Jen Wilson (1944-2023)

Swansea’s Jen Wilson, who died in May, was a musician, writer and historian who lived a life packed with experiences, achievements and creativity. In 1986 she founded Jazz Heritage Wales (originally called Women in Jazz) and over the years built it into today’s important and enlightening archive of Wales’ place in the history of jazz. With particular emphasis on the part played by women and the influence of African American culture in the story of Welsh jazz, the organisation has evolved into a highly respected Welsh institution based at the Swansea campus of University of Wales Trinity St David (UWTSD) with exhibition space at the Dylan Thomas Centre, also in Swansea. It is the only resource that examines the significant contribution made by Wales to the world of jazz. For this outstanding addition to Welsh culture Wilson was bestowed with the St David Award for Culture in 2017 (Wales’ own awards scheme, inaugurated in 2014, quite separate from and very different to the UK’s utterly discredited ‘honours’-for-sale system). The award gave her particular joy as a passionate, patriotic Welshwoman committed to the advancement of her beloved country.

But Jazz Heritage Wales was only one of the many facets of the multi-talented auto-didact. First and foremost she was herself a fine jazz musician, an accomplished pianist, occasional saxophonist, composer and bandleader. She composed, performed and recorded original music, plus interpretations of the ‘Great American Songbook’, with her bands, Jen Wilson Ensemble and Salubrious Rhythm Company, and ran many jazz workshops and classes – leading to her forming the UK’s first all-woman swing band since WW2 in 2011. The pinnacle of her recorded work must be the 2011 album Twelve Poems: the Dylan Thomas Suite – a little-known masterpiece that is a serious rival to the lauded 1965 album by the Stan Tracey Quartet, Jazz Suite Inspired by Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, as the best ever musical exploration of Dylan Thomas (1914-1953). English pianist Tracey (1926-2013) did the roaring Swansea boy justice, but Wilson’s shared connection to the ugly, lovely town draws on Dylan’s signature rhythms to impart extra layers of depth and resonance that truly capture his poetic genius.

Growing up in Mount Pleasant, she had become hooked on jazz as a girl, listening to her brother’s records and developing her skills on the family piano. One of the main reasons she left school without any qualifications at age 16 was because the authorities at Swansea Secondary Technical School for Girls in Cockett locked the school piano to stop her playing the music she loved. Luckily, back in the 1960s it was possible for anyone with natural intelligence, drive and curiosity to flourish without the degrees, diplomas and certificates that are required to count paperclips today. Jen bravely forged her own path, developing life skills and accruing expertise in a sequence of secretarial jobs in Swansea and then nurturing her affinity with Wales during periods as a social worker in England in Newcastle and London while all the time maturing as a musician.

Hiraeth called her back to Swansea. With a husband and young family she worked as a nurse at Mount Pleasant Hospital for over a decade and, with her redoubtable energy, still found time to get more and more involved with politics and feminism – joining the Greenham Common protests against cruise missiles, actively supporting Tawe valley miners in the Great Strike, becoming a stalwart volunteer at Swansea Women’s Centre, researching and recording the untold and ignored stories of working-class Swansea women, and forming the Swansea Women’s History Group, with whom she made three powerful videos about the political struggles and innate radicalism of women in Swansea in the 20th century.

With Mount Pleasant Hospital marked for closure, Wilson became an administrator in Swansea University’s adult education department and really began to build her archive of interviews with Welsh jazz musicians and jazz lovers that would eventually become the core of the Jazz Heritage Wales collection. After she retired from the University in 1996, her steady accumulation of life skills and knowledge really came to the fore as Jazz Heritage Wales became fully established. Her ground-breaking research into Swansea’s proud record of anti-slavery campaigning in both Wales and the USA was particularly important, and the teaching pack she produced for primary schools that focused on the social and political history of Wales through the medium of black American jazz, spirituals and ‘sorrow songs’ remains a milestone in the development of Welsh education.

For all these deeply serious progressive endeavours she was made an honorary professor at UWTSD before she topped off a life of extraordinary productivity when the University of Wales Press published her magnum opus Freedom Music: Wales, Emancipation and Jazz 1850-1950 in 2019 – a book that should be read by anyone interested in Cymru, America, popular culture and the ongoing struggle for human rights.

One of the pieces from Jen Wilson’s Dylan Thomas Suite was played at her funeral at Swansea Crematorium in June: The Force That Through The Green Fuse. Dylan’s words were his obituary and Jen’s obituary – and more than suffice as all our obituaries in the end…

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.