I’ve purposely taken my time writing this post, not simply because of my hectic post-London Jazz Festival schedule. I’ve also wanted to read other bloggers’ positions on the points raised at the Jazz Open Space, and allow my thoughts to solidify into cohesive, representative arguments.
On Monday I went to an event called Jazz Open Space. The premise was to formulate some ideas, as a jazz community, towards answering the question, ‘what are we doing about UK jazz in 2011?’ It was held in Conway Hall, Holbon, and it was organised in partnership by the Musicians Union and Jazz Services.
The London Jazz Blog had previously reported that this event is associated with a wider consultation from the All-Party Jazz Appreciation Group. The purpose, stated by Dame Liz Forgan, chair of Arts Council England, is to know exactly what the jazz community wants (money, I would have thought. Isn’t that obvious?!).
The structure of the day (10am until 5pm) was created using Open Space Technology. Such a premise was a first for me, and judging by the faces of the other participants it was a first for them also. Essentially it was a structured coffee break, an idea that sounds a lot simpler than it actually is, with the only technology involved being paper and pens. We decided the topics to discuss, when they would be discussed, and we could wander from one group to the next, within the hall, to discuss whatever issue we wished.
A very free-spirited, Steve Hiltonesque approach to proceedings, it of course had its pitfalls. The more forceful and demanding one was in tone, the more one got to speak, overshadowing the more demure members of the group. What resulted, at times, was nothing more than a lot of mini-lectures sprinkled around the hall.
However it did work in some instances, and it was certainly more fun than a typical conference-type setting. But due to the ‘take what you want’ manner participants were encouraged to consume each discussion, it often resulted in only a few crumbs being left for a conclusion.
The topics I listened to and participated in were…
- Should the BBC focus more on jazz?
- Are there enough black musicians on UK stages?
Before I go in to further detail on these topics I want to state I am typing from memory and some rough notes that I took during these discussions. If anyone present at the event has an issue with anything here, please email me and I’d be more than happy to discuss.
Peter Ind is a remarkable character (he has amazing anecdotes from his time touring with Tommy Flanagan and sitting-in with Duke Ellington). He believes, and I concur, that we live in times where the lowest common denominator is promoted and nurtured, rather than art that tests and inspires us. As a tax-funded organisation the BBC should not consistently be chasing ratings, but should be tailoring its programming for all sections of society, particularly the under represented jazz community.
In response to this John Cumming stated his belief that the BBC regularly gets an unfair bashing from jazz aficionados. They do promote jazz, a lot more than “we think” (a little patronising bearing in mind Peter Ind was there) and that “we have to realise” what ever jazz output they do currently offer, it is likely to be reduced even more, since the cutbacks will kick-in from next year.
“We can’t divorce jazz from the bigger picture.” Cameron would have been proud.
Peter Ind reminisced at this point, stating, “I was in New York in the 40’s and 50’s and I remember the passion of those times, so that somewhat colours my view!”
John retorted, “We’re all passionate about it. We must be to do what we do!”
As director of Serious, John Cumming has a seemingly close relationship with the BBC (they do sponsor the London Jazz Festival after all)…
“The BBC is a civil service and there are creative people in it, but they do have to find their corner. It took us a while to get sponsorship, knocking on their door, talking their language.”
He went on to mention how much jazz has been on Jools Holland’s show of late, at which point I mentioned the McCoy Tyner incident (Jools cut short their section when the solos overrun). At this point John got very defensive of ol’ Auntie…
“No they did not, they did not! I can tell you exactly what happened!” All stern and school masterly.
“Well, in all genuineness, explain what happened then?”
He went on to explain how the saxophonist (he meant Gary Bartz) had missed his cue, his solo overrun and Jools was forced to bring structure back to the show unfortunately during McCoy’s run. Would they have done the same had it been Lady Gaga or Elbow? I don’t think so. I wished I’d retorted with that, but of course hindsight is a wonderful thing!
One other point of interest. John Cumming stated that BBC 4 took the decision not to film and broadcast any of the LJF on TV simply for monetary reasons, instead to continue the trend of focusing on documentaries and “thematic works” (that must have been John using BBC language). Shame.
