Jill Glenn meets local jazz singer and trumpeter Georgina Jackson, and hears about a very special concert…
Georgina Jackson – trumpet player and jazz singer extraordinaire, makes for a marvellous interviewee. She can talk for England and has a great sense of humour; she’s quick to smile and even quicker to laugh, a great raucous laugh that fills the room, but is thoughtful and perceptive in all that she says. She’ll be 40 in April – and there was a time when she thought this was the milestone birthday she wouldn’t reach.
Until a few years ago her life was, if not charmed, then certainly touched with magic. Her career path was set at the age of eight, when a school teacher passed her a trumpet and said "Have a go at this". Great provision and funding for music education in Wigan, where she grew up, meant that she had free lessons (current government: please take note of how life-changing this can be) and fabulous opportunities. There were masterclasses with guest musicians; there were trips abroad (at the age of 13 or 14 she went to the States, playing in LA, playing in New York); there were workshops and gigs. Her parents aren't musical – "they can't even whistle" – but they were encouraging and supportive, paying for extra lessons, picking her up from concerts at one in the morning.
Although once or twice she contemplated giving up (“not very feminine, the trumpet, is it?”) she stuck with it, alert to music’s riches. "We got so much self-esteem through it, we were shown a different way of life – we didn't have to work in a supermarket; we could have the glamour that the visiting stars brought with them.” Possibilities opened up. At 18 Georgina sat her last A-level (Economics) and the following week started a six month stint at Blackpool Tower Ballroom, playing six nights a week as the only girl in the band. A look of nostalgia passes across her face…“Waltzes, foxtrots, quicksteps – and £250 a week. I thought I was a millionaire.”
In the winter she played gigs, and the following summer did another season at Blackpool, before turning her back on it all at the age of 20 to go to university: Business Studies. Business Studies? It seems unlikely.
It was. Three weeks in, she slid across to the Music course, and after her degree went on the road again: gigging, supporting people like Al Martino, touring in the band for Chicago the Musical. It was a full, satisfying life, but by the age of 28 she was just a little disenchanted: fed up with being the sole female, fed up with driving around late at night, parking in dodgy places and walking insalubrious streets. She thought she'd done everything she could in music (and how wrong that was going to prove to be). Once again, she gave it all up. Sort of.
She trained as a teacher, gigging at night to support herself. Then she taught for three years in an inner city primary in Salford – “34 in the class, no TA, no PPA time” – and loved it. Loved it, that is, apart from the paperwork, and the pull of the music that wouldn't release her from its grasp and meant she was alternating between classroom and concert hall.
She started exploring the possibilities of using her voice, and then came the first tv reality talent show, This Is My Moment. Having sung down the phone as an audition (after a bottle of wine for courage…) she performed a Frank Sinatra standard on the show and got 50,000 votes “but the winner sang Streets of London and got 120,000”. The winner’s votes were converted to pounds. “I’m not bitter, she says. “Not bitter…”
Georgina Jackson; pic: Casey Moore
The experience of stepping out from the pit, putting on a posh frock and taking the mike was amazing and as she turned up to take assembly on the Monday morning, she knew teaching was over. She resigned her job and went on the road with Chicago again, and, from her savings, funded her first album, ‘Til There Was You, released under her real name, Georgina Bromilow (she later took her mother’s maiden name of Jackson on the grounds of easier spelling, pronunciation and memorability). Michael Parkinson started playing the CD on his show “but unfortunately it was three weeks before he retired”, she laughs. It was, nevertheless, a huge confidence boost to know that such an eminent jazz enthusiast liked her music, “that he chose it when he could have chosen so many others.” She looks touchingly overawed at the recollection.
Then, eight years ago, she made the big move south, living out of her car, sleeping on sofas or in random motels. It sounds a flaky existence, but she seems unbothered. “Musicians have a different life structure,” she says. “They go with ‘whatever’, they’re often single late in life, in pursuit of the creative satisfaction…”
And musicians always have to sell themselves, promote themselves. So she sent her CD out – “here, there and everywhere” – including to Pete Long, who'd just left Jools Holland's band and was doing his own stuff as well as leading Ronnie Scott's Orchestra, and then overcame her shyness to ring him and say ‘Did you get it, did you like it?’ It was one of the best phone calls she ever made. Pete asked her to do a gig and then said "how do you fancy three nights at Ronnie Scott's?". Georgina grins at the memory. “It’s like asking a Conference League player if they'd like to run out for Liverpool. There aren’t enough ways to say yes.”
