“In 2017 the Me Too era happened,” said Gemma Farrell, creator and leader of the Artemis Orchestra, “and there was a lot that came out about the Australian jazz scene and the Perth jazz scene. There were a lot of people speaking out about things that had happened to them and there were, unfortunately, people defending those people still. I was working with three other fantastic women running the Young Women in Jazz course at the time and thinking, a lot of the young men in Perth have so many examples of great jazz musicians, they could go to a jazz club any night of the week and see someone to look up to, but our young women don’t have that.”
“I just thought it was really time to do something about it, so I decided that we could start a predominantly female jazz orchestra…”Gemma Farrell
That was when, as Farrell said in her own words, she, “started the band.
“I just thought it was really time to do something about it, so I decided that we could start a predominantly female jazz orchestra and we also now have some non-binary members as well. if only a quarter of professional jazz musicians are female, then even less are non-binary and trans. We’ve got to make sure that they have a space to be heard as well.”
Since 2017, the band Farrell started, Artemis Orchestra, has performed at the Charles Hotel, at the Four5Nine Bar, the Ellington Jazz Club, His Majesty’s Theatre, Somerville Auditorium and the Rechabite. They have collaborated with the Perth Jazz Society, and with the WA Youth Jazz Orchestra, twice making up a band of WAYJO’s young women and non-binary members, with Artemis’ professional musicians. They have also performed for the 2018, 2019 and 2020 Perth International Jazz Festivals.
It’s fair to say that Farrell is now a leader in the Perth jazz scene and that Artemis Orchestra has created a powerful force for positive change, initiating a process of balancing out opportunity for women, trans and non-binary people to play jazz music professionally.
Farrell’s work and advocacy has also helped create a world of study and work where people of marginalised genders can feel safe and supported.
“In 2018 I was employed at the WA Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) as a female instrumentalist,” said Farrell. “I think they only had one female instrumentalist working there prior to me in the jazz department and that was a long time ago. Now, it sort of occurred to them that that’s not good enough. They’ve hired two more this year and I’m glad they’re starting to think about it as I know that there’s a lot more jazz students identifying as non-binary and trans as well. I just feel really glad that the university supports that without hesitation and does what they can do for those students. Edith Cowan University in particular, who run the only jazz course in the city are a very supportive university. When I was studying jazz, I didn’t find WAAPA to be a very supportive environment and now I feel like it’s a totally different place. It’s a really friendly, welcoming environment. It needs to be, so that’s a good thing.
“It feels good to be able to say it, because one of the offenders in particular, he never did anything inappropriate to me sexually, but I didn’t find him to be a very good teacher at all and it feels like now I can say that openly whereas prior to now, it felt like if you said anything that would put a mark on your reputation forever.”
Such experiences are reflected in the broader music industry. The abusive and toxic work environments that are so commonplace in the industry and the overall gender imbalance is beginning to be addressed, with much of the impetus for change being generated from within by Farrell and women like her, who have had the courage to speak out and to act to create change. Only recently are leaders in the music industry beginning to follow. It seems that, many of them being male, it has taken far too long for them to take seriously the experiences of people of marginalised genders and to cede even just a small portion of their power.
This is change that is long overdue and much needed and, in the Perth jazz scene, is largely down to the work of Farrell and her colleagues.
This month, Artemis Orchestra will launch their first album, The Elephant In The Room, at The Rechabite on Saturday 26 June, taking another step forward in the long march to equality for people of marginalised genders.
“The title comes from one of the track names on the album,” said Farrell, “the piece itself is by Kate Pass, she wrote it initially as part of an assignment that she was doing for WAAPA, it was the first big band piece she ever wrote and she said that she often feels like the elephant in the room.
“When we did the cover I sent the artist a lot of pictures of standard jazz rehearsal rooms and them if they could place an actual elephant in that setting. The artist did a great job of that.
“I know that feeling, to feel like you’re the odd one out, and it’s not a nice feeling. You feel like if you have an off day, make a mistake or something then you’re representing everyone like you. So you feel like I can’t afford to be shit today, because if I’m shit today people are going to get the impression that women can’t play jazz. It sucks to have that on your shoulders.”
The Elephant In The Room comprises recordings of 10 original tracks written by Western Australian composers.
“When we started, we said we were only going to play Australian music by people of marginalised genders, women, non-binary and trans,” said Farrell. “We contacted composers that we knew and they also said, ‘That’s great that you want to play my track, but you should also check out this person’, and hooked us up with those people as well. We’ve been together since 2017 and I thought it would be really great if we could have an album by Western Australian people of marginalised genders. we’ve got 10 never recorded before works, five of which I commissioned especially for the album.”
The Elephant In The Room is available for download as a digital album here.
If you’re wavering and you want a recommendation, here’s one from Farrell herself, who said of The Elephant In The Room, “I couldn’t have been happier with the result.” Musicians and composers very rarely blow their own trumpets.
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Artemis Orchestra launches The Elephant In The Room at The Rechabite on Saturday 26 June. Tickets are available here.
Artemis Orchestra will be supported by SKACE, a band comprised of young, up and coming musicians, who will be performing together for the first time.