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Photo credit: Steven Cropper

Course Studied: BA Jazz

Year of Graduation: 2011


A recipient of Serious’ prestigious Take Five programme, Kim Macari has developed a strong reputation as a player, band leader and educator since graduating from Leeds Conservatoire. Currently Chair of the Board for Jazz from Scotland, she has a depth of experience in managing creative projects – exemplified by the Apollo Jazz Network and Orpheus Project. Kim has found a passion for improvised music and its use as a means of artistic expression and a form of empowerment and freedom. Her recent work as an industry professional has focused on exploring solutions for the current gender imbalance and wider diversity and inclusion issues within jazz and improvised music.

We spoke to Kim to find out more about her successful career to date.

What would you say are your three top career achievements?

That's an interesting question! I think at the end of each year since I graduated, I've been able to look back and think 'That was my best year yet.' That feels like a huge achievement. I think it's important that we choose our own definitions of success; letting others select them for us can be the path to a lot of disappointment.

2017 was a busy year for me personally and professionally so if I can pick three highlights from that year I'd say being awarded £50,000 for Jazz from Scotland - that represented a HUGE step forward for us an organisation. I was actually taking a nap before a gig and I woke up to the email from Creative Scotland - that was a nice way to wake up.

Another highlight was working with the Royal Academy of Arts and EFG London Jazz Festival on the Visualising Music project connected to the Jasper Johns retrospective. To have my graphic scores displayed and performed in the room where Charles Darwin first presented Origin of the Species was pretty special.

And thirdly, playing at GIO-fest as part of Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra was just an absolute joy. It felt like home. Meeting Raymond MacDonald on the Visualising Music project was a pivotal moment - I've found a hugely enriching collaboration and friendship in him. In fact, now that I look at that list - those all happened in November. That was a strong month!

How did studying at Leeds Conservatoire prepare you for your career as a professional musician?

It opened up a world of possibilities. For a start, the number of regularly rehearsing large ensembles was amazing - big band, contemporary big band, Ronnie Bottomley's Nonet - that amount of playing helped me build a very strong foundation. I got to play in projects with Ken Wheeler, Mike Gibbs, Dave Liebman - incredible experiences. But I think most vitally, it was open and supportive enough to allow us all to find our own voices. In my final year, I was interested in performance art and cross discipline work, conducting large ensembles and playing trumpet so that's what I did. I wrote a hugely personal piece of performance art with music, narration and dance about the Outer Hebrides, I conducted a suite of music with my own big band and played trumpet in a small ensemble. All those explorations have shaped the artist I've become and that time at Leeds was invaluable.

What attracted you to studying in Leeds and what do you think of the music community here?

The community in Leeds is great. Musically, there are pockets of absolutely everything imaginable going on so you're sure to find a little gang that share your passions. There are also strong communities built around venues and you find yourself interacting with fascinating people you'd never usually come into contact with. The community is an ideal place to grow into a professional musician.

How did you get involved in the Take Five programme, and what opportunities did it provide?

So, the way that Take Five works is that a number of people in the jazz industry are asked to nominate musicians and the team at Serious select around 8 each year. It really was life-changing for me. The core of the scheme is a weeklong residency on a beautiful, organic farm. You are surrounded by people who are armed with expertise to enable you to do what you want to do as an artist and you're in this wonderful bubble of psychological safety and inspiration. Retreats and reflection are vital for artists and musicians don't always treat creative well-being as seriously as we should. If I had to pick highlights from the scheme - getting to know and work with Martel Ollerenshaw and working on body language and verbal communication for artists with Mary McCusker were profoundly beneficial experiences.

Previous projects that you have ran focus on bringing musicians together from across the world (e.g. the Apollo Jazz Network and the Orpheus Project). Could you talk about why it was so important to set up those projects and describe what type of artistic exchange it allowed for?

Both of those initiatives were borne out of a desire to find ways to support new collaborations and create performance opportunities for people outside of the scene they live in. The value of playing with and spending time with lots of different people is huge so I wanted to just find a way to build infrastructure around that, really. The Orpheus Project was a HUGE undertaking and I learned a lot from it but I'm just so pleased that at its heart was bringing absolutely incredible musicians to small venues. Seeing full rooms and delighted audiences was great, and spending large amounts of time with Seamus Blake, Ellery Eskelin and Ingrid Jensen was so much fun. 

What advice would you give to a recent graduate seeking to get funding for a particular musical project?