It was, she says, surreal. On the first night, both Paul Merton and Bruce Forsyth were in the audience, and the latter asked her over to his table for a drink. Her eyes gleam as she recalls his comments: "I never thought I'd fall in love with a girl from Wigan but I did tonight."
And then we come to summer 2009. Georgina decided to invest a small inheritance from her grandad on making a second album. Everything was coming together. She was performing at Ronnie Scott's one night a month and getting other gigs; she’d started the sessions for the new album, done some backing vocals for Seal and was about to head off on a European tour with him. Her diary was everything she could have wished... but she'd found a lump in her breast in the April and had a scan to go to. She’d already been seen at the West Herts Breast Care Unit and been told that she was fine – “your breasts are just lumpy” – but she was called for a scan anyway. She so nearly didn't go along – “I didn't want to take up time, I thought someone else might really need that appointment" – but Pete, with whom she was in the early stages of a relationship (he’s now her fiancé), said that she must. And it turned out that Georgina was the person who really needed that appointment: the scan led to a biopsy and the biopsy led to a diagnosis. “I can't have cancer,” she said, “I'm going on tour on Friday.” There was a lot of talking, she recalls, and she could barely take it all in, but she heard “We think you'll be able to keep the breast”, and though “that's good”.
There was no reason not to work, the medics said, so long as she was home a few days before her lumpectomy, booked for four weeks later – so she headed off on tour with Seal (“He was so nice, he let me travel on his tour bus instead of with everyone else”) and after performing at the Montreux Jazz Festival – “It’s like the world cup for jazz musicians” – she waved the band off to the next stage of the tour and flew home alone for her op.
Her breast cancer was a small lump, only 16mm, but triple negative (common in younger women; she was 35 at the time), and very aggressive: Grade 3. I'm putting in these details because Georgina tells me I must. “It’s what I want to know when I read about other people with breast cancer.”
It hadn’t spread to the lymph nodes, and that was the second piece of good fortune that she clung to as she started chemotherapy, under the care of the man she describes as “the amazing Dr Miles”, chief oncologist at Mount Vernon.
“I really didn’t want to go bald... I know no-one does, but… performance image is important, you know…”. Chemo was hard: every three weeks, using a ‘cold cap’ to protect her hair, which she had cut short; she lost about a third of it, but with a hat enough showed that you wouldn't have known she was having chemo. “And that's good for your mental state.”
She and her trumpet worked as much as she could, a couple of weeks here and there, although was thoroughly disabled by the sickness and in the end had only five of the six planned sessions of chemo, and spent 48 hours as an inpatient.
In the December, though, she managed three nights singing the Christmas show at Ronnie Scott's. That was a real boost. “Music makes you not ill anymore.”
Spring 2010 brought radiotherapy, and new fears. Georgina was very concerned for her lungs. “Obviously,” she says, “everyone needs their lungs but some people might not notice a small reduction in air supply, ”and she has nothing but praise for the radiotherapists. “They’re so accurate, and it’s so quick, like being in a Star Trek module.” She’s not noticed any diminution of lung power, and she’s certainly put them to the test, having embarked almost at once on another tour (trumpet and backing vocals) with Seal.
Then – “finally…” – she got back to the album that life and cancer had interrupted, and released it in 2012. She says you can hear the difference between the songs she laid down in 2009 and those that she recorded three years later. All I know is that Watch What Happens, like ‘Til There Was You, is great stuff; it’s in the background as I write...
It got good reviews, got to Number 4 in the iTunes jazz chart and has fired her enthusiasm to do more. “When you’re in the pit,” she admit, “it can be dull with the same music night after night… but now…”
Now, she has ambitions to do another album, “maybe some Doris Day songs”, she muses; she’s going to Russia in April to sing and play, and to Barbados, and has lots of festivals and gigs lined up – and the most important is next week. She’s persuaded Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Orchestra to make a rare appearance outside the club to help launch and raise funds for a breast cancer charity to be established at Mount Vernon by David Miles and Andreas Makaris. “It’s very specific,” Georgina explains, “very local. It will see funds coming here.”
She is full of praise for her care. “I have been met with kindness at every turn”, she says, and this is payback time.
She’ll be five years from diagnosis this summer, and cancer is no longer the first thing on her mind every day. She says that she almost feels guilty about this, but to embrace life, without the shadow of the past looking over your shoulder, is surely the outcome all her medical care has worked towards…