She made a huge contribution to the cultural life in Swansea and Wales, which we could only touch on in this piece. She was ahead of her time in her subject matter, and her methods of engagement, and it is these issues and qualities which make her work so contemporary.
Jen was a fine musician in her own right. She left school at the age of 16 because they locked the piano to stop her from playing the Jazz she loved. At that time she was going up to London with her beloved brother John, a drummer and playing with his band, and then visiting Ronnie Scott’s club. As a typist in a Swansea shipping office, and then living and working in Brixton and Newcastle family services she absorbed essential administration and life skills about the way the world works
Her real education started in Swansea Women’s Centre in the early 80’s. As well as going up to Greenham Common to protest against cruise missiles, Jen worked with Ursula Masson and Gail Allen in researching and recording the history of ‘ordinary’ women in the Swansea area. This included interviewing older women patients in the final days of Mount Pleasant hospital where she worked. The Swansea Women’s History Group made 3 videos: about the women munitions workers in Bridgend in WW2; women conscientious objectors; and the women in the miners’ strike in the Swansea valley in 1984. Relevant to today’s music industry, the Manic Street Preachers used the miner’s strike footage in their music videos and big screen concert backdrops, and the band Public Service Broadcasting used the interview recordings on their album.
Jen then started to find out more about women jazz musicians and singers, and this ultimately led to her founding Women in Jazz in 1986, and then Jazz Heritage Wales. This is a unique multi-media jazz Collection now based in the Dylan Thomas centre in Swansea. It contains, for example, a long interview with Ottilie Paterson from the 1990s which featured in the recent BBC television programme. Other oral histories led to the readiness of women jazz performers to donate to the Collection, and some of these have been used by the British Library and BBC sounds.
Jen composed, performed, and recorded original music with Jen Wilson Ensemble, including the great American songbook, and Salubrious Rhythm Company. She taught and facilitated many music workshops and masterclasses, culminating in 2011 with the first all female swing band (in Britain?), since WWII.
Throughout her career, Jen inspired, educated, and encouraged female musicians and gave them opportunities to perform. She felt that women’s visibility and voice in this male dominated industry this was incredibly important.
Jazz as a starting point also gave a unique perspective on the cultural inheritance of African American music in Wales. Detailed research into the Cambrian Press reports revealed stories such as Willis the escaped slave arriving in Swansea and Jessie Donaldson, who emigrated to Cincinatti Ohio, and became part of the Underground railroad. She found that Swansea had a strong anti slavery campaign, with speakers and tours such as the Fisk Jubilee singers touring Swansea and bringing to life spirituals and sorrow songs.
From this work came ‘Before Freedom’ a teaching pack; a term of work for primary classes culminating in a multi media performance. The finale was Willis appearing at the back of the school hall, singing his story through the sorrow songs and spirituals. This social and political history of Wales through the prism of Jazz, is now contributing to the push to include these lost stories in the contemporary curriculum.
This work was captured in ‘Freedom Music : Wales, Emancipation and Jazz 1850-1950’ published by University of Wales Press in April 2019. This book reclaims for Wales the history and culture of a music that eventually emerged as jazz in the 1920s, and illustrates and emphasises the strong links between emerging African American music in the USA and the development of Jazz in mainstream popular culture in Wales. One reviewer noted that the book made a major contribution to Welsh women’s history and contributes to a growing body of work on transatlantic cultural exchange’
In November 2022, Jazz Heritage Wales and University of Wales Trinity Saint David hosted the fourth annual Documenting Jazz Conference in Swansea. This was the 4th of the initial series of conferences following Dublin, Birmingham and Edinburgh. The conference focused on diversity in Jazz, and was very well received. On this wider stage we learned that Swansea holds the oldest Jazz Collection in Britain, and how different all the Collections are, and the unique value of the one held in Swansea. The Collection was put on display, and the website updated, following Jen’s wish that her work be shared widely.
Her achievements were recognised by the University of Wales Trinity Saint David making her an Honorary Professor, and then receiving the St David’s Award for Culture in 2017 and she greatly valued this recognition in her own city and country.
Jen is survived by her husband Mike, her children Rhydderch, Meredith and Anwen, and her daughters in law, Chris, Lia and Elissa, and her grandson Marty, of all of whom she was very proud.
With thanks to many contributors.