Kathy Stobart and her band in the early 1950s
Jazz can be proud of its anti-racist traditions and of how, from the early twentieth century, black and white musicians defied racism in order to work together to make great music. Jazz played a major role in the US civil rights movement and – long before the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson for the 1946 season – helped convince white America that black people were at least their equals, and had an awful lot to contribute to the American Way Of Life, if only given the chance.
Jazz’s record on sexism and women’s rights is less honourable. Until quite recently, women were scarcely tolerated in jazz, and even then only as fans, hangers-on and singers. The few female instrumentalists that there were in the 1930s, 40s and 50s on the US scene tended to be treated with condescension or (as with pianist Mary Lou Williams, whose talent could not be denied), as novelties if not downright freaks.
The situation for British women jazz musicians was just as bad until very recently, which makes it only right and proper that we now remember the tenor sax player Kathy Stobart, who died on 6 July aged 89. Kathy was a pioneer, having started professionally in the 1940s when she ran her own band and worked for top bandleaders like Vic Lewis and Ted Heath. In 1957 she caused a minor sensation when she stepped in for Jimmy Skidmore (who was ill) with the Humphrey Lyttelton Band and recorded a highly-regarded album, Kath Meets Humph.
Humph held Kathy in high regard, describing her sax playing as having “a huge booming sound, imbued with total originality and a commanding presence.” Kathy joined Humph’s band as a regular member between 1969 and 1978, and then re-joined for 12 years from 1992. She set a precedent: after Kathy left, Humph hired two other female sax players, Karen Sharpe and Jo Fooks, both of whom have spoken of Kathy as a major inspiration and role model.
Kathy’s second husband, the trumpeter Bert Courtley, died in 1969, leaving Kathy a single parent, and she took up music teaching to supplement her income. By all accounts she was a “natural” and in 2000 she tutored Judi Dench in the rudiments of sax playing for her role in Alan Plater’s TV play The Last of the Blonde Bombshells.
Kathy, like a lot of the best female jazz players, would frequently be described by critics and fans, as playing “like a man”. The description didn’t please Kathy, who once commented: “It’s supposed to be the ultimate compliment, but I wouldn’t apply it to myself. I’ve got a good pair of lungs on me and I’ve got well matured emotions. I play like me.”
Guardian obit here