et me introduce Lottie B – the first lady of Baritone,” announced Ian, the lead singer of Jive Aces – as seen on Britain’s Got Talent semi-finals – to a packed-out Ronnie Scott’s.
It was her first gig at the legendary venue, and one of her early performances with the six-piece swing band. Amidst all the excitement and anticipation, she thought: “I love that title, I’ll steal that one.”
Lottie – or as she’s known around the Twitter and Insta-sphere #thefirstladyofbaritone – has been a saxophonist for 16 years now, having puffed out her first chord at the tender age of twelve. Though the sax is her pièce de résistance, she’s a multi-instrumentalist who can hold her own on the clarinet, flute and “randomly,” she says, the harp.
For Lottie, the baritone sax holds court because of its size and versatility. “It is the biggest of the four types of sax and makes such an impression. You can have a lot more fun with it; producing nice riffs and licks in a way that an alto never could. I also like that you have a harness and strap it on your body. You really have to put a lot of effort into playing it.”
When Lottie’s not touring – popping to Derry for a week for the annual jazz festival, or roaming around Istanbul to play the National Theatre by night (and lounge in Turkish baths by day) – you’ll find her in Hampstead Road’s SaxWindBrass. The store is home to the world’s largest selection of clarinets, flutes, harmonicas, saxophones and brass, attracting visitors from all over.
“There are three companies under one roof,” says Lottie. On the right, Phil Parker’s is the place to nab a trumpet or trombone, while sax.co.uk’s the middle store, responsible for the show-stopping parades of golden brass instruments; and on the left sits The Vibe, connoisseurs of all things flute. That’s where Lottie works.S
he has the kind of exuberant personality that can easily fill a room with vitality and warmth. With her hair curled in a gravity-defying quiff and cherry red lipstick, she greets anyone who enters the building as a long-lost friend. “Every player can relate to the first time they walked into a music store and knew nothing about instruments. I remember going into shops when I was younger with my parents and just feeling so intimidated and clueless,” she says.
“We really try and avoid recreating that atmosphere here, making the space feel as chilled and inclusive as possible. We get such a mixed crowd in, from complete novices picking up an instrument for the first time as a retirement project, to kids checking out the trumpets, to professionals like the Principal of the London Symphony Orchestra.”
Ultimately, they hope to encourage people, even those without a shred of musical knowledge, to “come in, have a chat, head into one of our practice rooms and have a go on an instrument,” she says when, as if on cue, the low-pitch rumbling toots of a saxophone emerge from the distance. “That noise is a sax in its infancy,” jokes Lottie.
An important contribution to the atmosphere at SaxWindBrass is the fact that almost all of the staff work in the industry. “We are all so passionate about music and quality instruments. Anything we sell, we would buy ourselves. We aren’t in it for the money; if someone leaves with nothing but knowledge then we’re happy.”
Lottie often feels like they’re on the frontline between manufacturers and customers. “We’re constantly having conversations with people, getting information about possible adjustments, requirements and critiques. It is a really cool position to be in.”A
nd it seems, Lottie is using her position to her advantage, particularly as a woman in an industry that she says, can still often feel like an old boys club. “It is changing. I can see there’s a lot more women but it is still not an equal percentage,” she says. “Still, everyone who sells the instruments and all the companies that own the distribution are male. I’m one of few female voices that exist in that world.”
Lottie is fighting to balance out the gender disparities. “Recently I’ve been talking to a manufacturer about redesigning the straps on their saxophones to fit women better. I spoke with them frankly,” she says, “telling them that I don’t know what to do with my boobs. It looks like I’m walking on stage in some sort of weird sex harness.”
While these practical shifts are important, Lottie says that preconceptions about the male orientation of jazz need to change. “People assume that if you’re a female in jazz you’re either a vocalist or a flutist. Sax doesn’t fit in with their expectations of the instrument and who is able to play it.” Lottie recalls turning up to venues and being greeted by sound technicians asking her to test the mic, “when I’ve literally got a four-foot baritone horn on my back.”
With the weight of these expectations, she believes that as a female in the industry, “not only do you have to be twice as good as the men, you have to have twice as much resistance too.”
During her earlier career, she would often find herself playing the role of the “token girl” who was asked to look or dress a certain way (generally in a bust accentuated sequin dress). “As a young female you do whatever you can to get booked, the mentality being: please don’t not book me because I am a girl.”
With her career progressing nicely, she’s now able to hold her own. “I present myself, assert my style, my look, I know my musical skill set and my preferred way of playing. If you want to book me then great – if you don’t, that’s great too.” SaxWindBrass is evidently the place to be, whether for a tentative first huff on a harmonica or for a chat on bridging the gender gaps with the first lady of baritone herself.
Main Image: Lottie B