When are we going to see more black UK jazz musicians on the UK’S jazz stage?
Probably the most controversial issue of the day and it was a privilege to have heard such wise and experienced voices on the scene discuss this.
Peter Ind stayed on to take part, and opened with his experience of a period in the early 1950’s, in New York specifically, where “the racial differences were minimal”. I took his point to be that there is no excuse for this not being the case now, coming up to 2012.
This topic was brought up because of the recent Facebook page created by Cleveland Watkiss, after Leon Daniel experienced racism at Ronnie Scott’s. Many organisations within the UK jazz scene were accused of having an anti-black agenda when it came to using UK musicians, including The National Youth Jazz Orchestra and Serious.
The new director of NYJO, Nigel Tully, was present at this discussion, but unfortunately John Cumming was not (a point raised by Trevor Watkiss). Tully was open and honest about the behind-the-times attitude NYJO had allowed itself to get in to, and how he was in the process of turning things around.
Tully discussed the report that the Arts Council of England had made about NYJO. It stated that NYJO run within it’s own little world, not believing it was accountable to anyone, even though it was funded in-part by taxes. There were four key points of concern…
- It had an old fashioned artistic policy.
- It was poorly governed.
- There was no diversity. It was completely middle-class and white.
- It never reported how it spent its public money and no official forms were ever filled in and returned.
This was around 2 years ago and since then, under Tully, they have instilled a diversity agenda to broaden the Orchestra ethnically, socially, musically and gender-wise. Obviously this was greeted with approval.
“We have a long way to go, but we are getting there”.
Everyone was impressed and grateful for his honesty and determination for change. It was an example of what needs to be said and done if jazz is to broaden the diversity of children who take it up. However it’s only fair to mention that previous director, Bill Ashton, pretty much invented British jazz education nearly 50 years ago, and everyone on the scene has surely been a beneficiary of that!
Rosie Hanley, Trevor Watkiss and Russell Occomore also contributed insightful and at times inspiring points. Occomore summed it up for me though, when he discussed why the Ronnie Scott’s incident was a catalyst for this discussion and a ‘last straw’ moment…
“Even if it wasn’t down to racism, the fact that it can be perceived as racist is enough.”
As a white man I can’t talk about racism from experience, but as an estuary-accented working-class man who has been through the redbrick university mill, I can certainly talk about being stereotyped and undermined, and it’s not on, even if malice is not intended.
My experiences pale in comparison in struggling to find gigs in your own country, when lesser, whiter, posher-speaking musicians get them 10-a-penny. I believe this does happen in the UK, and listening to Trevor Watkiss and Russell Occomore discuss their experiences on the jazz scene you can tell it hurts.
I’m still amazed how posh and white the jazz scene is in the UK, yet I really shouldn’t be. With the lack of funding and respect given to the art from British institutions it’s now become a musically rebellious pathway for those who can afford to be in it. Without their parents money many musicians, even those who get media (albeit jazz media) attention, couldn’t afford to do it. Fair play to those playing the cards they were dealt (what a fortunate position to be in!) but I will say this to anyone offended by my comment, a mono-social-ethnic scene should not be what jazz is about.
During the discussion I tried to instigate a way of not necessarily getting a broader mix of jazz musicians on the scene with immediate effect, but how we can increase the diversity of children taking up this art in the long run…
Jazz musicians need to be willing to go in to the comprehensive classroom.
I taught for 3 years in an inner-london school, not as a peripatetic but as a classroom teacher (I’m the proud owner of a PGCE), and I can say from first-hand experience all children, no matter what their social-economic background, have the potential and inclination to excel at jazz and improvisation. This necessary educational drive makes sense not just morally but musically also. For example I’d rather hear the solo of an A-level student who’s suffered for their art than one who’s had private lessons from a Royal Academy student or professional musician. I’m sorry, but it’s true. That’s the essence of jazz! Stories about passion and strife!
Anyway, where do we go from here? Using social media to express opinions, hopefully like this one and the aforementioned Facebook group, are good because they blow away the cobwebs and create discussion. Events like the Jazz Open Space promote a culture of transparency also. These issues need to be discussed, not swept under the carpet, so fair play to the MU and Jazz Services for helping this to happen.