Barbara Thompson MBE
The Autobiographical Story of her Musical Life
(Jazz In Britain)
Rarely has the autobiography of a jazz musician been told with such passion, determination and sense of pride, while blending good humour, wisdom and humanity. During her journey to become one of Britain’s finest exponents of the saxophone and flute and a gifted composer and inspirational band leader to boot, Barbara Thompson reveals just what it was like to be a classically trained young woman stepping innocently into the male dominated jazz world of the 1960s.
When we read about the band of hired deps who refused to play her original compositions, demanding to know why they couldn’t just jam on some well worn standards and reducing Barbara to tears, you kinda want to seek them out and give them a punch in the mouthpiece.
Then there is the orchestra whose men stare silently in dismay at the arrival of a lone girl with a tenor saxophone in their midst hoping for an audition. Or the producers who want her to dress in sexy costumes and parade on stage for the delectation of audiences whose knowledge of the finer points of jazz improvisation is as skimpy as the stage show’s skirts.
But this is no saga of a one woman campaign for liberation and equal rights. It is an uplifting story of Ms. Thompson’s normal desire to be a better all round musician and she happily acknowledges the help of the many decent men who gave her their encouragement and advice on the way.It is also the story of a love affair with the most important man in her life, Jon Hiseman who shared their extraordinary musical lives together.
In the prologue Barbara writes: “Without my dear husband of nearly 51 years it’s as if there is something missing, but I can’t put a finger on it. Jon always said that we were two incomplete people when we were apart. When we were together, we made a complete person”.
It was a partnership that saw them develop their own separate and occasionally overlapping careers. For drumming genius Jon, Colosseum was his main jazz-rock showcase, while Barbara came to the fore with her own bands Jubiaba and Paraphernalia. In writing a book her style flows just like her musical compositions; concise, literate, well-paced, yet full of surprises and revealing anecdotes, such as receiving that stray kiss from an ardent admirer or struggling to keep a band of intoxicated jazz reprobates on the road.
Barbara begins by describing family problems which only encouraged her decision to study classical music and establish an independent lifestyle. She attended the Royal College of Music from 1964-5 playing clarinet, then discovered the sound of Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, leading to her to switch to tenor saxophone and absorb jazz as well as classical influences.
As a shy girl she left home to join Ivy Benson’s unique 15 piece all girl orchestra on the Isle of Man in 1964. There she learned how to play in a brass section and how to fend off an amorous journalist who specialised in bedding one of the girl musicians each year during their seasonal residency. Barbara’s tale of tricking him withan old empty handbag left on the bed, while she scarpered is priceless.
“I was now confident enough to deal effectively with the opposite sex in an industry and an age when women faced plenty of unwanted propositions. Although there could be some welcome interest from the opposite sex too.”
Trying to be ‘one of the boys’ was also unnerving. Going for an audition with a major jazz orchestra rehearsing at London’s 100 Club she was full of trepidation as she walked through the door.“But nothing could prepare me for the awkwardness of that first meeting. Everyone stopped playing and stared. I wondered if they had ever seen a woman with a saxophone before…” But once they heard her play, Barbara was given the thumbs up – and the gig.
As the years rolled by Barbara was accepted, acclaimed and befriended by the jazz establishment including Ronnie Scott who often invited her to play at his legendary club.There were many more triumphs and grand moments to come, not least creating her own acclaimed saxophone symphony From Darkness To Light and being presented to the Queen, the Prime Minister and working with Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Then came the darkness. The onset of Barbara’s battle with Parkinson’s disease first diagnosed in 2001 was followed by the tragic death of her husband Jon in 2018. Enduring failing health while supported by her loving daughter Ana and son Marcus during 2020 Barbara continued to dream of creating more music and travelling the world. This beautifully written, designed and illustrated book shines a welcome ray of light on Barbara Thomson’s extraordinary journey. CHRIS WELCH
Barbara Thompson MBE The Autobiographical Story of her Musical Life
(Jazz In Britain) OUT NOW! Visit www.barbara-thompson.co.uk