`I could stand up in a Wonderbra and push along those lines, but that's not why I'm doing this'

Holly Slater is a saxophonist. Yes, a female saxophonist. But no way is she going to market herself like Barbie.

Janie Lawrence
Tuesday 24 June 1997 23:02

If a woman is seen carrying a saxophone case it must belong to her boyfriend. Well, of course it must. A large instrument like the sax requires a big boy's puff. And that cumbersome case... so bad for the tights, dear. Tush, tush, you say, not even the most chauvinistic of jazz musicians would make these risible assumptions in the Nineties. Sorry, but apparently they do. Tenor saxophonist Holly Slater has lost count of the number of times she's been asked about "the boyfriend's sax". As it happens, her American husband is a sax player but, for the record, they have always carried their own.

"I've heard all the lines," Holly says philosophically. And, never fear, there's no shortage of these anachronistic gems. "Another really common one is if I go to a jam session and ask if I can play. It's automatically assumed I'm a singer and I'm asked to wait until the next number before I sing. Then when they do realise I'm a sax player I'm warned that the band intend to play a really fast tune."

Since 24-year-old Holly won the first Royal Sun Alliance Jazz competition last year these ridiculous encounters have begun to abate. "The competition really helped me out. Before that, I was sending my tapes off to places for gigs and was out there with the boys trying desperately hard to be accepted as well as anyone else. As a woman, it has been difficult for me to be taken seriously. I've had to push doubly as hard as a man to prove myself. Any man wouldn't understand that. I'm not downing them for that, but it's a different situation for them."

A quick look at the numbers tells the tale. In the London regional final she was the only woman out of eight, a figure only doubled by the national final. Of course, there are female jazz musicians about but, in Holly's opinion, there is still a shortage of female role models. "Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, everyone I admire is male. Every great jazz icon is a man. When I first started out there wasn't a female saxophone player that I could look up to."

Slater is on course to be a role model herself for other aspiring young women. The late Ronnie Scott was on the panel that picked her, and Pete King, now running the club, believes that she shows "great promise". She has been signed up to make a record on the Ronnie Scott label, Jazz House, and is performing at the Glasgow International Jazz Festival (until 27 June). When she takes to the stage it's with a mix of jazz standards and some of her own compositions. "I've been told I've got quite an old sound," she explains. "As a female player, I've always been very conscious to make dammed sure I have a big sound. I never want people saying I've got a thin, little female sound."

Nor, to judge by her attire, does she went to exploit the novelty value of her gender. A slim woman with short hair, she appears to have adopted some serious anti-image packaging. Freshly scrubbed, she's in a sober trouser suit and is a walking flesh-free zone. Commercially, might it not be more beneficial to make free with the eyeliner and pop on a pair of heels? Take, for instance, Vanessa Mae's high-profile strategy - a similarly young female musician marrying music and marketing to great financial effect. "I could do sexy Vanessa Mae but if I was to do that then bang! All the preconceived ideas about a woman playing a sax would come true," Holly counters. "I'm very careful. If I was wearing a mini skirt I think the first thing the audience would say is, `Look at the skirt.' I could stand up in a Wonderbra and I could probably quite easily push along those lines and become quite rich but that's not why I'm doing this music. Besides, the guys that I admire from the Forties and Fifties wore suits and it looked good."

So there's going to be no Daily Mail make-overs or front covers for loaded magazine? "It's something I would consider only when I feel happy enough with how established I've got in my own right. If I feel I've got to a stage where I'm respected by musicians and by the listeners for my music then, for fun, I might. Now I don't want that to get in the way of my music."

A former pupil at Wells Cathedral School, one of the very few classical music specialist schools in the country, Holly was trained classically on piano, flute and clarinet in addition to sax. Still nursing aspirations to be a television presenter and undecided about whether she wanted to be a professional musician, she began a degree in performance art at Middlesex University. After a year, she got an opportunity to study jazz in the States, which proved to be the turning point.

"Every night we'd all go into town and go to the jam sessions and you couldn't help but suck it all in." On her return she promptly transferred to the BA in jazz and popular music. Whatever she claims are the difficulties of trying to break through into a male dominated domain, Holly seems well on the way to cracking it. Within the space of two years she's played Ronnie's and been back to play at the Blue Note in New York, the same venue she used to hang around in as a student. "It was incredible but very scary, because it's the top place to play jazz in the world." Several record companies have already expressed interest and, unusually for one so new to the notoriously underpaid jazz circuit, she can also afford to be relatively picky about the gigs she accepts. "It's like any career: if you set yourself goals of what you're prepared to do and what you're not, then you will get there."

And her advice for other female jazz hopefuls? "I think they have to get out there more and not give a damn. It's very easy to be intimidated"n

The national final of the Royal Sun Alliance Young Jazz Musician of the Year takes place in September at Ronnie Scott's, London W1

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