This is a question I'm asked a lot now - I mentor artists applying for arts funding and I've sat on some funding panels, as well as writing a fair few bids a year for my own work. The most important thing is that you have to make sure your artistic project is fully formed before you start applying for funds. Don't approach it from the 'I'd like some arts funding, what sort of thing do they want?' angle; find something you believe in and are passionate about first. The two most common weaknesses I see in funding applications are a lack of passion and enthusiasm for the actual art itself and the lack of a strong marketing plan. People think that they have to appear very serious and business-like and they forget to talk about the art and why it's going to be great. That one question where they ask you to talk about the art, go to town; it's the thing that will stand out and stick in people's memory. As for the marketing plan - telling them you'll be printing flyers and making a Facebook event isn't really going to cut it. Doing proper research on marketing strategies is important. They really want to give the money to support great art, they just need to make sure you have an idea of how to make the most out of it.

What does the future hold for jazz promoters in the UK? What was your reason for joining the Board of both Jazz from Scotland and the Jazz Promotion Network?

I joined the board of Jazz from Scotland when it was still called Scottish Jazz Federation, back in 2012 I think. I became Chair in 2014. Being a Scottish musician, I benefited a lot from growing up in a country with such great opportunities for young jazz musicians and now, having lived outside of Scotland for the last decade, it feels important to continue to work on growing the Scottish Jazz sector. I'm so proud of what Jazz from Scotland is becoming - it's the product of years of hard work by a small group of incredibly committed people and it's taught me as a lot about perseverance. I joined the board of JPN last year - myself and Kenneth Killeen from IMC in Dublin both joined at the same time and it's good to have an industry body that brings together people from the scenes in England, Scotland and Ireland. I'm surrounded by very inspiring, brilliant people so I feel very fortunate.   

In your career to date you have actively helped to challenge the inherent gender imbalance within the sector. Could you tell us a little bit more about your work in this area?

This is a very relevant question because I've just come back from a day of working with the extraordinary Amy Pearce, putting together a conference on diversity and inclusion in jazz/improvised music. Something I've realized recently is that people have a very strong idea of diversity in their minds as being a box ticking exercise for Arts Council England/Creative Scotland grants. People think it's just a buzzword. But it's so much more than that; it's about valuing individuals and allowing everyone to achieve their potential. I'm a huge advocate of creating gender neutral environments and moving away from this binary idea of gender. In my work teaching young musicians, I've seen how powerful words are and how easily adults shape the views of young people. Empowerment and respect and inclusion are vital. The Europe Jazz Network is doing great work in building a manifesto to tackle gender balance in Jazz and I'm glad to be a part of that work. I'm in this exceptionally privileged position of being someone who expresses themselves professionally and as I get older - I become more and more aware that I can use that platform to stand for what I believe in and make my voice heard. Music and art are hugely powerful forces in the world, we mustn't forget that.

Some of your recent work has involved the use of graphic scores and the visualisation/sonification of data. How important to you think it is for jazz musicians to push the boundaries of musical notation?

I think it's important for musicians to be true to themselves and that it's ok if your voice as an artist sits outside of the mainstream. I'm at home in the world of improvised music and graphic scores because it feels very honest to me. Part of developing as an artist is about trying lots of things on for size and figuring out what fits and what doesn't. Visualisation and sonification of data is something I'm really excited by at the moment. For example, I wrote a score for the Visualising Music event at the RA called Feeling Truth, which took data sets from the Earthquake Swarms in Oklahoma caused by the oil industry's wastewater injection process. Through that performance, I've started working with an artist called Liz K Miller on a graphic scoring project and I've quite a few things in the works for this year in that field. I LOVE hearing people talk about their work and about artistic process, so I try to incorporate that into my work, too. I mainly use my website for that purpose.

How do you combine your own performance career with all the sector initiatives discussed above?  

I've surrounded myself with very smart, insightful people who've given me good advice on how to balance those elements. Careful time management is crucial and carving out time every day for purely creative endeavours is important. A great mentor I had through Take Five, Genevieve Lacey, said you look at your year and make decisions about how much time you want to spend on each thing and stick to it. If you're not careful, when you get busy the stuff that goes out the window first is the creative work so you have to make sure to protect that.

You work with a number of other Leeds Conservatoire graduates in the quartet - Family Band. How important is it to establish a high level of trust with the musicians that you work with on each project?

For me, it's hugely important. Life's way too short to spend it with people who drain your energy, rather than generate it. Family Band is special because we've worked together as musicians for 10 years and we've been close friends all that time. Plus, two of us are married to each other. So it's like a beautiful, dysfunctional family (we've all become very adept at annoying each other as well). Musically, that relationship translates to this unparalleled feeling of trust and allows us to take risks all the time which is where the best music occurs, right on the edge.

Click here to view Kim's website.

Learn more about our BA (Hons) Music (Jazz) – here.

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