Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Winstone, Norma

Vocalist Norma Winstone was born on September 23, 1941, in Bow, East London. She won a scholarship to study piano and organ for three years at Trinity College, London. In 1965 she began singing with jazz groups, her emergence on the UK jazz scene coinciding with a period of remarkable creativity in British jazz that saw composer, arranger and bandleader Mike Westbrook top the composer’s category and John Surman the baritone saxophone and soprano saxophone categories of the “Talent Deserving Wider Recognition” section of the annual Down Beat Critic’s Poll in 1969.

However, it was also a period that was overshadowed by Beatlemania, the explosion of pop culture and the massive popularity of groups such as the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Animals and the Spencer Davis Group. Yet British jazz of this period was by not entirely swamped by events going on elsewhere; the vibrant scene around Ronnie Scott’s club (both the “old” and the “new” Ronnies’), the more blues based Flamingo Club and the free jazz scene around the Little Theatre Club left a legacy of imaginative and original music that even today is not fully appreciated, even within the United Kingdom itself.

It was into this milieu that Norma Winstone stepped, first attracting attention when she supported the Roland Kirk group at Ronnie Scott’s. She was soon figuring in some of key UK jazz ensembles of the day such as the New Jazz Orchestra, where she came to the attention of the band’s pianist Michael Garrick in 1966. Invited to join his sextet, she can be heard using her voice as a front-line instrument on albums such as The Heart is a Lotus (1970), Home Stretch Blues (1972) and Troppo (1974) which number among the finest albums in British jazz.

Norma Winstone

She also performed free jazz with drummer John Stevens at the Little Theatre Club, in London, a small room up four flights of stairs in the West End of London that was virtually the headquarters of the London free jazz scene. Here, alongside the likes of Kenny Wheeler, Evan Parker, Paul Rutherford and Trevor Watts she was performing with some of the most adventurous musicians of the day.

In 1970 she invited by Mike Wesbrook to perform with his big band, and can be heard on Love Songs (1970) and the classic Metropolis (1971), a brilliant achievement from an ensemble that was virtually a who’s who of British jazz of the period. She also performed on Kenny Wheeler’s Pause and Think Again (1971) and with musicians such as John Surman, Joe Harriot, Michael Gibbs and John Taylor, and, as her reputation spread, leading European musicians, radio big bands and orchestras.

In 1971 she was voted top singer in the Melody Maker Jazz Poll and made her recording debut under her own name with Edge of Time, which although has been long deleted was re-released as a CD on the Disconforme label. After almost a decade of diverse work that embraced virtually every aspect of contemporary jazz, she and her then husband, pianist John Taylor, formed the group Azimuth with Kenny Wheeler. They made their debut on the ECM label with Azimuth (1977), and went on to make a further four albums. Described by Richard Williams in the London Times as, “one of the most imaginatively conceived and delicately balanced of all contemporary chamber jazz groups,” they set new standards in group interaction and opened up new ground by combining jazz and minimalism and ambient sounds a decade before they were fashionable. “It was a group that was ahead of its time,” Winstone says. Their first three albums have recently been released as three album box-set by ECM.

She has also appeared on ECM recordings under her own name, her Somewhere Called Home is considered a classic, and on ECM recordings by the likes of Kenny Wheeler and Eberhard Weber. If diversity was a hallmark of her early career, then it has continued to this day. In 1992, in collaboration with composer/arranger Steve Gray, she created A French Folk Song Suite (based on the Songs of the Auvergne by Canteloube), which she performed by the North German Radio big band. When she wrote the lyrics for pianist Jimmy Rowles’ composition “The Peacocks,” Rowles approved them, leading their collaboration on Well Kept Secret, an album of beautiful, lesser known standards in 1993. Other collaborations include those with Fred Hersch, Gary Burton and Steve Swallow as well as UK jazz greats such as Stan Tracey and Bobby Wellins.

In 2007, Winstone was awarded the MBE (the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) in the Queen's Birthday Honours. In recent times she formed a musical association with the Italian pianist Glauco Venier and the Austrian saxophonist and bass clarinettist Klaus Gesing which has seen her return again to the ECM label with the release of Distances. In the liner notes, the trio talk about their use of baroque counterpoint which they say is as musically relevant as New Orleans heterophony or folk music or free playing. These elements are thoughtfully juxtaposed under the overarching language of jazz to produce a unique album that opens a new chapter in Norma Winstone’s distinguished career.

Contributor: Stuart Nicholson

Related Links

In Conversation with Norma Winstone by Stuart Nicholson