“Throughout my whole life I’d been aware of this quite intimidating figure who was an incredible accompanist and musician,” Ferguson tells InDaily.
“My great-grandmother was around in the ’20s and ’30s and ’40s as a concert organiser – in today’s day and age she would be an event coordinator – but she was a wonderful musician and would create all these events just to feature herself.
“For me, it’s that confidence and inspiration that somebody else back in my family was a jazz musician, not for a living, but constantly playing.”
A member of Adelaide jazz group Marmalade Jam and now head of jazz at the University of Adelaide, Ferguson is headlining the Adelaide Festival Centre’s celebration of International Jazz Day on April 30 with a performance dedicated to female jazz composers and writers throughout history.
The composer has written an original piece inspired by his great-grandmother, which he will perform alongside a selection of traditional jazz and jazz-adapted tunes.
“My great-grandmother was a very strong and very powerful woman and so I wrote this piece inspired by her.
“For me, she was an inspiration that I could achieve and succeed in what I liked doing.
“Hopefully she would have liked to have played it [the song] herself.”
Ferguson says he wanted to dedicate his International Jazz Day performance to the plights and triumphs of female jazz composers, who remain largely unknown or overlooked despite the success of their music.
“Life is difficult for female jazz musicians and female artists in general and we don’t even think about it but so many of the great jazz standards that we play were composed or the lyrics were written by female artists,” he says.
“The people that come will be familiar with a good chunk of the stuff that we will be playing but they might not have thought about the fact that they were written by women.”
One of the composers to be featured in Ferguson’s performance is Irene Higginbotham, an American songwriter and concert pianist best known for co-writing the 1946 Billie Holiday song “Good Morning Heartache”.
“In the books where we find our music it says, ‘I. Higginbotham’, so you don’t really know who the person was,” Ferguson says. “She wrote about 50 jazz standards but for quite some time people didn’t realise who she was because there was another Irene who wrote jazz and the two of them were mixed up for years.
“That really does illustrate that many of these women were invisible.”
Other female composers and writers that will feature include Lillian Armstrong – the wife of Louis Armstrong and a successful composer and performer in her own right – American lyricists Dorothy Fields and Ann Ronell, and jazz powerhouse Billie Holiday.
Ferguson says jazz remains a male-dominated field, but despite their lack of numbers, female composers are writing just as much as their male counterparts.
“Jazz is a very egalitarian music; it is in itself democratic, but as much as there are certainly just as many jazz writers who are women, it doesn’t mean that they are out there performing in the same way.
“The females that are in jazz are writing just as much as the men but there are still less of them, and that’s not great.
“I have two daughters who are both playing jazz and they’re both enjoying it and celebrating it but so many young girls are going through school and playing jazz but when it comes to the university level they don’t go forward with it.”
Nonetheless, Ferguson believes there is a positive outlook for equal gender representation in the jazz industry.
“At the moment we have some wonderful young female musicians at Adelaide Uni and we’ll be featuring a few of them on the night.”
They include bass player Bonnie Aué, who will perform alongside jazz vocalist and now Adelaide University staff member Anita Wardell, who won the BBC Jazz Award in the Best of Jazz category in 2006 and a British Jazz award for Best Vocalist in 2013.
“When I got invited to perform for International Jazz Day, she [Wardell] was one of the first people that I thought of including.
“She’s the real deal – a true jazz artist who’s just so inspiring.”
Drummer Josh Baldwin will join Wardell and Aué on stage.
Ferguson’s performance will begin the Adelaide Festival Centre’s International Jazz Day celebrations, forming the first of a two-part concert at Space Theatre that will also feature local composer and bass player Ross McHenry, who will perform a series of original songs. Local jazz musicians Alex Taylor, Sam Cagney and Lyndon Gray will perform as the pre-show entertainment, starting at 5.30pm in the Space Theatre foyer. More information here.