them and there are a handful of young musicians doing that, especially in the U.S., Australia and Denmark in my experience. Whatever modern jazz is, well I like that too. Whatever platform that gives one's own musical personality a chance to shine, I'm into.



Paquito D'Rivera with the WDR Big Band.
Shannon Barnett's trombone solo starts at [2:12]



LJN: You are one of only two women in a salaried post with a German big band. Are you enjoying the experience of working with WDR Big Band?

SB: Yes, it's been an incredible experience getting to meet so many visiting artists, to see how they work and to contribute to creating something new with them. It has really motivated me to improve some parts of my playing that were lacking; we record all the time so there's no hiding! The thing that has really struck me since moving to Cologne though is that the scene outside of the band is really strong. There are so many bands, record labels and initiatives.

LJN: There should be more women in these jobs, right?

SB: Yes of course. Two women across three full-time radio big bands in Germany is unfortunately representative of the gender imbalance in the scene in general though. One of things that I love about the job (and playing in general) is simply that young women can see Karolina [Strassmayer, alto saxophonist] and I up on stage or meet us in person when we do education projects in schools; that we are normalising the idea that women can be full-time jazz musicians.

LJN: How did WDR's selection audition process work? When was it and how long did it take?

SB: The audition process when I got the job was a bit unique. There were some changes afoot in the WDR Management and they were worried about losing a full-time position from the band, so it all happened very quickly. I flew to Cologne and did a short audition in front of the band. I have never been so nervous in my life. Anyway, they seemed to see something in me and invited me back for a two-week trial project with Michael Abene (total legend). During that work period, the band took a vote on whether to offer me a one-year contract. One has to get 50% of the vote, it's kind of like some kind of weird jazz reality TV show. I scraped over the line somehow and here we are.

LJN: You are longlisted for a Young German Jazz Award - what's the story there?

SB: Yeah, I'm not so young but I have a band with young Germans in it! Shortly after moving to Cologne I managed to convince some wonderful local musicians to play my weird music, namely Stefan Karl Schmid (tenor saxophone), David Helm (bass) and Fabian Arends (drums). We've been playing a lot in Germany and we toured to Australia in 2016. We have a record coming out this year, tentatively titled People Don't Listen to Music Anymore. Not sure if any record labels will want to run with that name though. The quartet was nominated in the top 12 finalists for the New German Jazz Prize, which this year is judged by Norma Winstone. We didn't get past the top 12, but it was still an honour for us to be recognised.

LJN: Do you have some of your own musical projects in the pipeline or just still at the dreaming stage?

SB: Aside from the quartet, I'm working on a few projects, some in real life and some in my brain.


Shannon Barnett

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