Maggie Nicols (or Nichols, as she originally spelt her name as a performer) (born 24 February 1948), is a Scottish free-jazz and improvising vocalist, dancer, and performer.
Nicols was born in Edinburgh as Margaret Nicholson. Her father was from the Isle of Lewis, and her mother is half-French, half-Berber from North Africa. At the age of fifteen she left school and started to work as a dancer at the Windmill Theatre. Her first singing engagement was in a strip club in Manchester at the age of sixteen. At about that time she became obsessed with jazz, and sang with bebop pianist Dennis Rose. From then on she sang in pubs, clubs, hotels, and in dance bands with some of the finest jazz musicians around. In the midst of all this she worked abroad for a year in 1966; as a dancer and hostess in Greece and Iran with the Jon Lei Dancers followed by a six month engagement as a dancer at the Moulin Rouge in Paris.
In 1968, she went to London and joined (as Maggie Nichols) an early improvisational group, John Stevens’ Spontaneous Music Ensemble, with Trevor Watts, later joined Johnny Dyani, and Carolanne Nicholls, and the group performed that year at Berlin’s first improvised festival, Total Music Meeting with guest musician John McLaughlin.
In the early 1970s she began running voice workshops at the Oval House Theatre (one of the most important centres for pioneer fringe theatre groups). She both acted in some of the productions and rehearsed regularly with a local rock band. Shortly afterwards she became part of Keith Tippett’s fifty-piece British jazz/progressive rock big band Centipede, which included Julie Tippetts, Zoot Money, Phil Minton, Robert Wyatt, Dudu Pukwana, and Alan Skidmore. Tippetts, Minton, and Nicols also joined Brian Eley to form the vocal group Voice. Around this time, Nicols began collaborating with the Scottish percussionist Ken Hyder (who had recently moved to London) and his band Talisker.
By the late 1970s, Nicols had become an active feminist, and co-founded the Feminist Improvising Group, which performed across Europe, with Lindsay Cooper. She also organised Contradictions, a women’s workshop performance group that began in 1980 and dealt with improvisation and other modes of performance in a variety of media including music and dance. Over the years, Nicols has collaborated with other women’s groups, such as the Changing Women Theatre Group, and even wrote music for a prime-time television series, Women in Sport.
Nicols has also collaborated regularly over the years with Swiss pianist Irène Schweizer and French bassist Joëlle Léandre, including tours and three CDs and one DVD as the trio Les Diaboliques. Her collaboration with Ken Hyder also continues; the duo incorporate elements of the traditional tunes of their shared Scottish background into jazz improvisations in their most recent project, Hoots and Roots Duo. Other projects for Nicols include a duo with pianist Pete Nu, a singing duo with her daughter Aura Marina, a trio with avant-gardists Caroline Kraabel and Charlotte Hug, a duo with pianist Steve Lodder (“The Maggie Nicols Songbook”), and Light and Shade, a project with lighting designer Sue Neal. She has also been involved with many other groups, such as the a cappella group Inspiration (former Brixton Youth), Trevor Watts’ Moire Music, Very Varied, The Lewis Riley Quartet, No Rules OK, Pulse, Gustt, and Al Dente with Lindsay Cooper, Elvira Plenar and Michelle Buirette.
Nicols has performed internationally for several decades, including the Zürich and the Frankfurt “Canaille” festivals, the Victoriaville Festival. She also gave solo performances at the Moers Music Festival, the Cologne Triennale, and a number of other creative and improvised music festivals. She has worked with a great many improvisers from all over the world, including drummer Günter “Baby” Sommer, British soprano saxophonist Lol Coxhill, Dutch trombonist and violinist Annemarie Roelofs, the Australian Relative Band (with Jim Denley), tuba player Pinguin Moschner, the Loverly Band, Cats Cradle, and Sean Bergin’s Song Mob (with Han Bennink and Tristan Honsinger).
Vocalist Maggie Nicols has been an active participant in the European improvisational community since joining the Spontaneous Music Ensemble in the late ’60s. As a co-founder of the Feminist Improvising Group, she has also worked to further women in improvised music, dancing and other creative arts not only by example, but through workshops and extensive collaborating.
Improvisation is part of our daily lives. It is a dance of outer influences and inner impulses. When we let ourselves, we can reflect and connect with each new moment and everything that has ever been.
I draw from the personal and the universal which olds everything we need for spontaneous and structured performance and composition. The challenge is what to express from this infinite resource. As a beginner in the late ‘sixties, I practised different approaches to this creative challenge, including beautifully designed pieces by John Stevens which led to a coherent language of individual and collective liberation and almost telepathic interaction, to just improvising freely and experiencing joy, frustration, confusion and clarity, depending on who I was playing
with or how trusting or not I was of myself, others and the process of improvisation itself. I found my background in dance and theatre; my political awakening, motherhood; all of these and more, becoming a part of my ongoing love affair with improvisation. When I went through a period of late nights and drinking and smoking too much and my singing voice suffered, I developed a strange kind of stand up improvised philosophising and comedy. Over the years these, and other approaches have been developed, fine tuned, contrasted and integrated into my performances and teaching…
Contradictions is an ongoing womens workshop/performance group, founded in 1980 as a performance group with Maggie, trumpeter Corine Liensol, pianist Irène Schweizer and dancer Roberta Escamilla Garrison. Maggie then developed it into an open women’s workshop and performance group which combines her love of spontaneity and structure, improvised, and written and rehearsed, multi media material.
Music Now Ensemble 1969 – Silver Pyramid
Centipede – Septober Energy
Paul Rutherford & Iskra 1912 – Sequences 72 & 73
Julie Tippetts / Maggie Nicols / Phil Minton / Brian Eley – Voice
Spontaneous Music Ensemble & Orchestra – Trio & Triangle
Maarten Altena / Günter Christmann / Paul Lovens / Maggie Nicols / John Russell – Vario II
Maggie Nicols & Julie Tippetts – Sweet And S’ours
Maggie Nicols, Lindsay Cooper, Joëlle Léandre – Live At The Bastille
Maggie Nicols & Peter Nu – Nicols ‘N’ Nu
Maggie Nicols & Peter Nu – Don’t Assume
Maggie Nicols & Peter Nu – Nichols’N’Nu (CD)
Irène Schweizer – Live At Taktlos
Irène Schweizer – Maggie Nicols – George Lewis – Joëlle Léandre – Günter Sommer – The Storming Of The Winter Palace
Tippett / Nicols / Tippett – Mr. Invisible And The Drunken Sheilas (Supported By Mr. & Mrs. Disgraceful – Presented By Honest Spiv Faber And Eric Wetherall With The Kind Permission Of The Sheila Duncan Trio)
Various Artists – Canaille: International Women’s Festival Of Improvised Music
Dedication Orchestra – Spirits Rejoice
Dedication Orchestra – Ixesha (Time)
Barry Guy / London Jazz Composers Orchestra – Three Pieces
Pinguin Moschner, Maggie Nicols, Joe Sachse – Nevergreens
Maggie Nicols / Caroline Kraabel / Charlotte Hug – Transitions
Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra, The with Maggie Nicols – Which Way Did He Go?