Fiona Ross Interviews…Wendy Kirkland

Described as ‘one of the great unsung heroines of British Jazz’ I have great pleasure in presenting my interview with Wendy Kirkland. With a degree in Mechanical engineering, Wendy combined working in both music and engineering consultancy before the pull of music was too strong. She has been performing as a jazz pianist singer for over 15 years and has performed all over the UK. She released her debut album ‘Piano Divas’ in March 2017 explaining that she ‘wanted to create something that would celebrate the fabulous women of jazz throughout the decades and those who both sang and played piano, and this is my attempt to emulate and capture their performance and arranging skills’. The album has received rave reviews from many, including The Observer and The Sunday Times, and was featured here, on, The Jazz UK, as our album of the week.  

FR: Can you talk us through your background and what brought you to the place you are at now?


WK: I was obsessed by the piano as a toddler, there are many pictures of me sitting atop the piano stool pressing the keys, trying to be like my Dad who used to play piano and organ on the then thriving club circuit. I used to want to be on the stage and eventually got my wish singing ‘Feed The Birds’ from Mary Poppins at age 6 at The Red Lion, Stanedge, now The Peak Edge Hotel, where my Dad’s trio was resident. Mum paid for our piano lessons – my sister Laura and I used to take them together- and we worked through our grades. When I was 10, I had an audition for and won a scholarship from Derbyshire Music Services that paid for my lessons, so we moved to a highly respected teacher Mrs D I Hill. Around this time, Dad brought some transcriptions of Dave Brubeck’s albums Time Out and Time Further Out, which I sat and sight read. It blew my mind – while I had listened to Dad’s jazz piano albums by Nat King Cole and Roger Webb, I had never thought I could play that way. But, I thought, Dave Brubeck wasn’t reading the notes, he was improvising! I went to my teacher who couldn’t help me – she was classical through and through – but she did get me some Ravel to try.

The mystery was still unsolved – I had to decide between a degree in Music and one in Engineering. Being of North Midland stock, I was urged to get a ‘proper job’ and keep music as a hobby. I enjoyed my degree in Mechanical Engineering and my career as a Design Engineer, but the whole time I was still playing in bands, rehearsing, gigging and writing music for my own pleasure. Push came to shove and I decided that I couldn’t do both – music was too important. I began to work freelance in both music and engineering consultancy. Pretty soon the music took over. I began to attend Sheffield Jazz Workshops for adults wishing to hone their jazz skills, started my jazz trio and moved on from there. Workshops they have a finite life for those wanting to get on and gig, although there are folks who attend purely for the love of it, I saw it as a stepping stone, a means to an end. I met my husband Pat on a gig in Derby – he was depping for my usual guitarist who had suggested I book him. I never booked the usual guy again! Pat is supreme. He’s also a great bass player and we work together most of the time, although both of us get the odd separate job.


FR: Living and working as a musician, can be hard. What drives you to do what you do?

WK: The love of the music. It has to be, doesn’t it? If we didn’t love the music, we wouldn’t bother. It’s so badly paid for most people, work is dwindling; getting gigs these days, even with an excellent record, reviews, airplay etc. is akin to pulling teeth.


FR: It is well known that the Jazz Industry is male dominated although things do seem to be changing. What has your experience been?


WK: My experience is, I’m afraid, that it is male dominated. I’ve been told I have ‘a nice pianistic touch – for a lady’ and been pigeonholed as a singer or bandleader, but I’m not a singer, I’m a pianist singer. Who’s playing the keys then? At the same time as singing?? Can you do that??? I would have liked to say that things have changed throughout my career, but the comment I mention earlier was made only months ago.

I think there is a lot of support for women through funding in the arts, but this doesn’t change the attitude of some – basically, tradition that is to blame –an all-male band fronted by a female singer ‘looks’ right because of what we are all used to seeing, and an all-female band is seen as a gimmick. Personally, I feel a male/female mixture of musicians is more of a statement for equality. Luckily, the only men I work with relish being in a band with able female musicians – funnily enough, these are the top guys, it’s the mediocre guys who have the problem.


FR: Your twitter name is Jazz Kitten – how did you come up with that?


WK: It’s a daft nickname assigned to me by my husband – which is probably reflected by the fact that I love cats so much – we both do. At some point, there may be a comic strip – The Amazing Adventures of The Fabulous Jazz Kitten – or maybe not 😊


FR: Most memorable gig?


WK: This is a very tough one – I’d have to narrow it down to the last year and say several: for exposure and prestige, The Pheasantry Pizza Express: for selling out the venue, Derby Cathedral: for number of albums sold, Chesterfield Jazz Club and for a great new enterprise with an attentive, appreciative audience The Basement Jazz Club in York.


FR: What is your practice routine?


WK: For piano, I spend 10 minutes or so on scales and other exercises, some time on memorizing and transposing standards or other tunes by ear…the rest of the time I will be playing through whatever I am learning for the next performance and album. I am currently doing a fair bit of composing and writing for our next album. I also really enjoy nerdy transcription of classic solos by great pianists such as Chick Corea, Eliane Elias and Wynton Kelly. For voice, I will spend around an hour going through exercises taught to me by the wonderful Sue McCreeth.


FR: Do you have any pre-gig rituals? Or any dos/don’ts before performing?


WK: Not really! Boring eh? Do hair and make-up count as pre-gig rituals? Also, I suppose a supportive chinwag with the band, two way of course, always helps us go out there and give our best. Again, no dos or don’ts – I probably avoid chocolate as it dries my throat, coffee sometimes does that too.


FR: Do you have a preferred piano and/or keyboard manufacturer?


WK: When I get the opportunity to play an acoustic piano, I’m happy with Steinway or Yamaha but I particularly like Bosendorfer for its tinkly top end! My first favourite pianist was Oscar Peterson, who always played Bosendorfer when possible. As regards keyboards, I’ve always been in love with my Korg Trinity, bought in 1995 and I’ve never seen the point of getting rid of it. It can sound like any vintage synth and has some yummy on-board sounds. I’ve got a Roland RD700NX which has a great keybed, but I often take my Korg SV-1 to gigs as its more portable and has more authentic Rhodes and Wurlitzer sounds. On to organs – I never saw the point of clones until I came upon the Hammond XK3. Not really a clone as it’s a Hammond, albeit an electronic version. I tried all the Roland, Korg, Nord clones and – naah! The XK3 has the right feel but is not to be used without the Leslie rotary speaker of course!


FR: Who are your biggest inspirations and why?


WK: Number one has to be my parents. If my Dad hadn’t played our piano at home I suppose I wouldn’t have been exposed to it. Mum who would always be singing to the radio, which was always on – I can remember the tunes she sang, she loved Mama Cass. Both still play and sing to this day. Number 2 is my husband, Pat Sprakes. A sublime guitarist and bass player, his approach to playing and teaching is totally different to that of an educational establishment, and very individual. I find inspiration in every musician I watch, live and on video; including those I work with. Everyone is an inspiration musically. Sorry to sound corny! Then there are the inspirational motivators (such as you Fiona <3) who I’ve met through social media – it’s all about co-support. It’s wonderful to get such great feedback from fellow musicians and I’ll include Kim Cypher, Matt Chandler, Sue McCreeth, Jim Mullen, Alan Barnes and Roger Beaujolais, who have all given me great supportive quotes for my album.


Thank you so much for talking to us Wendy, it’s been fabulous! And thank you so much for including me in your list of inspirations!