I am extremely excited and honoured to welcome you to my new Style Quarterly and Jazz Quarterly articles. You are probably wondering who I am and why you might want to read my articles, so please do allow me to explain a little about me and why I am so honoured to have been given this platform to share with you.
I have been working in the creative industries all my life – my first professional job was when I was two, as it turns out kids with crazy ginger hair are quite the commodity. I had a crazy stage mum, who enrolled me into dance, drama and music lessons as soon as I could move and hence my wild performing arts life began. I have never known anything else. I have pretty much done a bit of everything from lead roles on the West End, dancing the Can Can with the English National Opera, composing scores for Greek tragedies to writing the music for a musical about a woman’s football team during World War Two. I settled down (slightly) to become a single parent and began working in education, whilst working as a musician on the side and somehow ended up the Head of the British Academy of New Music in London, responsible for the training of Ed Sheeran and Rita Ora, to name just a few of my students. Two years ago, I left to work on my career as an artist in my own right and I have established myself as Jazz artist and literally fallen into becoming a journalist too. That’s the short version.
The creative industries are full of wonder and glamour and indeed this is part of their purpose under the heading of entertainment. As an audience, we are not only enthralled by performances, we are also captivated by the stories behind the artists and quite often, this is where the glamour ends. The great Billie Holiday has been a huge inspiration to me throughout my career and I was first exposed to her music when I was about twelve. What inspired me most, was the pain behind her music – and I really have no idea why that inspired me. The pain she had been through, was traumatic and you wonder how someone can function going through all of the things she went through. In and out of care when she was very young, raped at ten, Billie left school at the age of eleven. Her mother became a prostitute as did Billie at the age of 13 and they both ended up in prison. How did Billie Holiday deal with all that? She sang. She became a drug addict, but she still sang. She sang until she died.
Stories like Billie Holiday – and there are so many more – fascinate us, inspire us and sadden us - and in some ways, it almost romanticizes the idea we have of the ‘Jazz musician’. We imagine all the tragedy and trauma of society raging on outside, while a group of people walk down some steps, go underground, literally, into a smoky Jazz club and play until none of it matters anymore. I think we all have moments of wanting to do that. However, there is a serious issue here that is being discussed more and more.
‘Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your wisdom. If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn.
"They teach you there's a boundary line to music. But, man, there's no boundary line to art" - Charlie Parker
Drug and alcohol addiction and mental illness often go hand in hand with artists. I have known and do know many people, in all the creative fields – dancers, writers, musicians etc. - who struggle with this and it is an area I am extremely passionate about. I use the word passion, as I am desperate to understand why. Why do so many artists struggle? Why do they not find help? What can’t they be ‘fixed’? Almost every month we hear of someone who has died due to mental illness and we discuss the links between the creative mind and mental health – and yet, there is almost an unspoken acceptance to the problem. In the UK, a recent study stated that musicians are 80% more likely to suffer from depression than in any other industry. This is not to say, of course, that it does not affect people from any industry, but there does seem to be a link between the creative mind set and mental health. As a performer, you go onto a stage and you literally put your heart and soul into a performance. You are applauded. People tell you, you are wonderful. They cheer, ask for more. It’s like a drug, in fact the way the brain reacts, it actually is a natural high. It is a wonderful thing and highly addictive. But then what? The applause stops. What then? You go home. You go to bed. Or you stay up and try to let the high last as long as possible. But at some point, it has to stop. This is something performers must go through after every single performance. And it’s not easy.
Through my articles, I will be exploring the lives of a wide range of people working in the Jazz industry, the highs and the lows and the social responsibility we all have to have an active role in the world today; to not only raise awareness of issues such as inequality and mental health, but to actively participate in solutions. I don’t have answers but I do know that discussions open up questions and I hope at some point, answers.
"People don't understand the kind of fight it takes to record what you want to record the way you want to record it" - Billie Holiday
For more information about Fiona Ross, please visit her website at: fionaross.co.uk