Kathy Stobart – jazzwoman

July 12, 2014 at 11:58 am (Feminism, good people, jazz, Jim D, music, women)

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


  1. Kathy Stobart – jazzwoman | OzHouse said,

    […] Jul 12 2014 by admin […]

  2. Peter Courtley said,

    Hi there, Kath’s youngest son here, Pete. It’s wonderful for the family to see Kath’s light shining brightly again. In a way a shame that most of her fame is attached to the Humph band but… if you ever saw her doing guest appearances at the Bull’s Head with the Tony Lee trio or with her own Quintet alongside Harry Beckett in the 80’s… those for me would define her real talent. Absolute best gigs I have ever been to… (and that’s coming from someone who is as keen on the Clash as Miles Davis). For the record, Kath passed away during the early hours of the 6th of July not the 5th. Pete

  3. Jim Denham said,

    Great to hear from you, Pete. And thanks for taking the time to post a comment, especially at what must be a difficult time. I will correct the date in the main post.

    Sorry if what I wrote perpetuates the tendency to associate Kath with the Humph band at the expense of all her other achievements.

    I notice that the Telegraph online obituary contains a link to a 1978 track Arbeia, with Harry Beckett, from an LP of the same name. The co-composer of the tune, along with K Stobart, is P. Courtley: is that you?

    Anyway, here it is:

    • petercourtley@me.com said,

      Indeed it is Jim. I worked on a few pieces with Kath but this is the only collaboration that she recorded. Cheers, Pete

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